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A Conversation with Senators Karen Hale BS'80 (D) and Robert Montgomery MD'61 (R)

Continuum: What were the biggest surprises of the 1999 session?

Hale: HB 139, the Attorney General bill, was a surprise. That one flew right in without a senate committee hearing. The way the debate went on the floor was very upsetting. The news story didn't indicate what really happened on the floor. And the timing of the whole thing was terrible; while the bill doesn't go into effect until 2001, it still looked like it was directed at Jan Graham.

Also, HB 32, the Dixie College bill [to grant Dixie College a name change and certain baccalaureate programs], was surprising. I'm on the standing education committee, and I was surprised that our committee didn't vote when the bill was presented. It probably wouldn't have made it out of committee had we voted. I could be wrong. There was an outpouring of support from St. George; the whole community simply rallied around the school. In the end, it was really the art of compromise. I think the Board of Regents was open to that. But afterwards, a couple of senators said to me that they wished they hadn't voted for it. Some felt it was a matter of putting the Board of Regents' feet to the fire. But can our system handle another four-year institution?

Montgomery: The Dixie College bill was a surprise for me, as well. I originally opposed it because I was supportive of the Board of Regents and felt they should make that decision. As chair of the higher education appropriations committee, I had the opportunity to hear from the president of Dixie College. Even in its current status, the College is underfunded; faculty salaries are insufficient, and there is not enough money for programs. So I didn't want to add to the financial problems by adding new programs.

But I think the compromise worked well. The Board of Regents still has oversight authority. Part of the bill is that the Board of Regents will continue to set criteria for degree-granting programs at other schools.

Continuum: Higher education funding, as a portion of the entire state budget, continues to decrease. Why?

Montgomery: One of the problems is the corrections budget. The prison system is inundated with more prisoners, more court officers, more judges. There is an enormous cost to house one prisoner: $22,000 a year. If people would behave themselves, we'd have more money for higher education and other things. In addition, we have a large public-education student population. In the '80s there was a recession, and revenues went down, so we got behind in our funding. We've tried to make up for that in the '90s, but then we had to deal with the I-15 highway system reconstruction. So the reality is that we have diverted money away from higher education.

Hale: As a research institution, the U has specific needs for funding, and I am concerned that the legislature understand what those needs are. At the end of this year's session, it was great to be able to pull

$1 million out of the hat and put that money toward libraries.

[The U received $314,000 of that money.] As those needs come in, the executive appropriations committee will take a look at them. But it takes a full understanding of the institutions, and a lot of us don't have that.

Continuum: Where is the hat from which you can pull $1 million?

Montgomery: Our higher education appropriations committee had about $675 million of base funding this year to appropriate. After we allocated all the new money, we drafted a wish list on a prioritized basis. Our first priority was to fund growth in schools, then to fund inflationary costs in various programs. Our third priority was over $400,000 in student scholarships to match federal funding; then library funding; and then AHEC [Area Health Education Centers]. At the last minute, a certain amount of money is set aside by executive appropriations for hot spots – new money from new revenues.

Hale: Unfortunately, the library funding taken from that money is one-time funding.

Montgomery: Yes, that's true. After the higher education appropriations committee creates its wish list, we present our recommendations to executive appropriations. Originally we were given about $2 million in new money, but after we made our presentation, we received an additional $9 million.

Continuum: Some discretionary money was given to college and university presidents this year. Is this the wave of the future?

Hale: I think it's wonderful. Too often we're trying to micromanage. Bernie Machen has come in with a vision for the U, and since we've given approval to him as president, I think we should trust him as he decides where the money goes. As legislators, I believe we must be cautious about the financial decisions we're making for the University.

Montgomery: I agree, but I also think that the legislature needs to retain oversight. We can establish for our own comfort how those funds are being spent. We can let them know we're looking over their shoulders.

Continuum: You're both graduates of the U. How has that made a difference in what you do?

Montgomery: You can't get away from that allegiance. I'm also a graduate of what was then Weber College as well as BYU, so I have other allegiances. But the U is the flagship institution of the state, and it is world-renowned, especially in the medical field. So that influences me positively.

Hale: I feel it in my duty to my district, which has a lot of alumni and faculty in it. My predecessor, Dave Buhler, left big shoes for me to fill because he was a great advocate for the U. So I know I'm in the hot seat to be a voice for the U. And I'd echo Bob – wherever you go, when you talk about the University, people are always impressed.

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Copyright 1999 by The University of Utah Alumni Association