Clean up higher education; vote no on 6-mill levy

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Photo by University of Montana.

As Montanans head to the polls this November to decide whether to reauthorize another $200 million in higher property taxes for the University System, they deserve to know the facts about the spending habits of those who will administer these taxpayer funds.

Proponents of the levy recently claimed in a guest opinion, “deep legislative cuts to state support” make the levy’s passage necessary. This is untrue. From 2000 to 2017 the legislature has increased higher education spending dramatically, by over $85 million per year. Taxpayers have raised their per student contribution from $4,460 in 2000 to $7,474 in 2017.

The reason state support percentages have fallen is because the University System has increased its spending by over $250 million yearly. They’ve also accumulated hundreds of millions more in debt for buildings and pet recruitment projects, forcing them to raise tuition, fees, room and board on students, often by more than double.

This spending increase has not corresponded with a higher number of resident students. Since 2000, in-state enrollment has stayed flat. While in-state residents have declined from 31,000 in 2011 to 25,000 in 2017, the number of out-of-state students has risen by several thousand.

Montanans also deserve to know who is funding and who benefits from the passage of the levy. In 2008, Blue Cross Blue Shield executives, through the levy’s political action committee, spent over $200,000 for its passage and have committed another $1.5 million for 2018. Part of the cost of enrollment each semester is $2,000 Blue Cross insurance that is automatically charged before students can attend classes. Students and taxpayers also cover over $3,000 a year in Blue Cross insurance for covered University employees.

After involving themselves in local school district levies in Billings and Missoula in past years, the banking industry is also involved in state education. Regents that approve hundreds of millions of dollars in campus borrowing have direct ties to banking giants such as Glacier Bancorp and D.A. Davidson. Should the banking industry that acted so greedily and irresponsibly, causing 2008’s recession, be anywhere near the decisions to burden future generations with millions in 20 year debt obligations?

At $4,000 a semester for tuition and fees, $5,000 for room and board and $2,000 for required health insurance, an in-state student who manages to finish their degree in four years, which only 20 percent of students do, will pay $89,000. The 45 percent of students who finish in six years will pay $132,000. This is borne out in massive amounts of lifetime debt that puts young people at tremendous disadvantages in the beginning of their lives.

Instead of bringing their spending in line to fiscally responsible levels, the high costs and profits have been covered by importing thousands of out-of-state students to Montana. Montana State bragged in fall 2017 that only half its freshman class were residents. One in six University of Montana students are from California alone, where UM spends more recruiting than any other state since reciprocity agreements allow some Californians to enroll at prices lower than their own in-state tuition.

The coming months will see many more astro-turfed pleas orchestrated by dark money and corporate interests encouraging a “yes” vote on the 6-mill levy. However, until University System leaders can bring their budgets to fiscally responsible levels that don’t burden students with debt, expel corporate profit-seeking interests from their boards, and focus on providing Montanans a quality education before out-of-state students, Montanans should stand firm and say “No!” to LR-128.

Timothy Adams and Steven Jones, of Three Forks, are lifelong Montana residents and co-founders of Montanans Against Higher Taxes. They both recently paid off over $135,000 of student loan debt accumulated from Montana Tech and Montana State after 12 years of payments.

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