Montana Colleges Push Back Against Tuition Freeze Mandate

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Montana’s Board of Regents pushed back Thursday against the governor’s proposed mandate for a tuition freeze as the administration’s plan for education stimulus money went before an appropriations subcommittee.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer insisted his request is appropriate.

The university system was among the large number of groups lining up in front of lawmakers who were taking their first crack Thursday at $800 million in federal stimulus money.

Schweitzer has proposed putting an extra $10 million of that toward the university system — as long as they agree to continue a tuition freeze.

But Regent Chairman Steve Barrett said the mandate is inappropriate because the regents have constitutional authority to set the university system budget.

“We don’t have to be told that doing everything we can do to control tuition is job No. 1,” he told the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education. “Someone does not have to mandate that or tell us that.”

Schweitzer said the Legislature often gives money to the college system with strings attached. The governor said he has been advised it is appropriate and constitutional.

“Extraordinary times” call for the university system to tighten its belt like everyone else, Schweitzer said.

“How are we going to ask every family in Montana that is not earning more over the next two years to pay more?” he told reporters Thursday.

The university system said at least another $8 million is needed to freeze tuition, and that would require cost cutting elsewhere. Commissioner of Higher Education Sheila Stearns said regents won’t make any final decisions on the topic until May.

“They will wait and see,” she said.

Stearns said any money set aside for tuition mitigation will be used to hold tuition down, but no guarantees of a freeze can be made until the university system sees the whole budget picture.

Schweitzer said the university system has a budget that exceeds $1 billion and should be able to make ends meet if it short just $8 million to freeze tuition.

Rep. Dan Villa, D-Anaconda, said the subcommittee he chairs will evaluate whether such a mandate is legal or constitutional and how much it would actually cost. He said the ultimate goal is a tuition freeze.

Two years ago, the governor’s office, the Legislature and the Board of Regents agreed on a funding level that allowed the system to freeze tuition.

“We are proud of what we did two years ago, but there was nothing in statute. We did not rewrite the constitution,” Stearns told the panel. “That was a matter of trust. That was not a matter of statute.”

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