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Commissioner of Higher Ed: Montana University System had ‘most successful’ session

The University of Montana campus from the South Hills. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The Montana University System may have counted its best session yet with $75 million for infrastructure from the Legislature, according to the Commissioner of Higher Education.

“Believe it or not, at least by our initial glances at this, it’s probably the most successful session we’ve had monetarily,” said Commissioner Clayton Christian on Wednesday.

In an update to the Montana Board of Regents, Christian said the apparent high mark for funding for the system is definitely the case when it comes to dollars for capital projects and deferred maintenance. He listed $53 million in cash and $21 million in spending authority for “much needed projects.”

The university system also received nearly $9 million of one-time only money for a variety of programs. Funding includes $750,000 for a workforce recovery program at Montana Tech, $1.5 million for a Cyberhub to expand cyber defense education at the University of Montana, and $200,000 for a seed lab at Montana State University, among other programs.

Christian said the system saw those positive outcomes during the 67th legislative session, and they shouldn’t be overshadowed by other issues. One portion of the presentation noted the overall university system budget is up 4.4 percent compared to the previous biennium.

The commissioner didn’t name specific issues overshadowing the economic success of campuses. However, several bills have spawned lawsuits since the session ended, including House Bill 102, the campus carry bill that’s the subject of a couple of legal disputes for its attempt to limit the authority of the Board of Regents and allow campus carry.

The Board of Regents filed one of those lawsuits, and in her update to the Regents, Helen Thigpen said the Commissioner’s Office retained outside counsel to handle the case. She said she received questions about the cost and noted Holland and Hart and lawyer Martha Sheehy, a former regent, are not billing the Commissioner’s Office for their work on the case.

“The case is being handled pro bono, without cost to this office,” said Thigpen, executive director of government relations and public affairs.

In the budget update, Tyler Trevor, deputy commissioner of budget and planning, said part of the university system’s increase included 7.5 percent more for student assistance, with some $1.6 million for the biennium. The Access Scholarship that used to help students from families with lower incomes was not funded.

The Board of Regents also heard a brief update on how the new presidential administration is addressing higher education. Christian said federal COVID-19 relief has brought infusions of cash, but there are other developments.

“The world is shifting rapidly on the federal front as well,” Christian said. 

Thigpen said the new administration is setting as priorities money for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and institutions serving other minorities; doubling the maximum Pell award; student loan forgiveness or debt relief; and some measure of free attendance for up to two years at community colleges.

“Team Biden without a doubt has put forward a very ambitious plan for higher education,” Thigpen said.”But of course we know that Washington is an extremely divided place right now, and it’s sort of unclear how some of these proposals will move forward.”