Montana voters threw strong support behind public higher education in the midterm election.
By early Wednesday afternoon, 62 percent of the ballots counted statewide had said "yes" to the 6-Mill Levy, according to results from the Montana Secretary of State.
The levy provides an estimated $19 million a year to the Montana University System, and voters have supported it every 10 years since 1948.
"I'm delighted that we've been able to do this for nearly another half a generation to come," said Bob Nystuen, who served on the committee to support the levy.
With 491 of 669 precincts fully reporting by 12:30 p.m., the measure had support across urban and some rural counties.
Wibaux County reported 52 percent of voters favored the measure, and Valley County backed it by 53 percent. Missoula County supported the referendum with 66 percent of the vote, Yellowstone County backed it by 63 percent, and Lewis and Clark County threw 63 percent of the vote to the measure.
This election season brought much noise in heated statewide races, and Nystuen said he was proud backers of the measure were able to cut through acrimony to share a message about the importance of higher education. He said the university system enrolls 45,000, and the levy will make a difference.
"I think it's kind of a litmus test to say that Montanans still place a high value on public higher education to move our workforce and economic development for the future," said Nystuen, who is vice chair of the Montana Board of Regents. "And our goal is to continue to provide the best educational opportunities for our students."
Alex Butler, president of the Associated Students at the University of Montana, or ASUM, said students beyond those in leadership roles were paying attention to the 6-Mill Levy and believed it was critical for the entire system.
"Certainly at UM, most of the students that I talk to that aren't necessarily affiliated with ASUM knew about it and were big advocates for it," Butler said.
The flagship in Missoula is facing budget trouble due to enrollment declines, but enrollment also is a challenge at other campuses. Butler said he appreciates that the entire state gets to weigh in on funding for public higher education through the levy, and he believes the outcome indicates the strength between citizens and the system.
"I think it just goes to show there's a good relationship between higher education and the state here," Butler said.
Montana has been able to keep tuition relatively affordable for state residents. Butler said he believes the outcome this November will have a positive impact for students going forward as the university system approaches the 2019 Montana Legislature.
"I'm just excited to see what that will look like in the legislative session and how legislators are going to vote based on what they're seeing here," Butler said.
The levy used to provide all the funding for public higher education in Montana, but as the university system grew, 6 mills weren't enough, Nystuen said earlier. The Legislature appropriated other dollars, but the levy still provides some 10 percent of all the state funds for higher education.
Voters have supported the levy, but the margins have tightened every decade since 1978. Nystuen said he liked the numbers he was seeing early Tuesday and he even wondered if the trend might reverse.
"Wouldn't it be fun for us to see that thing turn up the other direction?"