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.
This week’s MT Lowdown is sponsored by:
Among our founding goals at Montana Free Press is to develop a truly people-powered business model as we create a sustainable home for in-depth journalism. When I launched MTFP in 2016, I believed individuals and institutions that value the kind of journalism MTFP reporters do on a daily basis would step up and help fund that work through tax-deductible donations.
So far, that has proved to be accurate. In just a few short years, we’ve grown significantly — both in the size of our organization and in the audiences we serve — primarily through the generosity of individuals and grantmaking institutions. As of this writing, we’re lucky to be able to employ 15 Montanans to serve our readers.
Since its inception, MTFP has been free of commercial advertising. Our readers have consistently told us they value a first-rate user experience that isn’t obstructed by intrusive ads or clickbait.
We will continue to honor that desire by putting the news and our readers first.
That said, as our organization’s size and reach continue to expand, so does interest from Montana businesses in sponsoring our award-winning journalism. These businesses and organizations recognize that MTFP readers are among the most informed and engaged people anywhere, and they are eager to have their names and logos appear alongside our top-notch reporting and analysis.
One of the things that makes MTFP a strong and viable nonprofit business is the diversity of our revenue. Our nearly 3,000 individual members make up a significant portion of that much-needed income. Institutional grantmakers — such as The American Journalism Project, Arnold Ventures, Inasmuch Foundation, Montana Healthcare Foundation, Greater Montana Foundation and many others — account for a significant portion of the revenue we rely on to bring you this reporting each and every week.
We’re excited to add another element to our revenue pie: sponsorships from Montana organizations and businesses. This is a development that will ensure we can continue to diversify our revenue portfolio in ways that help us sustain our continued growth while maintaining the freedom to be aggressive in our pursuit of the truth.
Beginning with today’s MT Lowdown newsletter, you’ll now start seeing familiar Montana brands — such as Blackfoot Communications — recognized as financial supporters of MTFP’s news products. We are grateful for this generous financial support, as it allows us to do more of what you’ve come to expect from MTFP without sacrificing our commitment to creating a first-rate user experience. It also enables us to continue to grow to meet audiences’ information needs while paying living wages to the people who work so hard to fulfill our mission.
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—John S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief
John Engen, Missoula’s 50th and longest-serving mayor, died from pancreatic cancer Monday at the age of 57. The news sent shockwaves through the community and the state’s political circles, with former Gov. Steve Bullock remembering him as “one of the kindest, funniest and most thoughtful people I have ever worked with.” As the Missoulian noted in a story about his passing, Engen won reelection to his fifth term last fall with 62% of the vote.
Throughout his 16-year tenure as mayor, Engen advocated strongly for public investments in open space, the arts, Missoula’s new $38 million library and city ownership of Missoula’s municipal water system — the last of which triggered a protracted legal battle between the city and the utility’s former owner, Mountain Water. Engen’s ability to forge powerful relationships with unlikely allies was illustrated in a remembrance from a former conservative member of the Missoula City Council, Jesse Ramos. Ramos candidly tweeted Monday that Engen had described him as “the most significant pain in his derriere,” adding his thanks to Engen “for your leadership and friendship.”
Prominent Democratic leaders in Montana quickly lent their voices to the chorus of condolences compiled by KPAX this week. Sen. Jon Tester referred to Engen as a “dear friend” and a “visionary who paired a quick wit with an ability to work with people to lead Missoula.” Democratic congressional candidate Monica Tranel called Engen’s commitment to Missoula “inspiring and wonderful,” and U.S. Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning said in a statement that “his service will be felt for generations to come.” Closer to home, Missoula County’s three Democratic commissions — Juanita Vero, Josh Slotnick, and former Missoula City Council member Dave Strohmaier — jointly said that “everything he did, every decision he made, was in the interest of making his hometown a better place.”
Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte also weighed in, calling Engen a “giant” who had “a Treasure State-sized heart for his hometown.”
The city of Missoula will hold a public celebration for Engen 10 a.m. Saturday at Ogren Park at Allegiance Field. The list of featured speakers includes Tester and Bullock, as well as former U.S. Congressman Pat Williams and United Way of Missoula CEO Susan Hay Patrick.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
Two candidates competing for a seat on the state’s utility board took questions from Kiwanis Club members over sandwiches and salads at a Monday event at the Helena DoubleTree Hotel.
Whitefish resident John Repke, a Democrat, foregrounded the private-sector skills he could bring to the post in his remarks while Ann “Annie” Bukacek, a Republican, highlighted her experience with community engagement and advocacy. Both are running for the District 5 seat on the Public Service Commission, which regulates monopoly utilities in the energy, water, garbage and telecommunications industries.
Repke was the chief financial officer for SmartLam, LLC, a Columbia Falls sustainable wood products manufacturer, until his retirement last year. He said he’d be “very focused on the work” of the commission and has no political ambitions beyond serving as a commissioner.
Bukacek, an internal medicine physician who runs her own practice in Kalispell, said she has a “ravenous quest for knowledge” and the ability to employ critical thinking and problem-solving skills to find out-of-the-box solutions. She emphasized the “tremendous amount of energy” and a decade of “grassroots leadership” she would bring to the post.
The use of coal to power the state’s grid garnered a fair bit of discussion at the event. Bukacek highlighted the state’s vast coal reserves and her desire for the state to develop carbon capture technology.
“I’ve been working with some people on a proposition to bring clean coal to Colstrip,” she said, referencing the aging coal plant in southeast Montana. “We can actually do that – there are processes to dissolve the toxins.”
Repke said it’s not the job of the commissioners to advocate for a given electricity source over another. Instead, they should analyze proposals on a project-by-project basis, he said.
“I’ve evaluated thousands of capital projects in my career, and I know how to do that, and I would do that effectively,” he said.
The two candidates also took different positions on the state of affairs at the PSC in recent years. The agency has been juggling lawsuits and staff turnover in addition to last summer’s legislative audit, which highlighted issues attributed to “unhealthy organizational culture and ineffective leadership.”
Repke described recent commission debacles as “anything but disciplined and ethical.”
“I have a different opinion,” Bukacek said. “I’m not expecting to go in there and clean up a corrupt system. I’m going in there and hoping to help Jennifer [Fielder] and Jim Brown make it a better system.”
Brown and Fielder are the board’s newest commissioners, elected in 2020. Their terms end in 2024, though Brown is currently running for a seat on the Montana Supreme Court.
As of Aug. 15, no future debates or forums featuring both candidates have been scheduled. The general election is Nov. 8.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
Seven teepees currently on display near Roosevelt Arch, at the northern entrance of Yellowstone National Park, will be lit nightly through Aug. 28. The lighted teepees, photographed here on Aug. 17, are part of a larger collaborative project called “Yellowstone Revealed” which aims to demonstrate the historical and continued presence of Indigenous people in the Yellowstone region. The project features daily events produced by Indigenous artists and scholars with support from Mountain Time Arts.
Public Comment 🗣️
The Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission this month advanced four initial proposals for a new legislative district map that will take effect beginning in 2024, and is now seeking as much public comment as it can get its hands on before selecting a final map at the end of the year. Commissioners will embark on a statewide roadshow to six specific communities, as well as hold a series of open-to-the-public Zoom meetings. Here’s what to know and where to go:
—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter
On Our Radar
Amanda — Ever since I started learning more about Montana’s Constitution in preparation for the 50th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention, I’ve thought differently about how forward-thinking and unique it is. Earlier this summer I was delighted to stumble across this publication put out by the University of Montana’s Public Land and Resources Law Review dedicated to the Con-Con at a bookstore in Livingston. I’ve found it to be smart, accessible and relevant.
Alex — Montana Public Radio launched a nifty new series this week called “The Big Why,” aimed at answering tantalizing questions about Montana. The inaugural episode delved into where Montana got its nickname, the Big Sky State. Hint: It has to do with a push to boost tourism in the 1970s, and a novel penned by Montana author A. B. Guthrie, Jr.
Arren — It may not be debating a special session to spend down a budget surplus — as Montana is — but the coffers of New Mexico’s state government are overflowing nonetheless, per the Albuquerque Journal, spurring conversations about how best to spend or save in a time of global uncertainty.
Eric — Montana isn’t among the states that rely on the Colorado River for our water supply, but our neighbors down south have a mess on their hands as reservoir levels in the Southwest dip to unprecedented lows. Colorado public radio station KUNC has the clearest story on the topic I’ve seen recently.
Mara — Every once and a while, a really nice news story flashes across my Twitter feed. This time: an NPR story about medical-debt-collectors-turned-philanthropists. The company RIP Medical Debt has purchased and subsequently forgiven $6.7 billion in outstanding health care debts. It’s gearing up for more.
*Some articles may be behind a paywall.