- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 25, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - The National Education Association is spending $528,000 to defeat a Montana ballot initiative that would authorize the state to issue $200 million in bonds over the next decade for research into brain injuries and illnesses.

The Oct. 5 and Oct. 19 contributions to the anti-Initiative 181 ballot committee Montanans for Fiscal Responsibility allows the committee to buy television and radio ads, and send mail to voters urging them to reject the measure. The ballot committee had only $600 in the bank prior to the national group’s infusion of cash.

The ballot measure would authorize state bonds amounting to $20 million a year for 10 years to fund research grants that promote therapies and cures for brain diseases, brain injuries and mental illnesses. The Legislature would approve the bonds and a new non-legislative panel called the Montana Biomedical Research Authority would award the grants.

“It’s meant to be a game changer,” said MEA-MFT president Eric Feaver, the head of the state’s largest labor union and the man who solicited the NEA donation. “I hope it’s not too late to bring people’s attention to the various serious problems (the initiative) raises.”

Opponents such as Feaver said going into that much debt for a research measure could jeopardize future funding for certain state government programs, such as a much-needed capital infrastructure bill.

“Here we have a ballot initiative that could suck all the air out completely,” Feaver said. “I don’t want to see any more obstacles to a major infrastructure bill. Consequently, that’s why we’re opposed.”

Randy Gray, who leads Montanans for Research and Cures, the ballot committee promoting I-181, acknowledged that his group doesn’t have the resources to match the opposing group’s spending. The group had $3,992 left in the bank, according to campaign finance reports released this week.

“That’s just astonishing,” Gray said. “Five hundred thousand dollars at the last minute hopefully doesn’t buy an election in Montana.”

Gray and supporters of the measure say Montana’s aging population makes finding cures for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s especially important to residents here, and the state has scientists already working in those areas.

“All this does is increases and stabilizes funding for those scientists already here,” Gray said.

NEA officials did not return queries for comment. The national organization has also made contributions to the state’s Democratic statewide candidates and Republican Attorney General Tim Fox, along with Supreme Court candidates Dirk Sandefur, Mike McGrath and Jim Shea.

Democratic state Sen. Dick Barrett of Missoula, who is the treasurer of Montanans for Fiscal Responsibility, said there are more reasons to oppose the measure than simply the $200 million in bonds. There would be no checks on how the money is spent and the taxpayers wouldn’t be repaid if the research results in any kind of income-producing treatments, he said.

Feaver added that the measure, if it passes, would set a bad precedent for appropriating state money through the voter initiative process.

Gray said those concerns are misplaced and that both infrastructure and brain research can be funded.

“This is a false choice that the opponents are trying to convey to the people of Montana, that they can only do one or the other,” he said.

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