Montana’s Senate and House of Representatives convened on Jan. 5 in Helena to begin Montana’s 64th Legislative session. In the 90 days following the beginning of the session, the primary goal of the Legislature is to pass a budget which is then approved by the governor and used for the next two years.
As dictated in Montana’s constitution, the Legislature meets every odd-numbered year for a period lasting no more than 90 days and reviews bills affecting the entirety of the state. Lobbyists from all across Montana participate in the Legislative session, attempting to influence the passage of bills by Legislators.
Among these lobbyists are representatives of Montana’s universities. “One of the important things to understand about the Legislature is that all the units of the Montana University System (MUS) work as one to accomplish the major goals of the system,” said Tracy Ellig, executive director of university communications at MSU and MSU lobbyist.
“MSU is one of eight campuses that are funded in one big ‘lump’ sum for general operating costs. When it comes to general operating costs, there is no way for MSU to get more money from the Legislature than UM or vice versa,” Ellig said, adding that “the Legislature provides a ‘lump’ of money that is then dispersed by the university system’s governing body, the Montana Board of Regents.”
Lobbyists from MSU who are journeying to Helena to take part in the sessions include Ellig, ASMSU student lobbyist Garrett Lankford and Montana Associated Students (MAS) lobbyist Mike Hopkins. There they represent the interests of MSU and its students by discussing issues that directly affect the university. Lankford, who is spending this semester in Helena for the session, is excited to be involved. “We have an opportunity in this session, and every session, to make our voices heard,” he said.
Four issues that will could potentially have major impacts on MSU are the Romney Hall Renovation, a tuition freeze, a research package and state employee pay increase.
Romney Hall Renovation
In May 2014, the Montana Board of Regents made the renovation of MSU’s Romney Hall the number one priority building improvement for the MUS. In the Legislative session the project comprises a $28 million portion of the $391 million total contained in House Bill 5 (H.B. 5), which provides infrastructure development for construction projects around the state. If the funding is secured, the renovation would be the first major state funded building project at MSU since the Gaines Hall renovation project in 2010.
Nearly a century old, Romney Hall provides space for several classes, but much of the building is nearly or totally unusable due to outdated and inaccessible facilities according to Ellig. MSU officials originally asked Montana Legislature to approve $20 million for the renovation in 2013, but the proposal was rejected. Since then, MSU has worked to gain support for the project, and last November the proposed renovation appeared in Governor Steve Bullock’s budget plan for the upcoming biennium (a specified period of two years).
If funded, MSU plans to use the newly renovated space to house new math, writing and general tutoring centers. The space will also be used to expand the Veteran’s Center as the existing office in the SUB is not large enough to meet the current needs of veterans on campus. For similar reasons MSU would like to eventually move the Office for Students with Disabilities to Romney Hall. The building will also contain new classrooms and study rooms for students. Lankford explained that the university wants the renovated building to serve as an “adjunct SUB.”
“With renovation Romney would go from being an obstacle most students walk around to an opportunity that every student on campus could use. With MSU enrollment having grown 21 percent since the fall of 2009 and now being the largest university in the state, we definitely need the space,” Ellig said.
In this session, the MUS will be requesting that the Legislature provide funding to freeze in-state tuition for two years. The MUS, which represents all of Montana’s major universities, will be seeking $44 million in funding. The funds are contained in H.B. 2, the General Appropriations Act, which provides the bulk of funding for state government operations.
A tuition freeze is a government policy restricting the ability of colleges and universities to raise tuition fees for their students. A tuition freeze has been in effect in Montana universities for eight of the past 10 years. Freezing tuition for another two years has been championed by state Governor Steve Bullock, who identified it as his first priority for higher education in Montana and featured it prominently in his budget proposal.
The requested funds would allow tuition fees to remain at their current level at MSU for the coming two years by covering the costs of inflation in the university’s operating expenses during that time.
Also included in H.B. 2 is a request for $15 million to benefit university research in Montana. On a statewide level, MSU remains the leading university for research. Last year nearly $110 million was spent by MSU on research while the University of Montana spent just over $60 million. In universities across the state, however, total research spending has decreased, falling $8.8 million from 2012 to 2014. During that time, MSU’s research spending fell nearly $3 million. The proposed $15 million will go toward increasing research in Montana’s major universities.
The proposal is viewed as an investment in the economic future of local communities. Ellig said that the proposal “provide(s) the university system as a whole with $15 million to fund research that addresses Montana-specific problems, creates jobs and/or helps strengthen a niche of technology industry in Montana … If this proposal were funded, it would be a first for the state in terms of the proposal’s size and scope.”
On the subject of the proposal’s potential benefits, Ellig said that “undoubtedly students will have opportunities to participate in some of that research, which is a great way for them to learn. In the big picture, if research builds a stronger Montana economy, that’s good for all of us.”
State Employee Pay Increase
All MSU staff are employed by the state of Montana. A State Pay Plan to fund the employment of state employees is approved by Montana’s Legislature each session. The last legislative session saw a 2.25 percent increase in the pay of MSU employees, and salaries are expected to increase again in coming years. How much it will increase ultimately depends on what happens during the Montana Legislative session.
Ellig explained how the proposals for pay increase and the statewide tuition freeze affected each other: “The Legislature provided enough money in 2013 to cover the system’s inflationary costs for two years in addition to providing enough funding for a modest pay increase,” said Ellig. He went on to add “we are hoping the 2015 Legislature will provide enough funding to cover the system’s inflationary costs as well as provide for another modest pay increase for the next two years.”
Last year Governor Bullock’s administration reached an agreement with Montana’s three major employee unions concerning a pay increase covering the 2015-16 biennium. Detailed in H.B. 13, the State Employee Pay Plan, the pay proposal will cost $78.5 million in total, with $43.6 million coming from state general funds.
The 2015 Legislature concludes in April, so students still have the opportunity to play a powerful role in the ongoing session. Lankford encourages students to get involved by learning more about ASMSU’s Legislative Program, which seeks to promote MSU’s student involvement in the Legislative sessions. “We’re looking for students who are interested in what’s going on at campus and in our state,” he said.
Lankford added that students who are interested in learning more can contact MSU’s lobbyists, including himself. “If anyone has any concerns, I want them to know they can contact me,” Lankford said.
Ellig expanded on the importance higher education has in Legislative sessions: “Personally, I always hope I get the chance to share the accomplishments of our students with legislators. All of us in who work during the session are up here for one reason: the students. Making sure higher education is affordable and of the quality necessary to prepare students for the future is always at the top of my mind. In Helena, there is no debate over the value of education — it is universally seen as a good. The debate is over who should pay for it. How much should students pay? How much should the state contribute? That’s the central discussion about education during the session.”
Garrett Lankford can be contacted at 231-1829 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tracy Ellig can be contacted at 994-5607 or at email@example.com. Mike Hopkins can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.