Legislature should make funding higher education priority

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In 1947 thousands of World War II veterans eligible for G.I. Bill higher education benefits were overwhelming the University System. The feeling in Montana and the rest of the country was that nobody was entitled to a living, but that everybody should be entitled to a fair chance to earn one. Education makes opportunity possible. Those who benefit from it can take advantage of opportunities, and create them for others. Those without an education are often left behind.

This, in today’s increasingly technical world, is even truer than it was in 1947. Then when the state of Montana faced the critical need to open educational opportunity to our veterans, the frustrating problem was that the 1889 Montana Constitution limited the legislature to a levy on property only up to 1.5-mills. The need was far greater.

Fortunately, a creative solution was proposed by a state legislator with a reputation as a smart, original thinker. I knew him. Even in his very late years, former Missoula Republican State Representative Winfield Emerson Page was strikingly bright and a delightful storyteller. It was he who proposed the idea of placing a levy of 6-mills on the 1948 statewide general election ballot to make way for the GIs. He added a 10-year termination provision based on the possibility that the wave of new students would have subsided by 1958.

It didn’t. For one thing, the Korean War quickly brought another wave of veterans. So the temporary 6-mill levy was passed to the people again in 1958. Next came the influx of “war babies.” Over the years, the legislature began essentially counting on the revenue from the six-mills in determining the University System budget without making the levy permanent. The revenue thus generated made balancing the overall budget easier, but unlike all other state agencies, the university system was singled out to continually go to the electorate to raise the money.

Most states occasionally place proposals for new taxes on their election ballots. But Montana, unlike the rest of the country, funds a permanent part of its government by an over-and-over-again vote by the people on the same tax.

The 6-mill levy was a legislative response to a World War II era crisis. For how long is there a logical rationale for that levy to continue to be voted on? For eternity? It has been decisively approved by the people of Montana eight straight times by three generations of voters. There are, no doubt, Montanans among us who voted for the original levy in 1948. They are the ones who will be at least 102 if we vote on it again.

It’s high time for the legislature to take “yes” for an answer. It should not continue to arbitrarily force only higher education into an expensive statewide campaign every 10 years. It’s the legislature’s job to tax and appropriate. It should do that by passing SB152 to make the 6-mill university levy permanent.

Bob Brown is a former Montana Secretary of State and State Senate President. He was treasurer of the recent 6-Mill Levy campaign.

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