The MT Lowdown is a weekly digest that showcases a more personal side of Montana Free Press’ high-quality reporting while keeping you up to speed on the biggest news impacting Montanans. Want to see the MT Lowdown in your inbox every Friday? Sign up here.

You may have noticed a significant uptick in the sheer volume of Montana-based news arriving in your email inbox each day as we’ve beefed up our reporting staff and added to our freelance roster in an effort to better meet the information needs of our readers. 

I’ve got some more exciting news to share on that front: we’re thrilled to welcome Arren Kimbel-Sannit to the MTFP reporting team. 

Arren’s byline will be familiar to followers of Montana’s political scene, as he’s covered politics, power building and backroom dealing, among other issues, for the Daily Montanan since early 2021. Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed. 

With Arren’s firepower added to our team, we’re doing a little newsroom reorganizing to better serve our readers. For MTFP reporter and data designer Eric Dietrich, that means a promotion to Deputy Editor, where he’ll assist Editor Brad Tyer with coordinating our day-to-day news coverage. Eric will remain our lead data reporter and continue driving our Long Streets economic reporting project, but you may see fewer regular bylines as he puts more time into work behind the scenes. 

With Arren squarely concentrated on politics, we’re giving reporter Mara Silvers space to focus on the health and human services beat, where she’ll be MTFP’s go-to reporter on issues such as Medicaid, behavioral health, abortion regulations and LGBTQ policy. 

These shifts complement the efforts of our two other staff reporters, education reporter Alex Sakariassen and environmental reporter Amanda Eggert. 

We’ve also recently expanded our business team, welcoming Claire Overholt as our new membership and events manager. Based in Billings, Claire is now MTFP’s point person for membership questions and issues. She’ll be a familiar face to many throughout the state as she helps us grow our in-person events and outreach programs.

And finally, Kristin Tessman, who has served as MTFP’s director of development and operations since March 2020 has been promoted to a new role on the leadership team. Kristin now holds the title of deputy director, where she’ll continue to oversee MTFP’s revenue, finances, and operations while assisting me in setting and executing the organization’s strategic objectives.

All of these big changes are possible because of loyal support of our readers, major donors, and institutional funders. Thanks to you, we’re able to bring you more of the in-depth news and information you’ve come to trust and rely on. 

John S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief

Verbatim 💬

“With the housing crisis right now, we’re worried about where legislators are going to be able to live during the session.”

Susan Byorth Fox, the recently retired executive director of Legislative Services Division, the nonpartisan agency that provides support to lawmakers by drafting bills, researching issues, conducting legal reviews and providing IT support. She said many lawmakers actually lose money during the session given their long hours and modest pay, $226.58 a day. A public service ethic and passion, not money, motivates most lawmakers’ interest in the legislative process, she said.

Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Happenings 🗓️

Starting this weekend and running into July, LGBTQIA+ Montanans will be celebrating the internationally recognized Pride Month alongside friends, allies, local businesses and nonprofit partners. There’s a Pride-centric festival, parade, raft trip or comedy show scheduled somewhere in the state pretty much every weekend for the next month and a half. Here’s a quick rundown:

June 3-5 — Pride Month officially kicks off in Missoula with a weekend of discussions and events including a Friday night tailgate party with the PaddleHeads baseball team, a Saturday afternoon Pride Parade and street party, and a Saturday night Drag After Dark show. See for details.

June 9-12 — The Glacier Queer Alliance hosts a four-day Flathead Pride Festival. Events include a Thursday evening kickoff party in Columbia Falls, a Saturday night drag show and a pirate-themed raft trip Sunday. See the alliance’s festival website for scheduling and ticketing details.

June 11 — The Livingston Pride Coalition marks the month with the Livingston Drag Show at the Elks Lodge. All proceeds go to the nonprofit Abuse Support and Prevention Education Network (ASPEN).

June 12 — Pride month touches down in Anaconda for a Sunday of music, food and an evening drag show. Events start at 11 a.m. at Kennedy Commons.

June 20-26 — Billings gets into the spirit with a full week of events presented by 406 Pride, culminating June 25 with a Pride parade and festival. See 406 Pride’s website for additional event details. 

July 2 — Butte plays host to its Pride festivities at Stodden Park at 5 p.m.

July 17-23 — Montana Pride comes to Helena with its annual weeklong celebration complete with a drag brunch, a queer comedy show and a Saturday Pride parade on Last Chance Gulch. Helena’s Holter Museum of Art will be showcasing works by Montana-connected queer artists throughout the week as well. See for more details.

Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

The Viz 📈

Montana University System officials are excited about enrollment numbers from Montana campuses for last fall, figures that show the state’s public colleges and universities as a whole posting their first headcount enrollment increase in nearly a decade.

The uptick reverses a long-running downward trend in Montana and comes despite a national decline in university enrollment numbers, a dynamic the state university system, including flagships Montana State University and the University of Montana, is looking to navigate by working to recruit more out-of-state students.

MSU has been remarkably successful on that front over the past decade, attracting so many out-of-state students that there are now nearly as many non-Montana residents studying on its campus as there are Montanans. UM, which has struggled with a major enrollment decline over the past decade, has been less successful — but saw an uptick in non-resident enrollment last year.

Interested in knowing more about these trends and how they’re playing out on the system’s other campuses?. We’ve published a longer piece taking a look at these statistics: What’s behind Montana’s higher ed enrollment uptick?

Alex Sakariassen and Eric Dietrich, Reporters

Following the Law ⚖️

Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen on Wednesday pleaded no contest in Helena Municipal Court to allegations that she illegally passed a school bus at a bus stop in her neighborhood on May 19. 

Arntzen, who maintains that she doesn’t recall passing the bus with its lights flashing and stop arm out, didn’t dispute the allegation, which was first reported by MTFP on May 25. Helena municipal Judge Anne Peterson fined Arntzen $500, with $400 suspended. 

According to KPAX reporter Jonathon Ambarian, Arntzen thanked the bus driver for diligently reporting the violation

Anrtnzen’s spokesperson, Brian O’Leary, said in an emailed statement that she paid $135 for the fine and fees.

“School bus safety is a very important issue and the Superintendent encourages everyone to be alert and mindful when school buses are picking up and dropping off our children at the bus stop and at school,” O’Leary wrote in the email. “This is a good reminder for all of us to slow down from life’s daily distractions, and to pay extra careful attention, especially as we enter the busy summer season.”

“The safety of our children must always come first,” he continued. “Superintendent Arntzen would like to thank all bus drivers for their vigilance in keeping our children safe.”

—Eric Dietrich, Reporter

By the Numbers 🔢

Percentage of the 471,971 absentee ballots mailed for next week’s primary election returned by voters as of Thursday, June 2, according to the Montana secretary of state’s office.

That figure varies widely by county, with a high of 68% in Liberty County on the Hi-Line and a low of 25% in Glacier County, which includes Cut Bank and most of the Blackfeet Reservation.

—Eric Dietrich, Reporter

Campaign Dispatch

U.S. House candidate Gary Buchanan’s presumptively successful effort to qualify for the Eastern Montana congressional district ballot by petition could — if he wins enough support to beat incumbent Republican Matt Rosendale at the polls this November — put Montana in almost unprecedented political territory.

Nearly all representatives elected to U.S. Congress in the past half-century have campaigned with the support of either the Democratic or Republican parties. A listing compiled by Wikipedia includes six members of the U.S. House who have served as independents in modern American politics, five of whom were initially elected as part of a major party. The remaining congressman, now-Sen. Bernie Sanders, was elected to represent Vermont as an independent in 1991 after an eight-year stint as mayor of Burlington.

Independent U.S. senators have been more common, however. In addition to Sanders, who was elected to the Senate in 2006, Maine Sen. Angus King is currently serving as an independent — though, like Sanders, he caucuses with the Democratic party. King, a former Maine governor, was first elected to the Senate in 2012. According to an official listing, other U.S. senators who have served as independents include Minnesota’s Dean Barkley and Vermont’s James Jeffords.

Eric Dietrich, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Amanda – A federal judge inked the final chapter on a trio of lawsuitschallenging the Interior Department’s handling of oil and gas leasing sales Wednesday. U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras approved a settlement between environmental groups and the Biden administration over the protestation of the American Petroleum Institute and the states of Wyoming and Utah. The federal government has agreed to take a more fulsome look at how federal oil and gas leasing sales — including some leases in Montana that were approved under the Trump administration — impact climate change. 

Alex – Some casual Guardian perusing this week kicked up an intriguing story about what could be the largest migrant caravan ever recorded in Mexico — a group of Venezualans, Cubans, Guatemalans, Haitians and others that could swell to 15,000 people as they depart for the U.S. border on the eve of President Joe Biden’s Summit of the Americas next week.

Eric – I’ve read far too many gut-wrenching stories about Uvalde, Texas, where 21 teachers and students were killed in a mass shooting at an elementary school last week. I’ve had a particularly hard time forgetting this piece from the New Yorker depicting what covering the tragedy was like for journalists at the local newspaper, where one of the reporters lost a daughter in the attack.

*Some articles may be behind a paywall.