Bozeman Daily Chronicle  --  Sunday, June 14, 2015, Page A6

Newspaper Page Image (.pdf)

MSU responds: We respectfully disagree

On June 7, Rep. Art Wittich published a letter “Valley Republicans didn’t let down MSU.” MSU would like to respectfully disagree.

Throughout the legislative session, Rep. Wittich misrepresented MSU’s request for funding to renovate Romney Hall. His most recent letters appearing in state newspapers describe the renovation of Romney as simply the “renovation of an historic gymnasium at MSU.” His June 7 letter in the Bozeman Chronicle says: “During the session’s final week, the House received a late capital projects request to refurbish MSU’s old gym, which required us to borrow $100 million, even though $350 million cash was available.”

Such imprecise language could leave readers thinking the renovation of Romney Hall would cost $100 million and be nothing more than a gym. Additionally, Rep. Wittich describes the proposal as “late.” The proposal he refers to, Senate Bill 416, was for infrastructure projects across the entire state of Montana, not just MSU’s Romney Hall. As to being late, infrastructure was being discussed even before the session started. MSU’s specific request for Romney was endorsed by the Montana Board of Regents in May 2014.

Senate Bill 416 was developed by a bipartisan group of senators and championed by Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey. The “Brenden Plan,” as it was sometimes called, didn’t give anyone all they wanted and was significantly smaller than Gov. Bullock’s original infrastructure request. MSU’s request to renovate Romney was reduced from $28 million to $18.5 million. Many other projects had their funding reduced. As Sen. Brenden was fond of saying, the bill made everyone unhappy and therefore was probably a pretty good compromise. However, it did provide an infrastructure plan for the entire state.

The vast majority of the Republican-controlled Senate agreed with Sen. Brenden and his plan passed overwhelmingly 47-2, with one abstention. And who were the two senators who could not see their way to this compromise bill? Gallatin Valley’s Scott Sales and Gordon Vance.

When the proposal came to the House, Rep. Wittich stood on the floor and spoke against it, lobbied his caucus against it and voted against it. The Brenden Plan was killed and the 2015 Legislature closed with no state-wide infrastructure plan. It died for lack of a single vote.

Though it was built as a gym in 1922, MSU’s renovation plans didn’t include any gym-like activities for the building. With large portions of the building currently unusable or only marginally useable, Romney would have been renovated to include an expanded veteran’s center, new classrooms and tutoring facilities. In the months leading up to the legislative session, MSU was transparent about its plans for Romney: MSU offered public tours of the building, the proposal was extensively covered by the local media, and endorsed by the Chronicle’s editorial board.

MSU is funded through a performance- based model tied to the university’s success in retaining and graduating students. This is a reasonable accountability expectation of the Legislature. The academic services that could be provided in a renovated Romney Hall are vital to student success and to meeting the Legislature’s expectations. Rep. Wittich says MSU shouldn’t expect his support with Romney Hall because “the Legislature approved MSU’s stated priorities, including more funds for research programs, employee compensation, and avoiding tuition hikes.” Yes, the Legislature indeed provided funding for MSU research programs to help the Montana economy, and to help MSU hire capable faculty and staff to serve growing numbers of students. MSU worked cooperatively with the Legislature to gain this instructional and research support in a way that ensures we can freeze tuition prices to help Montana students and families get access to affordable education. What Rep. Wittich did not mention was the fact that in addition to voting against Romney Hall improvements, he also voted against all of the above – research funding, faculty and staff compensation and the conditional tuition freeze.

In the fall of 2014, MSU was the most successful campus in the Montana University System in increasing the number of students who stay in school and graduate. MSU is also the largest, fastest-growing university in Montana. We are committed to doing everything we can to help students succeed, including not giving up on the potential for infrastructure improvements to Romney Hall. However, it appears we will have to do it without the support of Rep. Art Wittich and the five other Gallatin Valley lawmakers who voted with him: Reps. Tom Burnett, Kerry White, Matthew Monforton; and Sens. Scott Sales and Gordon Vance.

Waded Cruzado is the president of Montana State University