Montana college students will pay higher tuition next year—about 8.5 percent more at the University of Montana—after state legislators cut the university system's budget. But that's just a scratch compared to the budget blow Montana voters could inflict next year.
A state property tax known as the six-mill levy has been a reliable part of university funding for nearly a century, renewed every 10 years via voter referendum by margins as wide as 2 to 1. But those margins have been on an "absolute, perfect downward slide" over the last three cycles, as regent Bob Nystuen recently pointed out, and polling found less than 50 percent support this time around. The levy next appears on the November 2018 ballot. For the first time in memory, its passage may be in real jeopardy. If it fails, the university system stands to lose about $20 million each year—more than five times the cuts imposed by the Legislature this spring. That could translate to a 17 percent tuition hike, or millions more in budget cuts at a time when UM is already struggling to stanch its financial bleeding.
Levy advocates are gearing up early to make sure that levy passes. Blue Cross Blue Shield CEO Mike Frank, who chairs the pro-levy campaign, says the group began organizing a year ago, "which is likely earlier than has occurred in the past." They've turned to Hilltop Public Solutions, the Billings political consulting firm known for its work with Democratic Party candidates, to manage the campaign.
It will cost a pretty penny, by education campaign standards, to get the message out. The 2008 campaign cost $240,000, according to campaign finance data compiled by Hilltop, with the lion's share contributed by corporations and university foundations. Frank says the pro-levy group doesn't have a fundraising target yet, but they've been approaching donors and recruiting allies since the fall.
The decision to start early was driven by awareness of what Frank describes as trends in the "climate" for Montana ballot measures. Over the last few years, voters in the state's largest cities have shelled out for large K-12 bonds, in some cases narrowly. Additionally, the last several years have been unusually tumultuous for the university system. UM in particular has produced a steady stream of bad headlines and is dealing with a painful downsizing process just as the levy campaign ramps up.
The six-mill levy is the only time residents get a direct, up-or-down vote on college funding, and supporters want to ensure that the campaign doesn't become a referendum on the system's recent troubles. They plan to pitch the benefits of affordable college to the state's economy while emphasizing that the levy is not a new tax.
"I can't give an opinion on how the campuses have been run," Frank says. "But what I can give an opinion on is the importance of education."