BOZEMAN (AP) — Among the candidates and issues on Montana’s November ballot is a referendum asking voters to extend for another 10 years a property tax that raises nearly $20 million a year to help support the state’s public colleges and universities.
At a recent forum in Bozeman, Whitefish Republican Bob Brown — a former secretary of state — called the levy a proud tradition that voters have approved in support of younger generations for 70 years.
“We want to be sure people know it’s not a tax increase,” said Brown, treasurer of Montanans for the Six Mill.
Speaking in opposition, Republican Rep Tom Burnett of Bozeman told the League of Women Voters last week that ending the levy would require the university system to be more efficient with its $1.5 billion budget.
“Maybe taxpayers are doing enough,” Burnett said. “No one is arguing higher education is not valuable. The question is, at what level does it need to be funded?”
The levy is a tax of 0.6 percent on the taxable value of a house, which is calculated at 1.35 percent of its market value.
State education officials and the Department of Revenue say the levy costs an average of $16.20 a year on a $200,000 house and $24.40 on a $300,000 house.
Montanans Against Higher Taxes is calling the 10-year levy a “$200+ million property tax increase” that supports out-of-control university spending that is increasing faster than the rate of inflation, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reports .
The organization argues against Legislative Referendum 128 by criticizing the university system for paying high salaries, raising tuition, pushing up rents in campus towns and putting students deeper in debt.
However, the Montanans Against Higher Taxes website incorrectly reports the volunteer chair of the Board of Regents is paid $284,000 and overstates the average pay for full professors by $44,000 a year, according to Blair Fjeseth, communications director for the university system.
A voice message left by The Associated Press for Christian King with Montanans Against Higher Taxes seeking a response to those criticisms was not immediately returned Tuesday.
The Montanans for the Six Mill website overstates the annual cost to the owners of a $200,000 home at $24 rather than $16, said Tyler Trevor, a deputy commissioner of higher education.
Brown said Tuesday he did not know how the figure on the website was reached.
Supporters note the state covered 76 percent of university costs in 1992 and the state’s share is now 41 percent. If the levy fails, they argue, the regents would have to raise that $20 million elsewhere, and it would likely mean raising tuition.
The 6-mill levy passed with 64 percent of the vote in 1988 and with 56.7 percent in 2008. Lawmakers put the referendum on the ballot with a 124-25 vote, but Bennett said a poll last year pegged voter support at 48 percent.
Brown said he is optimistic the measure will pass but concerned about the effect of heavy spending on an anti-tax campaign against a measure that would increase tobacco taxes to help pay for expanded health care.
“We’re concerned because the political climate is more unpredictable than at any time in my lifetime,” said Brown, a former secretary of state and former legislator. “I’m concerned the 6-mill levy might be collateral damage.”