Students protest state budget cuts

In the face of Montana’s looming budget crisis, a group of MSU undergraduate students took to the stands of Bobcat Stadium. During the first quarter of the Homecoming football game on Sept. 30, several students dropped banners in front of the student section reading “Raise Revenue, Not Tuition” and could be heard chanting “don’t raise tuition.” Several elected Montana representatives, including Governor Steve Bullock, attended the game.

The student demonstration was in response to the state’s budget shortages. Montana’s general fund brought in $75 million less than was projected during the last fiscal year, which ended in June. This shortage can be attributed to a historic wildfire season coupled with overly optimistic predictions in revenue, as well as lower market prices in agriculture, oil and coal. The state is now preparing for cuts to essential services across the state. The Montana University System alone is planning for budget reductions up to 10 percent.

Three state departments will be most drastically affected by the shortfall. These are the Montana University System, the Department of Corrections and the Department of Public Health and Human Services. For higher education students, the cuts will be felt through additional increases in tuition or the closure of an MSU campus.

A group of MSU students believe that the burden of these cuts should not fall on the backs of students, families and other individuals who rely on the state’s general fund. Haley Cox, a junior in Cell Biology and Neuroscience, has been speaking out on this issue. “As informed voters, we feel that these cuts are avoidable with the implementation of tax-fairness measures that were proposed in the last legislative session,” she said.

Governor Bullock has proposed several measures to increase revenue. These include increasing consumption taxes on alcohol, medical marijuana and tobacco, increasing bed taxes and car rental taxes and increasing the tax rate on those earning greater than $500,000 per year. The students say these measures would capitalize on the state’s tourism industry and promote tax equity, rather than cause the state’s most vulnerable individuals and communities to bear the burden.

The group is calling for elected officials in Montana, regardless of party affiliation, to come together to find a solution that will minimize damage to the Montana University System. Governor Bullock has called for a special session of the Legislature to address the budget shortfalls, but Republican representatives have thus far rejected this measure, along with many of Bullock’s other proposals. Several MSU-Bozeman students, however, decided to act.

“Since 1988, the Montana Legislature has transferred 40 percent of the cost of education from the state onto Montana families and students. This has been a problem of chronic underfunding,” Cox said. “There should be a better connection between the Capital and Montana Hall, so we wanted to address the legislators watching the game and let them know that students are paying attention.”

Mayah VandeWetering, a junior in Sociology, is concerned about what further hikes in tuition could mean for many students in Bozeman, as well as individuals who utilize the services of the Department of Corrections and Department of Public Health and Human Services. “People would have to drop out of university because of this, and that shouldn’t have to happen. Access to public education and other resources that the general fund provides are some of America’s great equalizers,” she said.

On Sept. 27 and 28, the Legislative Finance Committee met to make recommendations to the Governor concerning the budget cuts and the special session. The group urges those concerned about this issue to reach out their elected representatives.

The students involved in the protest feel they accomplished their goal of raising awareness to the issue and reaching out to the legislators who attended the game. Although they declined to comment on how the banners were brought into the stadium, VandeWetering commented, “All it takes a is driveway, a large piece of fabric and some acrylic paint to get your message across. Anyone can be heard.”

Students displayed a banner protesting an increase in tuition during the first half an NCAA college football game in Bozeman, Mont. Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017. (Colter Peterson/Montana State University)