- Associated Press - Thursday, August 13, 2015

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - Confidence among state leaders is split over whether there will be enough money during the upcoming legislative session to freeze South Dakota’s in-state college tuition for the 2016-2017 school year.

Lawmakers responded Thursday to this week’s budget request from the state Board of Regents, which included $4.7 million for the tuition freeze as part of the regents’ push to even out the student-state funding ratio over three years. The freeze is the regents’ highest priority for inclusion in the budget that Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard will put together ahead of the 2016 Legislature.

Though key officials appear open to halting in-state tuition hikes when the Legislature convenes in January - lawmakers last approved a freeze in 2014 - political leaders’ optimism over whether there’s enough money to do so varies.

Daugaard “likes the concept but needs to see what funds are available,” spokeswoman Kelsey Pritchard said in an email. “He will take it under consideration as he prepares a budget request this fall.”

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Corey Brown, R-Gettysburg, said much the same: Lawmakers understand the state’s universities need to stay competitive, but isn’t sure there will be funds available unless the state economy significantly improves.

It was also the board’s top request for the 2015 session, but lawmakers cited scarce state funds in dropping it. House Majority Leader Brian Gosch, R-Rapid City, said that plan was discarded because of overly conservative fiscal projections. But the indications he’s seen make him believe the state budget for the upcoming session will be healthy.

“I think not only will there be support for a tuition freeze, but there will money to pay for it,” he said.

House Minority Spencer Hawley said he hopes increased growth in the state’s sales tax receipts will pay for the freeze. The Democrat from Brookings said that the state share of support for public higher education should increase.

Lawmakers need to invest in higher education funding for the future economic vitality of the state, the regents’ CEO and Executive Director Michael Rush said. Overall, his board asked for $14.2 million more for new and ongoing funding for the state’s six public universities and two special schools, plus $14.2 million in one-time spending.

The ongoing funding request also includes more money for items such as needs-based scholarships and building maintenance.

After the Legislature adjourned, the board approved in April an average tuition and fee increase of 5.8 percent across the university system for the upcoming school year, bringing the average cost of tuition and fees for on-campus, in-state students to about $8,380, up from $7,925.

Students plan to lobby lawmakers for the freeze because it would help keep education affordable, said South Dakota Student Federation Executive Director Harrison Costello, a senior at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

Costello said keeping down tuition means students could work less and be able to focus on their studies.

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