Montana Hall, MSU Wild

Floyd Khumalo walks past Montana Hall on his way to the library on Thursday afternoon, May 24, 2018, on the Montana State University campus.

As the state Legislature wrapped up this week, lawmakers passed a Montana University System tuition freeze for state residents for the next two years.

House Bill 2, which funds the state government until the next legislative session, includes $24 million for the tuition freeze.

Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, also proposed $5 million in state funds for need-based financial aid, which the Joint Appropriations Education Subcommittee reduced to $2 million before it passed the full Legislature. University foundations must match the state funds.

The tuition freeze was the university system’s top priority for the legislative session because it helps keep tuition affordable for state residents and reduces barriers to higher education for low-income students, university officials have said.

Although the university system saw some funding success during the legislative session, one bill it advocated for — Senate Bill 152 — died earlier this month.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula, would have ended the requirement to hold a statewide public vote every decade to keep the 6-mill property tax levy that raises about $20 million annually for the university system. It has passed every 10 years since it was first enacted in 1948.

“We have had 70 years of experience with the 6-mill levy vote and overwhelming support from the voters,” Barrett said. “The only reason it goes before the voters — unlike any other tax — is because the (state) constitution required it in 1948, but the constitution doesn’t require that anymore.”

The Senate passed the bill in February but the House Taxation Committee tabled the bill in early April.

Some opponents of the bill have said the statewide vote affirms public support for the university system and holds the government accountable to the people.

Advocates for the bill have said that getting the word out about the vote is expensive, possibly costing more than $3 million when the levy is next up for voter renewal in 2028.

“From the point of view of the university system, the 6-mill levy isn’t a big chunk of its budget, but it’s large enough that if it went away and if the Legislature didn’t appropriate more funds to compensate for the loss, then the system would have to increase tuition,” Barrett said.

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