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Former speaker says a mouthful
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Former speaker says a mouthful

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Mercer lets his views known at first Board of Regents meeting

PABLO - The longtime speaker of the Montana House of Representatives had some pointed words to share at Thursday's gathering of the Board of Regents.

John Mercer, one of Montana's most influential legislators, wasted no time getting to work as the newest regent.

"Here I am, one of the Board of Regents - coming over from the dark side - now I'm here," said Mercer in his opening comments at the meeting. "There's a whole bunch of work that needs to be done."

Without much further ado, Mercer launched into his plan to make the Montana University system more viable.

First, he said: "Junk the advice from lobbyists - start from scratch." Then he proceeded to outline his vision.

"Have a unified plan," Mercer said. "Don't lobby legislators during the session - figure it out ahead of time."

Communication between regents and legislators needs to be more frequent, more earnest and must focus on all the economic issues facing Montana, he said.

Regents must broaden their discussions and requests, not just for the university system, but to help solve some of the big-picture problems facing Montana.

"There is more to life than the Montana University System's budget," Mercer said. "Let (government officials) know that we are interested in all the problems government faces. … Walk a mile in the shoes with the people we work with. Help them balance it - come up with ideas and solutions.

"Use the resources of our system to solve problems," he said. "Provide resources to anyone."

If legislators or government officials are stumped with an issue, take the problem to campus, Mercer said. "There we would reach out with our faculty and students," he said, and see if there were some answers.

The outcome just might make the current adversarial relationship between Helena lawmakers and the regents a thing of the past, he said.

"We shouldn't have any enemies in public office," Mercer said. "The only reason we have someone who is not for us is because we haven't reached out to them in a proper way to understand what their concerns are."

Mercer also suggested creating a "Leadership College," composed of legislators, K-12 personnel, people from the business community and anyone else who is interested in government and statewide issues, so that they can learn how government works, make contacts and strategize on how to get things done.

"Right out of the bat you start collaborating with each other," Mercer said. "I think it would benefit the state because there is such a massive amount of turnovers - you can't be trained too much."

After Mercer's verbal flurry concluded, regent Lynn Morrison-Hamilton gave her nod of approval to the newest board member, and then added some cautionary words of her own.

Mercer's plan, Hamilton said "is admirable," but "if we talk about extending more services from our campus, then we understand there is a cost associated with that. They are good things to do, but they need a revenue stream attached to it."

After a quick break between agenda items, Cathy Conover, a lobbyist for Montana State University-Bozeman, said Mercer's jump into higher education issues didn't make too many waves.

"His philosophy is not that different from what we have been saying all along - we have to work with the legislators to build trust and show them we can partner with them," she said. "I like the idea of working with the legislators through an institution - through a leadership college. I think it's a great idea."

"With 16 years of experience in the Legislature - he's able to articulate with a lot of knowledge what will work," said University of Montana lobbyist Bill Johnston after Mercer's inaugural. "I wasn't offended with what he had to say. What he stated is what I agree to."

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