MSU Wild

A student is silhouetted against a rising wall of fog while crossing South 11th Ave at sunset on Jan. 8, 2021, on Montana State University campus.

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A proposed budget released by Gov. Greg Gianforte would increase the Montana University System’s budget for the next two years by $11 million, presenting challenges for those hoping for a continuation of the tuition freeze.

The increase is less than the $37 million increase that was presented in then-Gov. Steve Bullock’s proposed budget in November.

“We’ve been in discussion with the budget office and this didn’t take us by surprise,” said Tyler Trevor, deputy commissioner for budget and planning with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

At the start of the session, House and Senate Democrats identified the tuition freeze for in-state students as a priority. But with both chambers and the governorship held by Republicans its future remains uncertain.

The budget support from the Legislature and the last two Democratic governors helped Montana colleges keep tuition and fees down. For the last 10 years, the state has had the lowest increase in tuition and fees out of the Western states, according to data from the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

The 16 states increased tuition by about 57%, while Montana’s has increased by 31%, according to the data from 2010 to 2020.

The Board of Regents passed the most recent tuition freeze in 2019, which would expire in 2021. A freeze in in-state tuition in some shape has been in place for the university system for eight years out of the last 16, according to Trevor.

“That’s never known until the Board of Regents makes the decision on tuition because that’s their responsibility and it happens in May,” he said.

While Trevor said the structure of the proposed budget is not “based upon a tuition freeze,” the university system remains focused on the work ahead with the Legislature.

“It’s not as much in the prior budget but we’re not going to spend a lot of time juxtaposing those budgets,” he said. “We’re going to spend time with the budget in front of us and work through the process of leading it through the legislative process.”

In a Board of Regent’s meeting in November, the board discussed Bullock’s allocation of $5 million for the Montana Research and Economic Development Initiative, or MREDI. 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.

At the time, regents and Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian spoke in favor of the program’s additional funding.

Gianforte’s proposed budget does not include the $5 million to refund the initiative.

Trevor said research is always a priority for the university system and a core part of their campuses missions.

“It’s always important but I don’t know about the funding (for that project),” he said.

Other budget priorities for the university system include present law adjustments, participating in the state pay plan and funding for long range building projects.

Trevor said funding for the projects were split into three bills but they included heating system improvements for Montana Tech, a bonded construction project for the University of Montana’s forestry and science lab and improvements for Montana State University’s agricultural experiment station and the wool lab.

After the legislative session concludes, the regents will establish the budget for the campuses in May, including the issue of tuition, according to Trevor.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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