The Montana House gave Montana State University an early Easter present Wednesday when it passed two bills that are high priorities for the Bozeman campus — pay raises for state employees and millions of dollars to upgrade university buildings across the state, including Romney Gym.
Passage of the two bills is good news for the University System, but they still have a lot of hurdles to pass, said Tracy Ellig, MSU’s lobbyist in the 2013 Legislature.
“It’s a reason for the university and students to be cautiously optimistic,” Ellig said from the Capitol. “We’re not celebrating yet because there’s still a lot of Legislature to go. We’re very appreciative of the support shown for higher education at this point.”
House Bill 13, the pay plan bill for state workers, passed by a lopsided 69-31.
The pay plan is one of two keys to the Montana Board of Regents’ agreement with the governor and lawmakers that the board will freeze in-state students’ tuition for the next two years — if the Legislature provides enough money to cover the university’s inflationary costs and the full cost of employee pay raises.
The original raises negotiated with employee unions by former Gov. Brian Schweitzer — 5 percent across-the-board raises in each of the next two years — were removed from the bill by the House Appropriations Committee.
The 5 percent raises were replaced with a lump sum of more than $113.5 million, or 25 percent less than the governor’s proposed $152 million. The bill now instructs Gov. Steve Bullock to determine how to distribute raises “with particular attention to the lower pay bands and those who did not receive a base pay increase” in the last two years.
The bill includes more than $24 million specifically for University System employee raises.
Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT, the state’s largest union, said the bill is “a little underfunded,” but that’s far better than what happened in the last Legislature, which at this point had no bill still alive to give raises.
Feaver said the union hasn’t given up on trying to get the 5 and 5 percent raises over two years back into the bill as it works through the Senate.
The best argument for 5 and 5 percent, he said, is the “zero and zero” raises in both the 2009 and 2011 two-year budgets.
“There are state employees who’ve gotten nothing of consequence in the last two legislatures,” Feaver said.
The building bill, which Bullock called his “jobs bill,” originally called for issuing bonds to expand, renovate and upgrade mainly university buildings across the state. Now the $76 million worth of projects in the bonding bill have been folded into House Bill 5, which pays for building repairs with cash instead of taking on debt.
The House passed HB 5 by an even more lopsided 75-25. An amendment seeking to remove money to build a new two-year Missoula College for $29 million, to replace an overcrowded and inadequate building, failed on a 40-60 vote.
The building bill includes $20 million in state money to renovate the historic Romney Gym building on the Bozeman campus into a student center. MSU would have to provide $5 million in matching funds. The bill also includes an OK to spend $20 million donated by alumnus Jake Jabs to build a new College of Business building.
“It means we have made it one step forward in a very long, complicated process,” Ellig said.
“The vote reflects what we’d heard in the hallways from many legislators,” Ellig said. “They preferred projects be paid for with cash…. Legislators were philosophically concerned about debt.”
The building bill includes money to build a science building at MSU-Billings, replace a roof at MSU-Great Falls, construct an auto tech center at MSU-Northern, and upgrade other university buildings.
Gail Schontzler can be reached at email@example.com or 582-2633.