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By the time you read this, ballots for Montana’s June 7 primary election should be in the mail to anyone who’s registered as an absentee voter, kicking off the first wave of voting in the democratic process Montanans will use to pick our next batch of congressional representatives, state legislators, utility board commissioners and Supreme Court justices.

One of the most important things we aim to do here at Montana Free Press is produce journalism that informs Montana voters throughout our biennial election seasons. It’s our job to deliver information you can use to cast a confidently informed vote when you head to the polls or sit down at your kitchen table to fill out your ballot.

That’s why we’ve launched our Election Guide ’22 this week. It contains candidate biographies, campaign finance figures, U.S. House candidates’ positions on the most important issues facing the state and nation in their own words, and our ongoing coverage of election season. We’ve focused particularly on congressional candidates this year — the first election in decades the state has been allocated not one but two seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

This guide is a different sort of journalism than shoe-leather campaign coverage, the sort of reporting that involves following candidates around with notebooks and tape recorders, listening to stump speeches and looking for chances to ask pointed questions. When we asked readers for input on our campaign coveragea few weeks back, many of you said you want us to cover Montana’s candidates that way — and between now and the general election in November, we will. 

With this election guide, though, we’ve taken your suggestions and used them to draft 11 questions that we put to the U.S. House candidates in writing. We asked for their take on topics ranging from health care and housing policies to whether they support new abortion legislation if Roe v. Wade is overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. You can find each candidate’s answers on their page in the guide.

A questionnaire approach like this has pros and cons. On the plus side, it gives us a way to get nearly everyone in the congressional races on the record about key issues, especially lower-profile candidates who sometimes have a hard time getting a fair hearing for their ideas. On the other hand, savvy candidates — or those with money to hire savvy campaign staff — can nearly always find a way to dodge a written question if they believe a straight answer would be politically inexpedient.

But we have faith in the savviness of our readers, too. Since we’re publishing their responses in full, you can draw your own conclusions about how thoroughly the candidates competing for your vote have answered — and where you think it’s fair to draw the line between obfuscation and artful political finesse.

As always, we’d love to hear your feedback.

—Eric Dietrich, Reporter

Verbatim 💬

“I left in shock. Four patients to a room. No electronic medical records. Chronically understaffed. Chronic lack of training. Staff members pulling me aside in the hallways begging for change … The building is decrepit. Obvious ADA violations literally everywhere. Nonfunctioning security system — doors flying open in the wind. Renovating it would be pointless. This is how we treat Montanans living with dementia? With an 800 million dollar budget surplus? I am disgusted.”

State Rep. Danny Tenenbaum, D-Missoula, in a statement sent to Montana Free Press after a May 11 tour of the Spratt Unit for elderly patients with dementia at the state psychiatric hospital in Warm Springs.

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

Viewshed 🌄

Credit: Jackson Rohleder/MTFP

Photographer Jackson Rohleder, a student at Montana State University, took this stunning photo of Lone Peak and Big Sky Resort from the ridge of Beehive Basin earlier this winter. The hike into Beehive isn’t easy (tourists get turned around on the most pleasant of days), so to get to the ridge overlooking the basin in winter is quite a feat, even for accomplished backcountry skiers. Rohleder’s photo accompanies “How Montana ski areas are adapting to climate change” by Gabe Barnard, editor of MSU’s student newspaper, the Exponent. Barnard’s article details what scientists believe climate change will mean for Montana and its ski areas and the steps those areas are taking to protect their greatest assets. 

Nick Ehli, MTFP Local Editor

The Viz 📈

Weed will be back on the ballot in parts of the state this June as a result of the non-medical adult-use marijuana policy passed by the Montana Legislature last year. Voters in 12 Montana counties will decide whether to implement a 3% local tax on marijuana sales. Meanwhile, voters in Granite (Philipsburg) and Yellowstone (Billings) counties will decide whether to exercise their option to prohibit adult-use sales outright (Billings voters already approved a ban on shops inside city limits during their 2021 municipal election).

Last year’s law barred marijuana businesses from operating in 27 counties where a majority of voters rejected the 2020 ballot measure that legalized recreational use, but left the door open for county residents to petition for and vote to legalize adult-use sales. None of those counties are slated to revisit the issue on their primary ballots next month. Adult-use sales are currently legal in 29 counties in Montana, and possession of up to one ounce of marijuana remains legal statewide for people 21 and older.

(Got more questions? Check out MTFP’s comprehensive Montana Marijuana FAQ.)

In the 12 counties looking to add a local tax option to adult-use and medical marijuana sales, half the money would go to the county’s coffers, 45% would be split among towns and cities based on population, and the remaining 5% would go to the state to cover administrative costs. Dawson (Glendive), Park (Livingston) and Yellowstone counties have already implemented such a tax, while Missoula County has an existing tax exclusively on adult-use sales.

—Alex Sakariassen and Eric Dietrich, Reporters

By the Numbers 🔢

Number of discharge permits flagged by the Environmental Protection Agency for water quality concerns in a review of the state’s permitting process over the past two years.

In a May 6 memo, EPA evaluated 19 permit applications submitted by dischargers to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality after a state law directing DEQ to scrap numeric standards for nitrogen and phosphorus went into effect. Most of the permits included limits for those pollutants that EPA deemed protective for designated uses such as recreation, aquatic life and irrigation, but the federal agency identified issues with about one-third of the permits.

EPA found that permits proposed or issued to Sidney Sugars and wastewater treatment plants in Cut Bank, Jordan and Twin Bridges were not protective of water quality, and that DEQ insufficiently analyzed the polluting potential of permits issued to wastewater treatment plants in Helena, Choteau and Manhattan. All seven of those permits have since been withdrawn.

The EPA analysis — which found that DEQ “rarely used the available nutrient research” and “has not followed a consistent approach” in its assessments — underpins the agency’s decision to reverse Montana’s 2021 Legislature-driven shift to narrative water quality standards

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Mara Silvers — Scores of people across the U.S. are awaiting a SCOTUS ruling in June that will decide the fate of Roe v. Wade. But the landscape for abortion access is already shifting rapidly. As this piece from the Wall Street Journal explains, a post-Roe America will likely also include massive industry upheaval in reproductive medicine. 

Amanda Eggert — Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the state Fish and Wildlife Commission are in the crosshairs of United Property Owners of Montana, according to a story in Helena’s Independent Record this week. UPOM filed a lawsuit in April seeking to force FWP and the commission to scrap their elk hunting regulations and develop a plan to “remove, harvest or eliminate thousands of elk” as expediently as practical to address overabundance in some districts. They’ve argued that the animals are damaging private property.

Alex Sakariassen — Last year, state lawmakers put their stamp of approval on the long-sought establishment of an independent Bitterroot Valley Community College in Hamilton. But as the Ravalli Republic reports, that effort hit another roadblock this month when area voters rejected a request for operational funding, prompting the University of Montana to reaffirm its commitment to offering classes at its Hamilton satellite, Bitterroot College. 

Eric Dietrich — Baby formula appears to have become the latest COVID-economy shortage to frustrate American families. This story from Politico is the most thorough coverage I’ve seen.

Brad Tyer — Sometimes it feels like the algorithms are just toying with you. I don’t know how else to explain why this summer 2019 piece in The Atlantic suddenly resurfaced in my feeds this week, but with a headline like “Your Professional Decline is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think,” resisting the click was futile. There’s a lot of food for panic between the lede and some late-breaking silver lining, but I recommend my mid-life compatriots read through the bitter to the end. 

* Some articles may be behind a paywall.