Gov. Bullock promotes Romney renovation, tuition freeze with MSU visit

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock emphasized the importance of investing in higher education during a visit to MSU’s Bozeman campus Thursday, Feb. 14. After touring the 1922 Romney gym, slated for renovation if a bonding bill under discussion in Helena passes, Bullock spoke about the need to help students graduate with less debt to make it easier for them to begin careers in Montana.

Addressing a crowd of students, administrators and reporters in the gym’s now-decommissioned men’s locker room, Bullock said that keeping debt burdens manageable is one key to helping the alumni of Montana’s universities stay in the state instead of pursuing career opportunities elsewhere. The governor is pushing a plan that, subject to approval by the Legislature, would keep tuition constant for the next two years.

“When we don’t hold the line on tuition,” he told students, “that is a tax increase on you and all your families.”

Bullock also stressed the importance of higher education in transforming Montana’s economy to rely on high-skill industries, saying that he hopes the state can see the proportion of adult residents with a degree or certificate increase from 40 to 60 percent over the next decade.

MSU hopes to gut the majority of Romney’s interior and renovate it into space usable for academic support such as group work, tutoring and faculty development workshops. The current plan is to retain the existing third floor gym — used by student organizations like the fencing and swing dance clubs — as multipurpose space.

“We want to tear down these walls,” said MSU President Waded Cruzado, adding that the university hopes to use the renovated space to attract private donations from alumni and foundations to fund student success programs.

Bob Lashaway, an MSU Associate Vice President, said that increasing academic support will help students graduate faster, lowering the total cost for a degree and making less debt necessary to finance an education.

Speaking during a Q&A session, MSU staff member Michael Holland lauded efforts to decrease higher education’s cost.  “When you come out of school with a significant amount of debt,” he commented, “that hampers your ability to participate in the full economy.” After the event, he said that at one point his personal student debt made it difficult for him to borrow a few thousand dollars to start a company.

Romney’s $20 million renovation is a major component of House Bill 14, which would give the state the authority to borrow money for the project by issuing bonds. The measure, which also encompasses other projects throughout the state, is being pitched by Bullock and higher education leaders as a way to create jobs in the construction industry while investing in higher education infrastructure.

Bullock, a democrat, said that he needs students’ help lobbying legislators to support the measure, which must pass by a two-thirds majority in the republican-dominated Montana House and Senate. A similar bill failed to pass in the 2011 session.

“If we’re serious about where the state ought to be, we need to invest in these facilities,” Bullock said.