A reality based independent journal of observation & analysis, serving the Flathead Valley & Montana since 2006. © James Conner.

17 July 2017 — 1536 mdt

A ballot box history of Montana’s 6-mill University Levy

Voters next fall get to decide whether to retain the 6-mill university levy, first approved in 1920 (overview), that currently raises approximately $20 million per year (legislative fiscal note). Supporters of the levy, reports Edward R. Burrow at Logicosity (post 1, post 2), are organizing a campaign to promote the measure that may cost $2.7 million. Burrow worries that an expensive levy campaign will compete with Democratic candidates for the same pot of money, possibly costing Democrats seats in the legislature. I share Burrow’s concern.

Burrow, commenting on Hilltop Public Solutions’ proposal to manage the campaign for the level, reports:

One paragraph provides background, including a graph illustrating the steady erosion of voter support since 1948, and a second touches on voter contact, not analysis.

I was not able to find the election returns for 1948 (a page of the archived results for that year was blank), but I was able to find results for 1958 through 2008.

There has not been a steady erosion of support since 1948. Here are the official results:

In 1958, the nation was emerging from a recession. That most likely accounts for the levy’s low margin of victory that year. Fifty years later, in 2008, the nation was plunging into the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression. That undoubtedly explains why support for the levy declined from 1998.

In 1968, a military man led the opposition to the levy. Charley Johnson has the story:

In Missoula in 1968, the lieutenant colonel who headed UM’s Army ROTC program waged war against passage of the 6-mill levy that year.

The colonel was angry because his daughter, taking a summer school English course at UM that year, was assigned to read an essay called “The Student as Nigger.” It contained a number of obscenities and vulgarities.

This screed was written by a California professor for an underground newspaper in Los Angeles. It picked up some steam as some English professors around the country assigned it to students, apparently for shock value or help ignite the revolution.

As critiques of college education went in the 1960s, the essay didn’t seem all that provocative then. But it did contain those dirty words, which shocked some. You can find it on the Internet, and it certainly hasn’t stood up well to the test of time.

Nonetheless, the colonel and his allies, Montanans for Constitutional Action, set out to make sure every Montana voter had a chance to read “The Student as Nigger.” They sent out 114,000 copies of an expurgated version of the full essay to voters and parents of U-system students. They plugged in euphemisms for the offending words.

As he always did in those tumultuous times, UM President Robert Pantzer provided calm leadership. He stood up firmly for academic freedom, which won him applause on campus but drew criticism in other quarters.

Montana voters in 1968 ultimately passed the 6-mill levy by 59 percent to 41 percent. It won in 53 counties, and lost in only three — including Missoula County, which surprised many people.

Then there’s the rest of the story.

A year later in October 1969, we at the Montana Kaimin received an anonymous envelope from Salt Lake City. It contained a recent clipping from the Salt Lake Tribune with a headline that went something like: “Vice Raid Nabs 15.” The colonel, retired and still living in Missoula, had been among those arrested in Salt Lake. He had pleaded guilty to offering a meter maid disguised as a hooker $5 for a sex act. He paid a $100 fine and received a suspended jail sentence.

I don’t think he was ever heard from again on public issues.

The university levy is put to the voters every ten years, provided the legislature approves putting the measure on the ballot. The ten-year interval is a mistake. A levy request this important should be voted on only in the highest turnout elections — in presidential elections. The interval should be eight years.