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Montana voters will decide two other, less-controversial ballot items this year

By Dave Skinner

Besides Initiatives 185 and 186, which I covered in my last two columns, Montana voters will decide two other, less-controversial ballot items this year: The so-called “Six Mill” levy and “Ballot Interference Prevention” legislative referendums.

Why legislative referendums? One, Montana’s constitution requires it for certain questions, including new taxes and constitutional amendments. Two, legislators sometimes present bills the governor won’t sign. To bypass a veto, the matter goes “to the people.”

So, the Six Mill, officially LR-128, has been around since 1948, renewed every 10 years since – meaning it falls under the (re)new tax requirement, no matter how many times voters have approved it. LR-128 would authorize the collection of $21 million per year earmarked for the Montana University System if it passes.

The host legislation, SB 85, passed by big margins, 86-13 in the House final reading. No brainer, right? After all, as a proud graduate of Montana State University, the Six Mill levy helped me, and I’m grateful.

But I learned some things in school – like asking questions until I get answers that make some kind of sense.

For example, the proponents imply approving the levy will stop an 18 percent tuition hike – couched as “could see” an increase. But Montana’s overall U-system budget for 2019 is expected to be $1.56 billion. $21 million is about 1.3 percent of that, and tuition itself (over half, out-of-state) will only pay in $250 million, barely one-sixth of what college really costs. So, while I feel tuition costs should be cheap, precisely who decided to make that 18 percent tuition hike a selling point, and why?

We’ll never learn that, of course. But that mathematical disconnect motivated me into some digging into who backs the Six Mill. Sure, Montana Chamber and Farm Bureau endorsed it. But who is paying? According to campaign reports up to Oct. 1, the combined MEA/MFT (teachers union) and Montana Public Employees Association (both merged in January to form MFPE, the Montana Federation of Public Employees) have apparently provided $504,000, alongside Montana PIRG (founded by Ralph Nader, remember?) making over $45,000 in staff time contributions, while being paid another $70,000 for “field work.” The union and Naderites alone combined for about five-sixths of all contributions.

Now, we can all understand public employee unions wanting more funding, right? But is the Six Mill really for the kids? Well, according to a Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research comparative analysis of Montana’s economic sectors, high-school graduates in Montana earn 94 percent of the U.S. average wage for their academic peers, which is more than I expected, sort of good. What do college graduates earn in Montana compared to their equals around America? Let me spell it out – seventy-seven percent, utterly abysmal considering the very reason Montana funds colleges is so Montana kids have access to good degrees leading to good jobs in Montana, right?

So, while I was inclined to vote for the Six Mill, and probably will anyway, I’m wondering whether Montana’s university system is failing in important ways that need to be discussed. Has Montana lost the sort of economy that helps college students avoid crushing debt while in school? And why, when our kids graduate, their reward for sticking around is lousy pay?

Finally, we’ve got LR-129, “Ballot Interference Prevention,” which hasn’t yet generated any TV ads. LR-129 began as SB-352, sponsored by Sen. Al Olszewski (R-Kalispell). Final passage in the House was only 51-49, and partisan, with “moderate” Republicans and all Democrats voting against. Would Gov. Steve Bullock have vetoed a straight bill? I’d bet a case of .223 ammo he would have.

If passed, LR-129 would require everyone who collects (and delivers for counting) ballots from others to sign documentation verifying such actions. Each deliverer can only deliver (collect and convey) six ballots total, and must have a relationship with the voter. Fine for violation? $500 per ballot. In general, if you are family, actual friend, or caregiver, you’re good, just deliver and sign. If you’re professionally mass-collecting ballots, not so good. Voter fraud? Voter suppression? That’ll be, of course, your call. I haven’t made mine yet.

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