Montana college students' tuition may have to rise 15 to 18 percent over the next two years if last week's 5 percent cut to education makes it into the final state budget, state Sen. Bob Hawks, D-Bozeman, has warned fellow lawmakers.

Montana State University leaders, students and community supporters will go to Helena this Tuesday to make their pitch about the value of Montana's higher education to the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.

The committee voted 4-3 along party lines last Tuesday to cut more than $70 million from education budgets for public schools and higher education.

Chairman Rep. Roy Hollandsworth, R-Brady, argued that a "modest" 5 percent cut is a responsible starting point, given the struggling economy and depressed state revenues.

It would be far easier to add spending back if more money is available, Hollandsworth said, than to start making cuts late in the session.

Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, said he's a strong advocate for education, but state income tax and corporate tax collections are down, and the state budget picture isn't as rosy as people would like.

A majority on the committee agreed, voting to make 5 percent across-the-board cuts in education, rather than to start with Gov. Brian Schweitzer's budget proposal.

The 5 percent cuts would reduce Montana University System funding by $14.6 million and K-12 schools' funding by more than $55 million.

Hawks argued the reductions would actually be greater compared to the governor's plan, amounting to a $78 million decrease for public schools, which would likely result in a $28 million increase in local property taxes to make up the balance.

Denise Juneau, state superintendent of public instruction, and Sheila Stearns, commissioner of higher education, urged the committee to start with the governor's budget instead of 5 percent cuts.

"Quality education is the key to lifting our state out of recession," Juneau said. Retreating from the governor's funding level, especially when money is available, "is wrong."

Stearns argued that the University System is "a big job generator," and said 68 percent of new jobs being created in the state require some kind of education past high school.

Since businesses have cut back on payrolls, laid-off workers have enrolled in Montana's colleges and universities, studying nursing and how to start new businesses, Stearns said. In just two years, the University System's enrollment has grown by 5,300 to 47,700 students.

This Tuesday, the education committee will consider MSU's budget from 8 a.m. to noon in the state Capitol, said Doug Steele, MSU's chief lobbyist, vice president for external relations and Extension director. MSU President Waded Cruzado, chancellors, students and community members are scheduled to speak and give an overview of the MSU campuses in Bozeman, Billings, Havre and Great Falls.

Montana's higher education system now gets 40 percent of its funding from the state and 60 percent from student tuition, Steele said. If the state cuts its share by 5 percent, it would be difficult for education leaders avoid a tuition increase and still maintain the colleges' quality.

A 5 percent budget cut would mean a loss of roughly $2 million for the MSU Bozeman campus, said Craig Roloff, vice president for finance.

Stearns urged lawmakers to maintain the state's share of higher education funding at 40 percent, saying state support fell from 50 percent to 37 percent between 2000 and 2007, until the governor's College Affordability Program brought it back up.

Michael Dills, lobbyist for the Associated Students of MSU, testified that the majority of MSU students need financial aid and also hold down jobs while attending college. He asked lawmakers to "meet us half way."

At the K-12 level, Juneau warned that the 5 percent cut would eliminate school jobs, raise local taxes and possibly close schools. As a result, the Legislature may end up failing to meet its constitutional duty to fund an adequate education, as required by the Montana Supreme Court.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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