The Montana University System’s No. 1 priority in the 2013 Legislature – a big enough budget increase to allow freezing Montana students’ tuition — has successfully jumped another hurdle.

Some $28 million for state colleges to cover inflation was included Monday when the House Appropriations Committee approved the $9 billion budget bill, House Bill 2.

The Montana Board of Regents has committed to the governor and lawmakers that it will freeze tuition for two years if the Legislature covers two major university costs — inflation and employee pay raises.

“We are encouraged,” Mick Robinson, deputy commissioner of higher education for fiscal affairs, said Tuesday in a phone call from Helena. “We are seeing some solid support.”

But there may be clouds on the horizon for another key university issue – House Bill 14, the bonding bill. It would issue nearly $100 million in debt to pay for state building projects, most on university campuses.

The bill includes $20 million to renovate the 90-year-old Romney Gym on the Montana State University campus and $29 million to build a new two-year Missoula College building. Gov. Steve Bullock contends the bonding bill would create 2,500 jobs.

MSU President Waded Cruzado testified in favor of the bonding bill at Tuesday’s hearing before the House Appropriations Committee. A Missoula legislator raised concerns after hearing suggestions that Missoula College be removed from the bill.

Bozeman Sen. Art Wittich, the Senate Republican majority leader, questioned the value and cost of renovating Romney Gym in an opinion column in Monday’s, Chronicle. Wittich asked if it’s wise to add more construction debt, which taxpayers must repay, “with no calculation of the ongoing cost for additional staff, operations and maintenance.”

“I have heard from many people in Bozeman, including those who work at MSU, who believe the Romney project does not adequately benefit the state or MSU students,” Wittich wrote. He added he is seeking to “ensure that the private sector and Montana taxpayers are not overly burdened to pay for additional public spending for years to come.”

Tracy Ellig, MSU’s chief lobbyist, said Romney Gym is underused and its main function now is creating an obstacle students have to walk around. If renovated, Romney would house tutoring and advising services, Ellig said, “that would help students stay in school and graduate.”

MSU already pays Romney’s operation and maintenance costs, Robinson said. If renovated to be more energy efficient, he said, it may break even on costs like heating and lighting, even if used more hours per day.

“We’re always concerned with the bonding bill because it takes a two-thirds vote” in both houses to pass, Robinson said.

The second key to the tuition-freeze deal – enough money to cover university employee pay raises – has had a hearing at the Appropriations Committee but so far no vote, said Kevin McRae, associate commissioner for communications.

HB 2, the budget bill, also includes $1 million to start a veterinarian training program at MSU in cooperation with Washington State University; $1 million for services to help support military veterans in college; and $550,000 to expand the WWAMI doctor training program at MSU by five medical students per year.

Lawmakers also added money to reduce vacancy savings in the Agricultural Experiment Stations; to fund biodiesel training at MSU-Northern in Havre; to create a materials science doctoral program at Montana Tech for $600,000; and $1 million for oil and gas workforce training at Dawson and Miles City community colleges. The committee rejected $5 million for a statewide university computer system. HB 2 goes to the House floor next week.

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

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