As students return from the holidays next month, the administrators who run the Montana University System will be headed back to the grind of another legislative session, where they will, yet again, make the case for the vital importance of higher education to Montana.
For now the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education and the Board of Regents are preparing for that 90-day extravaganza, using Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s 2015 Biennium Executive Budget proposal as a starting point.
The first priority is to keep up.
“Our number one legislative priority is to obtain appropriate funding for staff and faculty salaries, ” Havre Regent Paul Tuss said. “When you compare our level of compensation to our peers, quite frankly we’re just falling behind. In order to retain the good employees we have and continue to be attractive for new employees, we need to do a better job of appropriately compensating those individuals who are so critical, not just in teaching our university students but in making our whole system run efficiently. ”
Schweitzer suggested a particularly large boost, percentage-wise, for Montana State University-Northern, from this year’s $8,422,062 to $9,402,451 in the next fiscal year and $9,377,800 the year after.
Northern also climbed pretty high in the governor’s proposed long-range building program, which picks up a lot of the projects that were dropped after the bonding bill proposed to pay for them failed in the last days of the last legislative session.
“It was estimated that the construction activity alone associated with the bonding projects would have created 2,400 jobs in the state of Montana for construction workers, not to mention all the incredible value these buildings would have for the institution they’d be built on, ” Tuss said. “The regents this time are taking another crack at the Long-Range Building Program. ”
Northern’s Automotive Technology Center is number four on the building program list, behind $20 million renovations to Romney Hall in Bozeman, a new $10 million Science & Instructional Technology building addition in Billings and a $1 million new roof for the MSU-Great Falls College of Technology.
Northern’s project was estimated to cost $7.9 million, which would have been fully bonded in the last session’s bill.
In the governor’s proposal, only $2.9 million would come from the state, with the other $5 million coming from “other funds” like private donors.
Tuss is not sure that would cut it.
“That $7.9 million was a figure created several years ago, ” Tuss said. “I would imagine, with inflation, that building could be $8.9 million now. I think the expectation in the governor’s budget is that the gap would be made up with private dollars.
“I can recall when the applied tech center was constructed a few years ago. There was $2 million of construction funds set aside by the state of Montana, with an expectation that the institution raise another $2 million, and that wasn’t easy. Raising five or six (million) could not be any more easy (than two). I’m hopeful that knowing how important this particular facility is to Northern, that we can work with the administration to increase the funding to at least that $7.9 million. ”
Tuss said that Northern had received support from local legislators last session who he hopes “will continue to support us this January. ”
The 2011 bonding bill failed because legislators objected to the $100 million sum of all of the projects being bundled and bought on bond debt. The governor’s new proposal includes $87.9 million in bond-debt funded projects.