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Back in January 2021, an email popped up in my inbox from a reader. He’d seen my recent coverage about the Legislature’s debate on a bill to end Election Day voter registration and wanted to know if the issue would wind up on the ballot. After double-checking the bill’s text, I replied that no, the proposed change would go into effect as soon as the bill was signed into law.

Those sorts of exchanges are par for the course for journalists. We spend so much time sifting through documents, monitoring public meetings and talking to sources that inevitably someone is going to think, “I’ve got a question — maybe one of those reporters has an answer.” Just this week, a Republican lawmaker called to say she’d heard a rumor about a court order blocking four new election laws, and because she’d read my reporting on the issue, I was the first person she figured could verify it.

That’s immensely flattering, and I consider it a point of professional and personal pride when Montanans turn to journalists for accurate information. Answering direct questions is a great opportunity to engage with people, and I do it as often as our deadline-driven days allow. But the benefits run much deeper. As my colleague Eric Dietrich told me this week, reader questions account for some of the best feedback he gets. They tell him whether a particular story hit on all the pertinent details and help inform his follow-up coverage. And I’m in total agreement with Eric that when a reader asks a question I thought my story had answered, it’s an important reminder that I need to write as clearly as possible.

You may notice a new feature in this week’s Lowdown. We’re calling it “Glad You Asked.” It’s another tool in the toolbox we use to keep you better informed. More than that, though, we want to pull back the curtain on how we go about the business of informing readers, above and beyond the stories we post, and encourage readers to keep asking questions. We’re in the information game, after all, and while the knowledge we gather might not be of much use at a trivia night, MTFP’s mission is based on the proposition that it’s of value to you. So keep those questions coming, and we’ll keep digging for answers.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Verbatim 💬

“Chair Ruffatto, members of the Board: Respectfully, you have no rulemaking authority as of July 1 of 2021. And I appreciate your sentiments, but they’re outside your jurisdiction, and advisory only.”

Montana Department of Environmental Quality attorney Kirsten Bowers addressing the Board of Environmental Review during a Feb. 25 hearing about whether DEQ broke state law by adopting a selenium standard for Lake Koocanusa more stringent than the EPA’s guideline. The 2021 Legislature stripped the board’s authority to order such rulemaking.

Amanda Eggert, Reporter

The Viz 📈

Most of the state’s water basins typically reach their peak snowpack in April, making this a key month for Montanans who are watching snow accumulations with an eye toward what they’ll mean for dam operations, irrigation, recreation and the looming summer fire season.

The definitive source for snowpack data is the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, which maintains a network of monitoring sites and produces periodic forecasts.

That data indicates the state’s snowpack is very much a mixed bag at the moment. Parts of northwestern Montana, which pulled out of drought in late December, are nearly at typical snowpack levels. Southwest and south-central Montana basins are hurting, though, with many at or near the lowest snowpack levels recorded in data going back to the 1970s. 

Mountains near Helena, for example, started shedding their snow at the end of March, which doesn’t bode well for nearby rivers large (Missouri) and small (Prickly Pear Creek). Both waterways are currently in the bottom tenth percentile relative to historic early April streamflows.

Interested in seeing more on this data? See the agency’s official water supply data page and an interactive version of this MTFP graphic where you can view charts for the basins we haven’t shown here.

Amanda Eggert and Eric Dietrich, Reporters

Glad You Asked 🙋🏻

“As a Montana resident I have been following the state’s handling of the federal vaccine requirement closely and I am pretty familiar with what’s going on, but there is a lot of legal jargon in the recent injunction order, etc. from Judge [Donald] Molloy. Can you put this in layman’s terms for me?”

First, a bit of context: Several weeks ago, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy temporarily blocked Montana from enforcing its new vaccination non-discrimination law against hospitals and other health care facitilies. The order arose out of a lawsuit challenging House Bill 702, which the plaintiffs — primarily health care organizations and private physicians — argue threatens their ability to comply with a federal regulation requiring Medicare- and Medicaid-funded facilities to prove their employees are vaccinated for COVID-19 or have obtained religious or medical exemptions. Molloy’s order lasts only as long as that federal regulation is in effect.

Yeah, it’s a wonky situation with a complicated backstory. But in essence, federal regulators planned to enforce the vaccine mandate for facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding — think hospitals, clinics and nursing homes — regardless of Montana’s new law. As the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services laid out in January, failure to comply carries some serious penalties, including denial of Medicare or Medicaid payments or even termination of participation in those programs. Of course, any vaccination requirements would have violated HB 702 and exposed facilities to potential discrimination complaints. That’s precisely why Molloy suspended it.

In Montana, April 14 is the deadline for facilities to implement COVID-19 vaccination procedures and ensure that 100% of their staff are either fully immunized or have documented exemptions. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, state and federal contractors will gauge compliance with the mandate during routine or complaint-driven surveys. If surveyors discover any deficiencies, the agency has assured facilities that they’ll have an opportunity to make the necessary corrections before their Medicare or Medicaid funding is terminated. Still, for hospitals and clinics that rely on federal funding, the risks are all too real, and Molloy made note in his injunction that there’s no telling when CMS might drop in for a check-up.

“These surveys are unannounced,” he wrote, “and they include investigations of the facility — including a review of books and records — and interviews of staff and patients.”

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Quiz ✅

It’s time again to test your listening skills on Season 2 of our Shared State podcast.* Anyone who sends in correct answers to the three questions below will be entered to win MTFP swag: hats, mugs, sweaters and more. Let’s get started.

Episode 5: Popularity’s slippery slope

  1. What’s the name of the main character in the 1970’s Whitefish promotional video?
  2. How many new housing units did a 2017 Whitefish study say were needed before the year 2020?  
  3. Who did local restaurant owner Ed Docter call in to help bus tables during the summer of 2020?

Submit your answers using this form by 5 p.m. Mountain Time on Monday, April 11, and we’ll randomly select one winner from the correct entries to send some sweet MTFP gear.

*Yes, we know, there are transcripts available to just look up the answers. We trust you to listen first and verify later. Have fun!

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Amanda Eggert — Energy supply dynamics have turned into a political football since Russia, one of the world’s largest oil exporters, invaded Ukraine. In this Yellowstone Public Radio piece, Kayla Desroches goes beyond the political rhetoric to discuss the larger commercial forces influencing high oil and gas prices.  

Mara Silvers — Even when the subject matter is grim, it’s inspiring to see a media collaboration as strong and well-produced as Sent Away, a podcast from APM Reports, KUER and the Salt Lake Tribune about Utah’s teen treatment industry. It’s a powerhouse reporting project about a critically important subject. Go listen. 

Alex Sakariassen — While taking a break from newsier developments this week, I stumbled across a thought-provoking essay in the Atlantic about a term I’d never heard of: the “third place.” The piece strums a familiar tune for anyone who’s frequented a particular coffee shop, brewery or small-town hardware store in Montana, and serves as a reminder, after two years of pandemic living, that random social interaction is an important part of connecting with the world.

Eric Dietrich — Household-level data collected as part of nation’s decennial census counts is kept under lock and key in accordance with federal law — until, that is, the data is 72 years old. That means that as of April 1 the U.S. Census Bureau and National Archives have opened up access to the original records collected as part of the 1950 census. So far I’ve been able to use their web portal to find then-Montana Gov. John Bonner and the French-Canadian carpenter whose family was then living in my home.

* Some articles may be behind a paywall.