Page and the Six-Mill Levy

By Beacon Staff

Small, stooped, with a wry sense of humor, Winfield Emerson Page was one of the early stock market “day traders.” Page was essentially nocturnal. He seemed able to function with very little sleep. He frequently stayed up most of the night to monitor foreign markets, making trades by telephone and telegraph, at all hours, nationally and internationally. This was the source of some amusement over the 14 years, beginning in 1943, that Page represented Missoula in the Legislature. The liquidity in his nightlife was different than some of his better lubricated legislative colleagues.

Brilliant and unconventional, Page is probably best remembered for losing a bruising and controversial 1952 Republican primary election for Congress to the legendary Wellington Rankin. But Page, who died at age 90 in 1994, left a legacy far greater than most legislators, and it had nothing to do with his sleeping habits or row with Rankin.

In the 1947 legislative session, Rep. Page was the principal sponsor of what we know now as the six- mill levy. Reapproved by Montana voters every 10 years since the election of 1948, and never increased, the university levy has been the traditional cornerstone of funding for Montana’s system of higher education for nearly 60 years. Notably, unlike other taxes, this is the one on which we have a say in what we pay. The levy will appear on this year’s general election ballot as LR-118. If it is again approved by Montana voters, as it has been six times in the past, it will continue to generate about $13 million per year to directly support Montana’s universities and colleges of technology. This amounts to about 9 percent of the state funding for Montana’s system of higher education.

The single most important thing each generation passes on to the next is the accumulated body of knowledge. In our country that transfer has been accomplished primarily through publicly supported education. It is the American tradition that nobody should be guaranteed a living, but that everybody should have the opportunity to earn one. Education makes opportunity possible. Education is the essential equalizer. Those who benefit from it can take advantage of opportunities and create them for others. Those without an education are left behind. This is even truer today than it was in 1948 when the six mill public commitment to higher education was first made.

In addition to providing necessary higher-level instruction and technical training vital to earning a living, the Montana University System has performed greatly beneficial research. Experiments in plant breeding at Montana State University have vastly improved yield and pest resistance, adding up to many millions of dollars annually to Montana’s grain growers and to our agricultural communities. This ongoing research will have enormous implications in a world of rising food and energy costs, changing climate patterns, and an ever-expanding population.

Recently, University of Montana – Montana State University co-operative research centered on the campus in Missoula, has resulted in the remarkable discovery that honeybees can be scientifically trained to associate the odor of explosives with food. The United Nations estimates that warring nations have left over 100 million antipersonnel land mines buried around the world. Every year 20,000 to 30,000 innocent people are killed by these mines. Montana researchers have extensively conducted successful testing of bees as detectors on a mine field at Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo. There is little question that the Montana bee research will result in a great boon for humanity in some of the most tragic parts of the world.

Testing and adapting of bio-based fuels and oils at the Bio-Energy Center at MSU-Northern in Havre, with emphasis on creating and growing Montana bio-based small businesses, is another example of university supported research and the promise it holds for progress and opportunity.

Our grandparents and parents recognized education as the key to a better life and a better world when they first approved the six-mill levy for their children and grandchildren back in 1948. It is now before us to carry on the tradition and continue that same level of support – no more, no less – for the next generation of Montanans.

Bob Brown, former Montana State Senate President and Secretary of State, is a Senior Fellow at the University of Montana’s Center for the Rocky Mountain West