A new poll on the 6-mill levy reaffirms the results of a spring poll, which reported that 70 percent of likely voters in Montana would approve the measure if the election were held when the poll was completed.
In February, the University of Montana's Big Sky Poll of 603 randomly selected Montana registered voters found that about 72 percent reported that they would vote to continue paying for the levy.
The most recent Big Sky poll, which was done between Aug. 13-31 and included 466 participants, showed that 71 percent of likely voters said they would approve the levy. The poll used the same ballot language that was approved by the Montana Legislature.
“That’s insane,” Lee Banville, a journalism professor at the University of Montana who co-teaches election reporting, said of the most recent results. He noted that the last time the measure came before voters in 2008, about 57 percent were in favor of the referendum.
“It bucks the trend we have been seeing,” Banville said. “So there is much stronger support than what we saw 10 years ago. It hasn’t been this big since the 1980s, but unlike 10 years ago, there really isn’t an active campaign against it.”
The Big Sky Poll measured whether voters would continue the existing 6-mill levy, which will end in January 2019 if it’s not re-approved. Voters first used the mill levy to help fund the university system in 1948, and it brings about $20 million for the Montana University System. It must be re-approved by voters every 10 years.
The 6-mill levy costs the owner of a $200,000 home about $24 per year and provides about $20 million in funding for higher education in Montana, according to a press release issued late Tuesday afternoon. When survey respondents were provided with this information, the number of voters who said they would vote to continue the 6-mill levy dropped to 69 percent.
Banville said that’s not unusual, since people often can support something in concept, but that wanes when they learn about the actual cost.
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“The first question is along the lines of ‘Do you support higher education?’ while the second question is ‘Do you support it this much?” Banville said. “It’s easy to address things in the abstract, but when the specifics on what it will cost me are shared, some people will balk at the cost.”
The measure wouldn’t add any additional taxes to people’s property tax bills, but just continue with the current 6 mills.
About 46 percent of Montanans reported they are “not at all familiar” with the 6-mill levy, while 7 percent are “extremely familiar” with the referendum. Residents of Montana's five largest cities were more familiar with it than rural residents, according to the news release about the poll.
The poll showed that 90 percent of self-identified Democrats would vote for the referendum, compared to 54 percent of Republicans. Respondents with higher levels of education also stated they would vote to continue the 6-mill levy at a higher rate.
The Big Sky Poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points, at a 95 percent confidence level.
Banville noted that Montana is a difficult place to poll voters, since its sparse population is spread over a wide area.
“But it is a decent sample size,” he said. “A good poll would be 900 or so voters, so it’s an interesting snapshot, but has some challenges.”
Sara Rinfret, director of the university’s Master in Public Administration program who leads the Big Sky Poll, was teaching late Tuesday afternoon and couldn't be reached for comment. She conducted the poll in conjunction with Justin Angle, an associate professor of marketing, as well as eight students.
The survey was commissioned with support from the UM Social Science Research Laboratory. Full results from the poll can be found on the UM Big Sky Poll website at http://umt.edu/bigskypoll.