Montanans first supported the 6-mill tax for higher education back in 1948.
Every decade since then, voters have reauthorized the levy which raises about $20 million annually from a property tax dedicated to the state university system. On average, that tab amounts to $12 on every $100,000 in property value. The 6-mill levy goes before voters for the eighth time next month.
University of Montana alumnus, Sam Forstag, describes the 6-mill levy as a proud Montana tradition.
“It affects the music we make, the books we write, the culture that we produce.”
Others, like Republican State Representative Tom Burnett, says the 6-mill levy is a relic of the past that, under current conditions, he can no longer support.
“It’s not prudent to perpetuate things that need changing.”
The 70-year-old 6-mill levy is not a new tax. It provides about 10-percent of the state’s appropriation to higher education and helps support approximately 40,000 in-state students. University officials say it does that by helping fund day-to-day business operations on Montana’s four- and two-year campuses. That includes helping cover salary and benefits for faculty and staff.
Again, Sam Forstag, who served as President of UM’s student body before graduating two years ago.
“And so those dollars don’t go to any sort of special funds, like athletics or private fundraising. It goes straight to helping students and teachers make sure there’s a good classroom experience here in Montana.”
But State Representative Burnett says times are changing for higher ed in Montana.
“Students are starting to shun the system. Why should taxpayers have to stay the course to continue their contributions to the system.”
The Bozeman Republican sits on the legislature’s Joint Appropriation Subcommittee on Education.
“From spring 2011 to spring 2018, enrollment fell as follows: down 29 percent at University of Montana; down 39 percent at Missoula College; down 35 percent at City College, Billings; down 29 percent at Dawson Community College; down 30 percent at Helena College; down 24 percent at MSU-Billings, down 10 percent at Montana Tech,” Burnett says.
Burnett says Montana’s university system has only two enrollment bright spots: Montana State University and Gallatin College – up 23 and 105 percent respectively.
“We are rich in brick and mortar for a dwindling student population. Many, many, many rooms, hallways – entire buildings – seem lightly utilized to put it very mildly. Nationally and here, we’re seeing more money being spent on administration. People question the value of that.”
Sam Forstag, who now works as a Type II firefighter with the Forest Service, acknowledges enrollment declines are an ongoing challenge.
“That does not mean that the value of a higher education is any less than it was 10, 20, 30 years ago. If anything, with the jobs we’re seeing here in Montana, with the rise of the tech industry, the value of a degree is higher than ever. And it’s something that we should be making sure that every-day Montanans have access to.”
Without voter approval next month, the 6-mill levy will expire. Montana university system officials say if that happens there would be a $20 million funding gap that would have to be made up by either the state general fund – a big ask under Montana’s current budget reality – or an up-to-18-percent student tuition hike.
“I really hope that the 6-mill levy is passed because I think that with the recent tuition increases there’s already a huge burden. I, for instance, worked two to three jobs, my entire time in college. And I don’t think we should be putting students in a position where they have to choose between $30,000, $40,000 in student-loan debt or not getting access to higher education.”
Six-mill opponent Burnett says tuition hikes are not a given if the levy isn’t renewed.
“Administrators have many tools at their disposal, not just altering tuition. Yes, higher education is an investment, but it has to pass a return-on-investment test. Investors change their investment portfolios all the time in response to changing conditions.”
Montana’s 6-mill levy has enjoyed bipartisan support over the past seven decades, but its margins of victory have trended downward. In 1988 it passed with 64-percent voter approval. Ten years later that slipped to 61-percent. In 2008 it won with 56 percent of the vote; respectable, but the trend is obvious, and that worries its supporters and bolsters the levy’s opponents.
The 6-mill levy ballot issue appears on November’s ballot as Legislative Referendum NO. 128.