By Matt Murphy

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON -- Gov. Deval Patrick's proposed budget for next year includes a sizeable new investment in public university campuses, but may fall short of what would be required to freeze student tuition and fees for a second year despite his administration's confidence that it is sufficient.

Patrick's fiscal 2015 plan calls for an increase of $68.4 million in spending on higher education, including a $36.9 million bump for the University of Massachusetts and its five campuses. The proposed funding level, however, falls about $2.5 million short of the $518.8 million budget for UMass that lawmakers, the administration and university officials agreed to last year and codified in the current budget as a condition for freezing tuition and fees.

The Patrick administration has been touting his proposed investment in higher education, and Secretary of Administration and Finance Glen Shor on Tuesday testified before the House and Senate Ways and Means Committees that freezing student enrollment costs remains the "goal" of the administration.

"Our goal is to ensure that students of our public colleges and universities can continue, as they did last year, attending school without an increase this September in their tuition and fees. This was something we were able to collectively accomplish in the fiscal 2014 budget and we would like to work with you to accomplish that yet again," Shor said.

When asked by Senate Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer whether the proposed funding levels in the governor's budget would be sufficient to accomplish that, Shor said, "We believe that that is ample resources to achieve that purpose."

UMass officials, so far, have been careful not to pass judgment on what the governor's budget would mean for students should it pass, but they have also not committed to freezing tuition and fees under the current proposal.

"We appreciate the funding proposal that Governor Patrick has put forward for the University of Massachusetts and all that he has done throughout his governorship to advance UMass and the cause of public higher education," UMass President Robert Caret said in a statement. "Governor Patrick viscerally understands the importance of educational opportunity and has worked tirelessly to make transformational opportunity available to the citizens of the Commonwealth. We are hopeful that the budget process will culminate with the best possible result for the 72,000 students of the UMass system and for our mission of quality, affordability and opportunity."

A spokesman for UMass said the university plans to ask the Legislature to go further to meet the targets outlined in the current fiscal 2014 budget.

The organization representing the state's nine public universities outside the UMass system went a bit further.

Vincent Pedone, a former state representative and executive officer of the Massachusetts State Universities Council of Presidents, wrote a letter to Patrick last week stating that the governor's budget proposal would "substantially mitigate" but not prevent altogether fee increases for the coming academic year.

"As we continue to work towards an equitable funding split between our Massachusetts students and the state, your budget proposal will further allay financial pressures on our students and their families. We commit that we will continue to work with you and our friends in the legislature during the budget process to reach a funding level that would allow us to freeze our tuition and fees for another year," Pedone wrote.

A spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Administration and Finance did not return a call seeking comment on Wednesday.

Last year, Patrick and legislative leaders made a substantial commitment to move toward a 50-50 funding split between the UMass system's 72,000 students and the state over a two-year timeframe after a period of 20 years during which the university's average state funding had remained flat. The split was 57 percent student support and 43 percent state support before this year's budget raised university system funding by $40 million, to $479 million, the largest increase in state funding in the university's history.

Other public universities and community colleges also received increased budgets that allow all institutions to freeze tuition and fees for the current academic year, and the goal among higher education supporters, who are competing for funds with other groups on Beacon Hill, is to repeat that feat in fiscal 2015.

Public universities, under Patrick's proposed fiscal 2015 budget, would receive a $13.2 million increase in state funding for a total budget of $242.6 million, while the 15 community colleges would see a $17.8 million increase to $263.7 million in fiscal 2015.

The House is due to release its budget proposal in April. House Speaker Robert DeLeo has vowed not to include tax increases in that spending plan and pledged to boost local aid levels above those proposed by Patrick.