MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer HELENA (AP)
Gov. Brian Schweitzer told university leaders Thursday to be realistic with a wish list of funding priorities they are putting together. Schweitzer, meeting in his office with the commissioner of higher education and university presidents from the state's two largest schools before the group gathered for a meeting, said the state probably won't have as much money as it did with the last budget. "I don't see how we are going to be able to increase at that level," Schweitzer told the group. "Please temper your expectations." University officials said they welcomed the dialogue, and said it will be important as the Board of Regents begins to carve out its budget recommendations. An early list they put together runs well beyond the $50 million in new money the Legislature approved in 2007. Schweitzer, who is heading into an election year, says the universities likely won't get as much money as when he pushed the legislative initiative to cap Tuition increases. "Part of what I am attempting to do here is kind of tamp down expectations about how much money might be available for these programs," Schweitzer said. Schweitzer said many states are starting to see deficits appear in their budgets as the economy slows. He says Montana may have to tighten its belt as budget priorities crystalize later this year. "Trends matter, and I know that 40 states have already found themselves in a deficit situation," the governor said. "I am hopeful that I am not one of them." The governor and his budget director said college affordability will remain their top goal for the university system, along with accessibility and an ongoing program to ensure credit transferability among state schools. Last budget season, Schweitzer struck a deal with the regents to ensure a tuition freeze. In Montana, the Board of Regents is allowed to set tuition on its own without approval of lawmakers. David Ewer, the administration's budget director, said they are looking to reach a similar kind of arrangement before the 2009 Legislature. Schweitzer said he does not know if he will again seek a strict tuition cap. "Our No. 1 priority is affordability," Schweitzer said. University of Montana President George Dennison called the meeting a "good discussion." He and Montana State University President Geoffrey Gamble also agreed with Schweitzer's request to prove the money given to higher education last time has been well-spent. "We need to be accountable, and we will be," Gamble said. Sheila Stearns, the commissioner of higher education, said the university system will be paring down its wish list and making sure it dovetails with the governor's goals. Also Thursday, Schweitzer told the Board of Education, a group that covers K-12 schools, that they need to be accountable for budget increases they have received.