HELENA – College administrators warned Montana lawmakers Wednesday that plans to cut the governor’s two-year higher education budget proposal will likely result in tuition hikes, fewer classes and less financial aid for students.
The House Appropriations Committee began piecing together a state budget by considering a $2.2 billion proposal by Republicans for the overall education system in 2012 and 2013.
The committee first tackled higher education funding. Republican Rep. Roy Hollandsworth of Brady, who chaired the subcommittee that put together the proposal, said the amount planned for higher education is $32 million less than Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s proposal.
The reduction is in line with GOP leaders’ targeted budget reductions and also reflect the loss of one-time federal stimulus money, Hollandsworth said.
Among the proposed cuts, the state’s contribution to community college budgets would be reduced by 5 percent, and $16 million in new programs included in Schweitzer’s budget proposal would be eliminated.
“We had a target that we were trying to cut education by and we couldn’t accept any new proposals,” Hollandsworth said. “It is true that we made deep cuts in higher ed, and we did it to get to the point where we wanted to talk about our education budget going forward in House Bill 2.”
University and community college leaders from across the state asked the committee to restore the governor’s funding plan.
Commissioner of Higher Education Sheila Stearns said the money is needed for the university system to maintain a level budget. Without such a budget, additional costs would likely be brought on students and their families through an increase in tuition, a reduction in classes or a cut in financial aid — or a combination of all three.
She declined to speculate about how much tuition would rise if the budget passed.
“I just know that affordability, quality and access are all at risk,” Stearns said.
Montana State University president Waded Cruzado and University of Montana president Royce Engstrom told the committee higher education should be considered a solution to many of the economic problems the state faces.
The funding would be used to increase the graduation rate, improve the quality of education and increase the number and quality of faculty in the face of rising enrollment, Engstrom said.
“Somehow, as a state and as a nation, we need to walk away from the contradiction of saying that we need better science, that we need more engineers, that we need higher paying jobs and that we are not willing to invest in the platform that will make those things possible,” Cruzado said.
The committee broke Wednesday afternoon without taking action, with plans to reconvene after a floor session.
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