Mercer On The Move 

New regent brings iron-fisted politics to the University System

Johnny Mercer, the newest member of the Montana Board of Regents, blasted back into state politics last week with his advice to the University System to do a better job of justifying its expenditures and to make a concerted effort to work more closely with the Legislature. On both counts Mercer is right on and the U-sys would do well to heed his advice—at least if they want to start doing better on state appropriations and leave the era of crippling, double-digit tuition increases behind.

While Mercer may be new to the Board of Regents, he is far from a newcomer to state politics. First elected to the House of Representatives in 1984 at the age of 27, Mercer held his seat for 16 years and became the longest-serving Speaker of the House in the history of the state. From his first session, it was evident that the bright young lawyer was a Republican rising star. That he was the law partner of Jean Turnage, respected State Senator and Republican party strategist turned Supreme Court justice, didn’t hurt either.

Most of those who interacted with the Legislature during Mercer’s long tenure will recall the unprecedented four consecutive sessions (‘93, ‘95, ‘97, ‘99) that he served as Speaker. During this time, and with solid two-thirds Republican majorities in the House, Mercer ruled his legislative roost with an iron fist. Although many saw the man as a hard-to-approach political loner, few dared cross intellectual, political, or verbal swords with him. As Governor Racicot found out during their long and bitter disagreements over budgetary matters, John Mercer was an opponent to be both respected and feared. Comes now the same Johnny Mercer to the Board of Regents, appointed by Racicot’s successor, Governor Judy Martz—and with him comes his full knowledge of the state’s legislative, budgetary, and administrative processes as well as outstanding political strategy skills honed by long years of experience. While his fellow regents seemed taken aback and tried to downplay his efforts, for those who know Mercer, it was not surprising to see him reach out before his first meeting to change the agenda and demand answers to his questions on the U-system’s spending plans. Nor was it surprising that, in the end, Mercer got the votes he needed to make sure he gets those answers.

In this case, it was only 1 percent of the recently-enacted 13 percent increase in student tuition that caught Mercer’s attention. That part of the increase, which was already approved by the regents, is supposed to be used for university improvements. Sensibly enough, Mercer wanted to know just what improvements were being suggested before committing the funds. As it turns out, and thanks to Mercer’s questioning, plans for spending the 1 percent aren’t well documented. In some cases, even though the new tuition increase is supposed to be used for improvements, the additional costs of sending our kids to college will be used merely to maintain existing levels of service. Although such a small matter would have been passed over by the rubber-stamp regents of the past, by Mercer’s standards this is no way to run the U-system. If universities are going to charge Montanans for something, then they ought to be specific and they ought to deliver, reasoned Mercer. And you know what? He’s got a point.

For years the University system and the Legislature have had an uneasy, if not outright adversarial, relationship. Under Montana’s Constitution, the Board of Regents has the sole power to determine the spending priorities of the University System. The hitch is that the Legislature must nonetheless appropriate the funds. Every session the Legislature wants more answers on spending than the U-system wants to supply. In light of recent legislative actions, some would tremble to think that the fate of higher education would fall to these dubious decisionmakers. But dubious or not, Montana’s citizen legislators are sent to Helena every two years to pound out a state budget. And when it comes to spending hundreds of millions of dollars—especially considering that much of the money comes from the pockets of the lowest wage-earners in the nation—more information on those big-spending plans is much appreciated by legislators who have to answer to the people back home.

Mercer, by virtue of his long tenure in the legislature, knows this. Which is why he made his second suggestion: That the U-system make a concerted effort to improve communications with state lawmakers. If Mercer gets his way—and I wouldn’t bet a nickel against it happening—there will, in fact, be improved communication, more complete and better information available, and a general warming of relations with the legislative branch. Not to put to fine a point on it, but when it comes to the policymaking game, John’s fellow regents are rank amateurs. Mercer, on the other hand, is a master.

As Mercer told his fellow regents, the University system may be the best economic development engine the state has going for it. Mercer says universities should capitalize on this by implementing informational programs for legislators and other public decisionmakers—especially those who make the budgetary decisions. The regents and those they govern should listen up. Whether they agree or disagree with his politics, Mercer is now a regent on the move. If they listen to John’s advice on this one, my hunch is that the U-sys will reap significant benefits from playing smarter politics.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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