University of Montana

HELENA – A legislative budget panel Thursday recommended a 3.5 percent cut in Montana’s university system budget – a move that could lead to student tuition increases of more than 20 percent this fall.

Yet members of the bipartisan committee emphasized that Thursday’s votes are just the first step in the budgeting process, and that the final budget approved by the 2017 Legislature likely will be different.

“We can’t appropriate money we don’t have,” said Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman, a member of the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education. “(But) we’re still a long way from the finish line. We don’t have (final) revenue estimates yet.”

Subcommittee recommendations are forwarded to the full House Appropriations Committee, which starts crafting the budget bill next month.

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The subcommittee took a series of votes Thursday on the university system budget, setting it at about $627 million – a $23 million cut from its current base budget.

University system officials said if that cut stands, student tuition would have to increase as much as 23 percent to make up the difference.

Gov. Steve Bullock, whose proposed budget had a lesser reduction of state funds and a smaller tuition increase, told MTN News Thursday that the subcommittee’s budget level will hurt students and families all across Montana.

He noted that the Legislature could fund higher education at a greater level if it would approve some of the tax increases that he’s proposed.

“They need to take a realistic look at potential revenue enhancers as well as just cutting programs, because we’re seeing cuts all over the campuses now,” he said.

The Democratic governor has proposed increasing the state income tax rate on Montana’s wealthiest taxpayers, to help balance the 2018-19 state budget and keep budget cuts to a minimum.

Rep. Don Jones, R-Billings, the chair of the education budget subcommittee, told MTN News Thursday that lawmakers are working closely with the university system to craft a funding package that won’t break the bank or result in big tuition increases.

“Our main thing is to make sure that we do have an affordable, quality higher education (system) at the end of the session, and that we’re funding it at levels we can afford to fund it, based on the amount of money that we have,” he said.

“We have two-thirds of the (Legislature) to go; we’re going to be trying to find some money to afford this.”