By BOB ANEZ/Associated Press Writer
GREAT FALLS - The state Board of Regents on Wednesday grilled campus leaders about their plans for filling a $45 million hole left in their budgets following the 2003 Legislature.
Members of the board responsible for managing the Montana university system raised questions about proposals for bigger schools to subsidize smaller ones, the size of some proposed tuition increases and how pessimistic higher education should be about state funding.
Regent John Mercer of Polson argued that Montana's network of colleges and the state's hopes for economic revival cannot survive without increased government aid. Continued reliance on higher tuition is not the answer, he said
''The system will not exist without state support,'' the former legislator said. ''The students are not capable of financing the university system in a manner that will pull the state out of the economic doldrums.''
Wednesday's meeting was prelude to the board deciding by Friday on whether to endorse the budget-repair plans of University of Montana President George Dennison and Montana State University President Geoff Gamble.
But Mercer said the regents have little choice but to approve what has been offered, because no alternatives are on the table.
''I don't see how anything else could be done at this point,'' he said. ''The board is going to have to pass the proposal.''
The university system will get the same $273 million it received from the 2001 Legislature, but officials have said increasing enrollment and other costs will leave them millions of dollars short of what they need.
The blueprints rely on tuition increases to cover about $39 million of the shortage, although details of the plans differ.
Dennison has recommended raising tuition between 6 percent and 12 percent at UM's three four-year campuses and three colleges of technology. He's also suggested UM-Missoula share $4.6 million with its satellite schools to help them avoid deep cuts over the next two years.
Gamble proposed a larger jump in tuition - about 12 percent on average - and subsidizing MSU's smaller schools with $1.3 million.
Regent Mark Semmens of Great Falls objected to the size of tuition increases targeted at the MSU campuses in Havre, Billings and Great Falls. He suggested smaller increases and that MSU-Bozeman share more of its money.
Mercer challenged a statement by Carrol Krause, acting commissioner of higher education, that the university system should not count on any boost in state funding for the next eight to 10 years.
Even if Montana's economy improves, the demand for money in other government programs will leave the system in the dust again, Krause said.
''Montana is sunk'' if that attitude prevails, Mercer said.
Dennison said he is optimistic the economy and state support for higher education will rebound in two years. But he acknowledged the university system will face financial ''doomsday'' if he's wrong.
Gamble sided more with Krause, saying the decline in state funding is a trend throughout the country. It reflects society's growing belief that a college degree benefits mostly the student, who should be willing to pay the lion's share of the cost, he said.
''It's inevitable that tuition will continue to rise,'' Gamble said, and students are able to find financial assistance to avoid being priced out of an education.
Regent Chairman Richard Roehm of Bozeman said he was worried about the lack of a significant raise for faculty in the presidents' proposals. Just as the board wants to ensure predictable, gradual and reasonable tuition increases, it also should seek the same for salaries to prevent loss of top-notch teachers, he said.
Student government leaders from several campuses endorsed the proposed tuition increases, saying the students realize the only option would be cuts that damage quality.
However, Aaron Flynn, UM student president, said the Missoula school's student leaders opposed an extra increase that Dennison wants to finance hiring of additional staff in key areas.