The Big Kahuna is back 

What's next for Regent John Mercer?

Two years ago, John Mercer re-emerged in Montana politics when Gov. Judy Martz appointed him to the Board of Regents. I warned in my column (“Mercer on the Move,” July 19, 2001) that this dude was a major mover and shaker, and dubbed his fellow regents “amateurs” compared to the political and strategic skills Mercer had honed during his 15-year legislative career. As for leadership experience, let’s put it this way: his last four terms were spent as Speaker of the House, exercising iron control over vast Republican majorities. His recent successful Board of Regents coup proved the validity of those early warnings, but the question on everyone’s mind now is: “What’s next from Mercer?”

While it’s tough to say exactly what this cagey politico will do, his past actions might prove useful in predicting what’s coming—and in this regard, Mercer’s long political history offers some valuable insights.

Take the case of Dick Crofts, the former Commissioner of Higher Education, for instance. As Speaker of the House, Mercer often clashed with Crofts over the University system budget. Not, as might be expected, merely over the amount of funding, but more deeply and bitterly, over the manner in which Crofts related to the legislative process.

As Crofts knew, the Montana Constitution limits the Legislature’s role to approving a lump sum for higher education, while the fine details are left to the Board of Regents. Crofts, as their representative, fought to preserve that budgetary autonomy.

But Mercer wanted more. After all, it is understandable and totally defensible for legislators to seek out the details on how they’re spending taxpayers’ money. It is also understandable that, as a considerable intellect and the very real leader of the House of Representatives, Speaker Mercer would want to know and understand as much of the “Big Picture” of government as possible. The U-system, with its hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, definitely qualifies as a significant part of that picture.

When term limits kicked in, John Mercer had to say goodbye to the Capitol, serving his fourth consecutive and last term as Speaker of the House, and setting what will probably be an historical record. Term limits did not affect Crofts’ powerful position, however, and he went on to deal with the next Legislature. For the moment, Crofts was in and Mercer was out.

But that changed two years ago, when Martz appointed Mercer to the Board of Regents. The first thing to go was Crofts, who resigned prior to the 2003 legislative session. The regents, following Mercer’s coup, selected the new Commissioner of Higher Education just this week.

While politics normally move at glacial speed, sometimes, like the bursting of the ice dam on Glacial Lake Missoula, a massive flood pours out. The recent appointment of regent Lila Taylor—a former legislator who followed Mercer’s lead as Speaker and is likely to do so now—blew the former majority’s ice-dam to pieces. In the blink of an eye, John Mercer, who had endured a couple years in a two-person minority, came out on top, riding a giant wave of political opportunity. Joined by Taylor and controversial student regent Christian Hur, Mercer installed retired banker Ed Jasmin as the new Chairman of the Board of Regents.

My hunch is whatever Mercer wants to happen next will, in fact, happen. Surely he’s not going to get much opposition on his plan to improve U-system relations with the Legislature through more open and public discussion about their budgetary requests.

But based on his comments while in the minority, Mercer also envisions the University system serving a larger part in the state’s economic development efforts, which is likely to be a lot more controversial. In many ways, especially if you think in terms of resource use and priority, such a move makes perfect sense. In other ways, however, higher education should be just that—education for the sake of knowledge—without the limitations and complications that a duty to act as an engine of economic development will undoubtedly spawn.

Mercer’s plan to convert higher education to a cog in the state’s economic development machine should give Montanans reason to pause and carefully consider what comes next—and again, to reflect on what has passed.

Mercer was Speaker in 1997, when the infamous electricity deregulation bill was stuffed through the Legislature in its closing days. That massive and unfortunate legislation simply could not have passed without his approval and strategic assistance. Likewise, it was under Mercer’s leadership and with his full complicity that hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks were handed out to corporate interests—a move many say is responsible for the state’s ongoing budget miasma.

As Speaker, Mercer was held in somewhat mystical awe for his understanding of the process and nature of the Legislature’s tasks and powers. Nonetheless, I’m betting he never imagined the Montana Power Company would immediately sell the dams and toss Montanans on the pitchfork of the electricity market. Like the big tax breaks, deregulation is part of the Republican free market ideology and was supposed to bring competition, lower prices, and economic development.

It did just the opposite.

Skillful strategist? Absolutely. Powerful leader? Undisputed. Respected and feared? No doubt about it. But right all the time? Unfortunately, that is not the case. Like everyone in the world, Mercer has made some bad decisions. But unlike most others, when John makes mistakes they tend to be big and costly, as evidenced by the continuing deregulation and budget debacles.

Mercer is methodical and will have his votes counted long before they are cast. He will ride this flood of opportunity like the political Kahuna he is, developing a pile of U-system-related legislation to accomplish his goals.

Make no mistake, the U-system is going to move and move fast. But learning from the mistakes of the past, it behooves all Montanans to keep a very close eye on where it’s headed.

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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