The Board of Regents discussed the implications of Gov. Steve Bullock’s draft budget for the Montana University System during this week’s meeting.
The proposal, subject to revisions from the incoming governor’s administration, would provide additional state dollars towards university research and scholarships within the Montana University System.
“It’s a healthy budget,” Tyler Trevor, Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education deputy commissioner for budget and planning, told the Chronicle. “We’ve seen budgets similar to this in the past.”
Bullock’s draft budget would be an increase of $37 million for the university system over the next two years.
The proposed budget came out on Nov. 15, and the Bullock administration will have until Dec. 15 to make changes. Gov.-elect Greg Gianforte’s administration will then have until Jan. 7 to release its own version of the budget before it heads to the Legislature.
Trevor told the Chronicle it would be a “wait game” for the university system until the incoming administration and Legislature begin in January.
While it’s likely the draft budget will undergo changes in the next few months, the commissioner and regents highlighted a few areas in the proposed budget during Thursday’s virtual Board of Regents meeting.
One allocation they spoke about was the Montana Research and Economic Development Initiative, or MREDI. The initiative is slated to receive $5 million in Bullock’s budget.
Originally funded in 2015 for two years with $15 million, the program was designed as seed money that could lead to additional funding from the federal government. An advisory group was established to award grants to individual campuses’ research projects.
“What that is ultimately is state resources that allow us to leverage federal resources,” Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian said in Thursday’s meeting. “…It helped create a number of Montana jobs, helped the Montana economy and helped solve Montana problems.”
In the two-year funding period, the university system estimates it gained an additional $57.5 million in outside grants, according to OCHE. The state funding also led to 18 patents, 111 partnerships between campuses and private or public organizations and the creation of 12 new Montana businesses and 353 jobs.
Christian said the university system had requested the funding in the last several sessions, adding universities need “matching funds to leverage into federal grants.”
University faculty often don’t submit or can’t accept federal grants without matching dollars from their institution. MREDI aims to help provide those matching funds, Christian said.
“It has the ability to catapult us into tens of millions more research (dollars) in the MUS,” he said of the possible $5 million funding.
In the last few years, Montana State University and University of Montana have both seen their research expenditures increase. MSU set a record when it received $167 million in grants for fiscal year 2020, a 5.7% increase from the previous years.
The MREDI funds are credited for jump-starting the rise in research expenditures.
In a Friday presentation on the funding program, OCHE administrators and regents discussed the importance of the program and how it could be further developed with additional funding.
“It’s very helpful that this is a presentation that will be able to be put in front of the 2021 Legislature,” Regent Paul Tuss said.
The regents and OCHE staff also highlighted the 2019 Montana Access Scholarship funds, which provided $2 million in state need-based student aid. The state dollars were matched by campus foundations’ fundraising to double the amount of aid available.
Bullock’s proposed budget would increase the state-provided financial aid to $4 million.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty in universities, Trevor said building the budget for the next two years was much like it had been in previous sessions.
He said the university system has seen additional revenue streams created in the last year that they haven’t seen before, like the federal CARES Act.
“It’s a difficult time, but I won’t know if its so much harder to produce a budget than in the past,” he said.