State lawmakers are considering a proposal to end the requirement of a vote every 10 years to renew the statewide 6-mill property tax levy that helps fund the University System.

And they should approve this legislation.

The 6-mill levy was first enacted in 1948 with a provision to require voter approval every 10 years for it to continue. And voters have approved it every time since then, the last time in November of last year when it was approved by more than 60 percent of voters. But the uncertainty of whether it will continue each time around makes it very difficult for U-system officials to plan for the future. And the campaigns to convince voters to vote for the levy get more expensive each time.

The levy raises a little over $20 million a year for the colleges and universities. And while that is a relatively small component of total U-system spending, make no mistake: Distributing $20 million-plus in budget cuts across the system would wreak havoc. By some estimates last year, failure of the levy to win voter approval would have forced a nearly 20 percent tuition increase — something that could push college education out of reach for some Montana families.

One of the most persuasive arguments for making the levy permanent is the dwindling state contribution to higher education. The state appropriates money for the system on a per-student basis. But the total state contribution to Montana State University’s budget has dwindled from more than half several decades ago to just 27 percent in this fiscal year. The levy is one stabilizing factor in state funding and that factor should be made permanent.

The measure, Senate Bill 152, passed the Senate on final reading with a comfortable six-vote margin. It’s scheduled for a hearing later this week in the House Taxation Committee where it likely faces tougher scrutiny. Fiscal hawks on the GOP-controlled committee will not likely look kindly on any measure that lessens popular say-so over taxes.

But they are urged to consider the value of the U-system to state residents and the importance of the 6-mill levy in keeping it affordable. Vote yes for SB 152.

Editorial Board

  • Mark Dobie, publisher
  • Nick Ehli, managing editor
  • Bill Wilke, opinion page editor
  • Don Beeman, community member
  • Richard Broome, community member
  • Renee Gavin, community member
  • Sarabeth Rees, community member
  • David Swingle, community member

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