Gov. Steve Bullock toured Romney Gym on the Montana State University campus Thursday to dramatize his $100 million plan to fix up state college buildings, saying it would boost the state’s economy by creating 2,500 construction jobs immediately and strengthening higher education for the long run.
Bullock asked MSU students to help pass the building bond bill, House Bill 14, by calling their legislators to urge a yes vote, and he recited the legislative phone number. It takes a supermajority, a two-thirds vote of approval of each house, to pass measures that create debt, and two years ago a similar bill died in the 2011 Legislature.
“I’m heartened,” Bullock said of the bill’s chances of passage, because lawmakers are “focused on jobs. I think the legislation will pass.”
The bill would provide $20 million to renovate the 91-year-old Romney Gym, which originally housed the campus gym, basketball court and swimming pool. Bullock called it “a beautiful building in the heart of campus.”
Such an investment, at a time of historic-low interest rates, won’t raise taxes, the new governor said, but it will give the state and its citizens a brighter future. Most of the $100 million would be used to renovate, expand or replace campus buildings in Missoula, Billings, Havre, Bozeman and other communities.
Today Romney Gym is still being used by classes and clubs – the governor saw dozens of students taking a ballroom dance class on its hardwood floor and Fencing Club members, who showed up with their foils to show they hope to train in Romney after renovation.
But the 1922 gym building is dilapidated, drafty, and its leaky pool has been closed for years. It’s not handicapped accessible or up to modern safety codes.
MSU President Waded Cruzado called it a “hero building” that, once renovated, could become a center where students would get tutoring in math and writing, meet professors and trade ideas across disciplines, and the faculty could learn the latest technologies for teaching. It wouldn’t be used for athletics, she said.
Cruzado said MSU plans to raise $5 million privately to match with the state’s $20 million for renovation. She recited a long list of campus buildings that have been constructed or fixed up with private, student or research money, rather than state dollars.
Romney Gym is basically sound and could last hundreds of years if renovated, said Bob Lashaway, associate vice president for university services. As a center for assisting students, Lashaway said, it would help keep students in college, reduce the time to graduate and thus reduce student debt.
Fixing Romney is “a really, really cool project,” said Lindsay Murdock, student vice president, stressing it could be an environment to promote student learning and becoming “global citizens.”
Bullock said a decade from now, he wants 60 percent of Montana adults to have earned college degrees or certificates, instead of today’s 40 percent, to create a better educated workforce needed for a stronger economy.
That’s why he’s asking the Legislature to pass the College Affordability Plan, which would give the University System enough state money to cover inflation plus employee pay raises, so that students’ tuition could be frozen for two years.
Tuition increases, Bullock said, are really “a tax on every family” with students in college. When college stays affordable, he said, fewer students have to leave the state to find jobs to pay off their debt load.
The inflation part of the tuition-freeze plan — $28 million for the campuses over the next two years — was approved Tuesday by the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee, said Tracy Ellig, MSU’s lobbyist this session. Ellig called that “very, very good news.” It still has a long ways to go to win passage in the 2013 session.
Asked by a student about early childhood education, Bullock said Montana invests the least of any state — “Zero” — and he is proposing $2 million to create learning centers to educate 3- to 5-year-olds. Every dollar invested in young children saves $7 to $9 on costs to society later in life, he said.
Asked by another student about a bill to allow carrying concealed weapons on campus for self-defense, Bullock said he doesn’t want to talk about vetoes early in the legislative process because that could be seen as interference. As attorney general, Bullock said, he strongly believed in the Second Amendment, but added that a balance is needed, and even the First Amendment has limits.
“I’d take a look at it carefully,” Bullock said, adding, “I certainly wouldn’t come out to support it.” Kevin O’Brien, the governor’s press secretary, later clarified that the governor meant that he wouldn’t take a position for or against at this point.
A reporter asked Bullock if he would ask Regent Pat Williams to resign, as a petition by University of Montana football fans is demanding, over Williams’ controversial comments to the New York Times that UM, plagued by rape accusations, has “recruited thugs for its football team, and this thuggery has got to stop.” Bullock said that Missoula has been through a difficult time and he would urge everyone not to paint the situation “with broad brush strokes.” All parties, the governor said, “should be responsible with their language.”
Gail Schontzler can be reached at email@example.com or 582-2633.