House District 63 Candidates: Franke Wilmer (D), Tom Burnett (R)

I1) To what extent will you combat financial barriers (i.e. rising tuition) that students face in their pursuit of higher education?

WILMER: I am committed to doing everything possible to keep higher education and tuition affordable for Montana resident students. I have done so in three previous legislative sessions and have suggested that if there is a positive ending fund balance, this would be a priority for me following using some of the balance to bring the public employees’ retirement systems into a state of actuarial soundness. In 2007, I received a special “Friend of Students” award from the student lobbyists at the legislature. Freezing or limiting the increase in tuition is something only the Board of Regents can do, but within that framework, you will not find a legislator more supportive of keeping tuition costs down than I am.

BURNETT: These days almost everyone has to take out a student loan to pay for college. Someday, people end up making payments on those loans. That’s why one of the biggest financial barriers faced by students is the poor job market. Student loans should be a profitable investment. My mission is to create the environment where Montana businesses can hire more people at higher salaries. Building Montana’s economy will make student investment in education a paying proposition.

2) Montana State University just completed a long-term strategic plan which includes calls for raising enrollment by 2,000, increasing faculty pay to 80 percent of the national average, priority budgeting and enhancing the student experience. What steps can Montana’s lawmakers take to assist in the pursuit of MSU’s goals?

WILMER: As a percent of the cost per [full-time equivalent] (FTE), funding from the state has been about 38-42 percent of the total cost per student or FTE. When I came to MSU in 1991, this portion was almost double what it is today. When in the legislature, I try to inform my colleagues about what I do as a professor and how important it is to the quality of our students’ educational experience (and prospects for employment and networking post-graduation) to have the best, most accomplished faculty members willing to come to Montana. The high quality of life here enables us to attract many faculty who have much broader opportunities and offers of academic and research positions elsewhere. Our challenge is to keep them, and committing to achieve 80% will go a long way toward keeping the good faculty we recruit. I think the legislature also has to realize this value and support this effort with funding. I once proposed a “50/50” bill that called for an equal percentage of the cost being born by state funding and student tuition. It is not literally “50/50” because some funding comes from other sources but the idea was a matching effort, so that if student tuition accounted for 48 percent of the cost, then the state should ante up 48 percent as well. Having a good idea and having the political support to pass a good idea as a bill are two different things. This bill was defeated in the Republican-controlled House Education Committee chaired in 2007 by the lone Constitution party representative. It never reached the floor for a debate and vote in the full house.

BURNETT: Enrollment will increase as the university continues to attract top students and faculty because of excellence. Faculty pay will increase as the university system finds efficiencies and budgets to prioritize.

3) Are Montana’s universities spending student and public money efficiently?

WILMER: As far as I can tell, yes. We are a growing student body at MSU and we are outgrowing our classrooms, but more of them have “smart” equipment online and the President proposes a renovation of Romney Gym that will accommodate some of our needs arising out of growth.

BURNETT: We have challenges with completion rates. Remediation costs too much. Preparation can help control costs. We may be able to gather and pool our resources in a more productive manner.