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Good riddance

Losing Commissioner Crofts is no loss at all

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Dick Crofts, Montana’s commissioner of higher education, announced his sudden and unexpected resignation Monday. Richard Roehm, Chair of the Board of Regents, said Crofts was leaving for “personal, family, and professional reasons.” Losing the U-system’s full-time liaison with the legislature only weeks before a session convenes would normally be seen as a tremendous blow to higher ed. But considering Croft’s long-standing enmity with the legislature, not having him around may be the best thing that could happen.

This story starts some time back. Given that Crofts has only been commissioner of higher education for six years, we’re not talking antiquity here. But we are going back to the years when John Mercer was Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives for four sessions in a row—longer than anyone in the state’s history. He was also one of the most powerful Speakers ever, ruling over a House where Republicans held fully two-thirds of the seats for almost three sessions running.

To say Mercer and Crofts had a rocky relationship would be putting it mildly. Mercer, a very bright, hard-working young attorney, with nearly a decade of legislative experience under his belt before he became Speaker, generally accomplished the things he set out to do. Mercer wanted to take a close look at university system spending, but policymakers need very specific information for making budget decisions. Yet, time and time again he ran into the brick wall of Dick Crofts’ obfuscation.

To be fair, there was perhaps the semblance of a reason for Crofts to stonewall Mercer. After all, under the Montana Constitution, the university system is almost, but not quite, a separate entity unto itself. Article X, Section 9(2)(a) declares: “The government and control of the Montana university system is vested in a board of regents of higher education which shall have full power, responsibility, and authority to supervise, coordinate, manage and control the Montana university system and shall supervise and coordinate other public educational institutions assigned by law.”

This provision was included by constitutional drafters primarily to ensure that our state’s higher education system was not overly influenced by the politics of the day and to make sure legislators didn’t start telling educators what, or what not, to teach. But in that same section, (d) continues: “The funds and appropriations under the control of the board of regents are subject to the same audit provisions as all other state funds.” And therein lies the rub. Mercer wanted detailed information on university spending plans. Crofts didn’t exactly burn up the soles of his shoes getting it to him. And so the seeds of discontent were sown—and oh, what a bitter crop those seeds would grow.

Quite frankly, picking a fight with Mercer was probably one of the dumbest things Crofts could have done. After all, the appropriations bills, which contain all the money spent in the state budget over the biennium, must start in the House. The House—and therefore the budget—was largely controlled by the iron fist of Speaker Mercer. In effect, Crofts had foolishly decided to bite the hand that feeds him—not just once, but many times.

Let us jump forward in time now to 2001. John Mercer had been termed out of the legislature after the ’99 session and was practicing law, raising a family, writing plays, and acting in the community theater in his hometown of Polson. Then, out of the clear blue sky, Gov. Martz appoints him to the Board of Regents. Suddenly, in the vernacular of the streets, it was “get even time” for Mercer, since Crofts is appointed by and answerable to the regents. Mercer, in other words, became one of Crofts’ bosses.

What followed since then has been pretty much on-going conflict between Mercer and Crofts. Perhaps this was to be expected, since Mercer’s legislative background gives him a significantly different perspective on the totality of university system autonomy. Yes, the system has an unprecedented degree of spending freedom when compared to most state agencies, but in the end, every penny of spending authority comes from just one place—the legislature. In his very first regent’s meeting Mercer came out swinging, demanding better documentation to justify university system spending, challenging the need for a double-digit tuition increase, and seeking improved relations between the university system and the legislature.

It wasn’t long before Crofts’ proclivities toward secrecy ran headlong into Mercer’s inclination to conduct university business in the open. The two clashed on whether the commissioner could hold secret meetings with regents, whether decisions could be made via e-mail communications, and on the so-called “gag rule” Crofts tried to impose on members of the Board of Regents. To his credit, by and large Mercer came down on exactly the right side of these arguments—he was for open meetings, against e-mail decision-making, and totally opposed to any gag rules. That the one student member of the Board of Regents consistently votes with Mercer speaks volumes in his behalf. He was also against profligate university spending fueled by continuous and crippling tuition increases. (See “Mercer on the move,” Missoula Independent, July 19, 2001).

From then on, Crofts’ days were numbered. Personally, I couldn’t squeeze out a tear if I tried. Having worked with Mercer to put an Indian-education agreement into the budget that Crofts then ignored, it’s good news to me that he’s leaving. Regent Mark Semmens claims Crofts “did a good job of making sure that, in all that we did, we kept in mind the students and were sensitive to their input.” Tellingly, student regent Lynn Hamilton declined to comment on the loss of this dubious student champion.

At $144,506 annually, Crofts was pulling down about six times the average Montana income. Mercer is right. We should end the secrecy, demand spending accountability, improve university relations with the legislature, and get someone who is more in tune with what Montana’s students—and taxpayers—can afford.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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