AP News

Montana governor advocates for tuition freeze

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Term-limited Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Thursday his successors should use some of the state's $450 million surplus to freeze students' tuition — a notion embraced by the Democrat in the race and less so by the Republican.

"Cash in the bank, grain in the bin, gives you options," Schweitzer said.

Schweitzer said Monday a freeze would keep education affordable. The next Legislature, along with the incoming governor, will be free to accept or reject the plan, which will be part of Schweitzer's budget proposal in November.

Republican former congressman Rick Hill said he plans to introduce new budget methods he argued will both save money and still allow tuition freezes. Democratic Attorney General Steve Bullock said he would seek the tuition freeze if elected.

Schweitzer said he reached a deal with higher education leaders to freeze tuition levels if the state provides an increase of $34 million in funding. The state Board of Regents is constitutionally granted autonomy over the details of the university budgets.

Universities are increasing tuition about 5 percent this year and next after they said the 2011 Legislature didn't provide enough to avoid the hikes. Tuition was frozen for four years prior to that.

Schweitzer's proposal would cover tuition for 2014 and 2015. Its fate is obviously very uncertain since it faces an election outcome, followed by the turmoil of a legislative session.

Schweitzer accused Republicans of cutting higher education and raising tuition for years prior to his first term that began in 2005.

Hill, who has advocated for a new style of budgeting he thinks will be more effective across state government, predicted the people he picks to run the university system will be able to save money and freeze tuition.

"I agree that we should have a freeze and hold the line on tuition," Hill said. "But we agree the way to get that done is to bring priority budgeting to the Board of Regents."

Hill said he would exert influence over the Board of Regents with the way he selects those to serve on the autonomous panel when vacancies come up.

In general, the Republican said he wants to spend more of the surplus on tax relief.

"I would expect to be an active member of the Board of Regents in advocating of the students, those are the ones who are the customers," Hill said.

Bullock said in a statement that he would unequivocally seek a tuition freeze, because "increases are, plain and simple, tax hikes on middle class Montanans."

"My top priority will be making sure the next generation has the opportunity to get a great education and a good-paying job here in Montana," Bullock said.

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