"There is a direct correlation to tuition prices and access to education," he said. "For every dollar the tuition is increased there is someone who makes a decision that they cannot afford to enroll in college." - Kevin McRae

There is danger brewing in Helena in the halls of the Montana Legislature over how many millions of dollars may have to be cut from the University system budget.

Deputy Commissioner of Higher Education Kevin McRae said early Friday morning that as of today, the entire system could be facing a budget reduction of nearly $23 million.

"It's action time this week in the House Appropriations Committee, and for most of the session the legislature has had us looking at about a $23 million hole over the next two years," McRae said. "That $23 million dollar hole equates to about a 21 percent tuition increase across all our campuses.There's going to be some executive action in the committee this afternoon, so we'll see what comes out of that. At the same time, the Board of Regents will be planning whatever actions they may need to take, because the May meeting is where the decisions about tuition increases will be made."

McRae said the university system is not alone in facing significant budget cuts.

"The House Appropriations Committee is also hearing about budget cuts to the Health and Human Services Department, as well as many other agencies of state government," he said. "The Corrections Department is looking for more funding, as well. What makes it interesting is that the governor's budget holds funding fairly level to where it is now, but his budget depends on certain revenue enhancers, or tax increases, and there are about six of them, and they have not yet received legislative support."

McRae said the specter of a 21 percent tuition increase will definitely be a deciding factor in choosing a Montana university.

"There is a direct correlation to tuition prices and access to education," he said. "For every dollar the tuition is increased there is someone who makes a decision that they cannot afford to enroll in college. The challenge will be to offset the tuition increases with educational cuts."

Tuition has been virtually frozen for the Montana University System for the past decade. That will change dramatically if the budget passes as it now stands.