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News is often bad. The latest wildfire, the latest scandal, the latest crime.
Some days, all of that doom and gloom can be overwhelming, and I find myself longing for newspaper headlines like “No earthquake today!” or “No shootings to report!” I’m guessing that I’m not alone.
The freshmen in the classes I teach in the Honors College at Montana State University recently read parts of the book “Enlightenment Now” by Steven Pinker. Pinker argues that the world is getting better, not worse, and that we are too consumed by the latest calamities and tribulations to notice.
He points out that if newspapers came out once every 50 years they wouldn’t include a half-century’s worth of celebrity gossip, but more “momentous global changes” like an increase in life expectancy or a decrease in crime rates. Pinker’s premise, I think, is valid, although I wonder if his beliefs have changed since the bestseller was published in 2018. (My students wondered the same thing.)
Pinker puts a lot of the blame on the media. Bad news, he argues, drives subscription sales and internet traffic, and the wheels of capitalism take over.
To some extent, I suppose that’s true, though most journalists I know in Montana don’t put much stock in such concerns when deciding which stories to cover.
Still, positive news often gets overlooked, which is why stories like “Housing Montana Heroes project expanding in Missoula” are notable. In it, Missoula journalist Carly Graf reports about the expanding efforts to care for homeless veterans in Montana. It’s a big deal, and I hope you’ll give it a few minutes of your attention.
It’s also a fine example of the journalism we are trying to do more of at Montana Free Press. We absolutely need to know about the problems in our communities, but we should know, too, about what’s being done to solve those problems, and what we can learn from other communities that have tried to overcome similar issues.
Earlier this year, MTFP received a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network to fund some of that work, and we as a news organization are committed to including such coverage in the journalism we produce. Those stories won’t make you forget the latest scandal or the most recent shooting, nor should they, but it is certainly worth noting that news, by definition, needn’t always be disheartening.
We’re also looking for more journalists to help us produce this kind of coverage. If you’re interested in joining our growing cohort of freelance contributors, we encourage you to submit some information about yourself and a couple of writing samples. We look forward to hearing from you and learning about the stories, the good and the bad, that you might want to write about from the places you live.
—Nick Ehli, MTFP Local Editor
Glad You Asked 🙋🏻
In response to last week’s story about what the Inflation Reduction Act could mean for Montana’s energy landscape, a reader emailed looking for more information on the state’s electricity cooperatives. She wanted to know which parts of Montana they serve, who can become a member, how they decide on their energy sources, and how their rates compare to investor-owned utilities like NorthWestern Energy. Here goes:
According to Montana Electric Cooperatives’ Association CEO Gary Wiens, co-ops serve 40% of the state’s energy consumers and have a presence in all 56 counties. Eligibility for membership is geographically based. Electricity providers work out coverage area arrangements among themselves — sometimes with the help of a third party — and the provider with the closest power line typically serves customers in that area, whether that’s a single residence or a subdivision.
Investor-owned utility companies like NorthWestern Energy and Montana-Dakota Utilities Co. are regulated by the Public Service Commission, which serves as a surrogate for competition to ensure that captive customers are treated fairly. Co-ops, on the other hand, are regulated by a board of directors elected by the co-op’s membership. Board members are typically unpaid, though they are reimbursed for costs associated with fulfilling the duties of the position.
Montana’s 25 electric co-ops each have their own flavor when it comes to securing power supply, reflecting the diversity of their membership, Wiens said. Some demonstrate more interest in renewable energy; others are more interested in fossil fuel-based resources. Wiens said securing power from federally owned hydropower facilities is attractive to co-ops due to the cost associated with that resource, and often co-ops will join a wholesale power cooperative to spread around costs.
Rates vary considerably between co-ops. A rural co-op serving relatively few customers over a larger geographic area typically has higher distribution costs than a co-op operating in a more densely populated area, for example. The average 1,000-kilowatt-hour-per-month residential customer belonging to a co-op can expect to pay 11.8 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity delivered to their home, or $118 per month.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
Back in April, we surveyed Lowdown readers like you on the issues you considered most pressing while pondering your vote in this year’s U.S. House election. We used that input to help develop a set of written questions we put to candidates before the June primary election, and published their responses as part of our 2022 Election Guide.
With the fall general election season beginning to ramp up, we’re looking for another round of input. What more would you like to know about the candidates, and what they say they’d do if Montanans elect them to represent our state in Congress?
Interested in weighing in? You can find our new survey here. Also, if you haven’t seen those original candidate responses yet, we republished them this week for the western district and eastern district candidates who are still in the running.
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
Hot Potato 🥔
The process of redrawing Montana’s congressional and state legislative districts has stretched on since last year, and some familiar themes have emerged just about every step along the way: how to balance priorities of compactness, competitiveness, and Indigenous representation, all while addressing reams of public comment from lawmakers, concerned citizens and activists.
That debate continued in a pair of listening sessions the Districting and Apportionment Commission held this week over Zoom and in Bozeman on four proposed state legislative maps, each representing a different vision for mapping Montana voters into 100 House districts.
In broad strokes, all four maps meet the most basic criteria of minimizing population deviation between districts. The commission’s two Democrats have brought forth maps — HDP2 and HDP3 — they say are more competitive, would more proportionally represent the overall distribution of Montana voters, and provide more opportunities for Native American voters. The two Republican commissioners have proposed maps — HDP1 and HDP4 — they say present districts that are more functionally compact and contiguous.
The issue is that achieving one goal often comes at the expense of another. And, as always, the broader ambitions of the state Republican and Democratic parties are at play, with Republicans just two seats away from a bicameral legislative supermajority.
The Flathead Valley presents an interesting test case. Each of the two Democratic proposals would create a blue-tinted district including part of Whitefish and part of Columbia Falls. The rest of Whitefish would go into a sprawling district that includes much of Glacier National Park, while the rest of Columbia Falls would share a Republican-leaning district with Hungry Horse. Democrats currently hold only one House seat in Flathead County; HDP2 and HDP3 could give them the opportunity to hold two.
“I am most interested in the goal of competitiveness,” testified Lynn Stanley, chair of the Flathead County Democratic Committee, on Aug. 30. “In Flathead County, we’re very lopsided. In the northern part of the valley, I believe that we can address some of that by joining Whitefish and Columbia Falls as communities of interest. They can reasonably be joined in a district, and it creates the opportunity for one more competitive seat.”
The Republican maps, on the other hand, would keep Whitefish in its own safe Democratic district but leave Columbia Falls — which has elected both Democratic and Republican representation over the last decade — in a Republican-leaning district. Critics of the Democratic proposals said HDP2 and HDP3 have similarly contrived districts around other urban areas.
“HDP1 doesn’t split Whitefish in two and put part of it in with Columbia Falls,” testified Lukas Schubert. “Generally it’s also more compact.”
Schubert also noted that under the Democratic proposals, one Missoula-area district would stretch all the way to Alberton.
“These are wildly different communities of interest,” he said. “You have these small town, rural, suburban areas put in downtown Missoula.”
—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter
Barbara Ehrenreich, the Butte-born investigative journalist and activist best known for her 2001 exposé on the drudgery of minimum-wage work, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” died Thursday, her son, Ben, said on Twitter. The “bustling, brawling, blue-collar mining town” had a profound influence on her populist writing, Ehrenreich often told interviewers. Born to a Butte copper mining father and a mother passionate about racial justice, Ehrenreich said she grew up with two family rules: “Never cross a picket line and never vote Republican.”
—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter
By the Numbers 🔢
Years that Joseph Jefferson-Dust of Billings spent incarcerated or on supervised parole after being convicted of criminal endangerment. Jefferson-Dust, a client of the Montana Innocence Project who faced charges of assaulting a minor in 2015 and maintained his innocence throughout the investigation, was exonerated for a parole violation and released from Yellowstone County Jail Tuesday. The Innocence Project took on Jefferson-Dust’s case last year, and spokesperson Randi Mattox said via email that following his recent release, they are now “awaiting the judge’s final disposition of the underlying criminal matter.”
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
Dept. of Corrections 🤥
The Viz in the Aug. 5 edition of the Lowdown incorrectly stated the amount of adult-use marijuana sold on a per capita basis in Madison County as a result of a math error, giving the false impression the area was the top-selling county in the state. The actual per capita sales figure was $68, ranking Madison fairly low among counties currently allowing adult-use sales. A corrected version of the graphic is here — and a hat tip to legislative analysts Erin Sullivan and Dan Kayser for the catch.
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
On Our Radar
Amanda — This piece in the New Republic about the struggle to develop political will around an invisible issue — like poorly performing sewer and septic systems — is engaging and timely, as Montana continues to grapple with toxic and nuisance algal blooms. MTFP readers will recognize the byline: fire season intern Keely Larson wrote it.
Alex — As the criminal trial of Florida’s 2018 Parkland school shooter nears its two-month mark, The Daily podcast this week revisited an interview with several survivors conducted shortly after the tragedy — and caught up with one former Parkland student about her four-year struggle to process what she experienced.
Arren — After four years of processing Bloomberg reporter Jason Leopold’s Freedom of Information Act request, the U.S. Department of the Interior said it has so many responsive records in which former DOI press secretary (and current communications director for Ryan Zinke’s U.S. House campaign in Montana) Heather Swift uses the words “f***ing,” “idiot,” “stupid” and “dumb” that it asked Leopold to narrow the scope of his inquiry, he posted on Twitter this week.
Eric — I’ve been waiting for years to see Montana’s literary scene produce work that grapples with how housing affordability (and lack thereof) has begun to reshape the state’s cultural landscape. As the Missoulian reports, a new play staged in the backyard of a Missoula fourplex may be just the ticket.
Mara — Mental health experts often talk about the importance of destigmatizing mental health care. Just as important? Ensuring there are good services available when someone decides to seek help. This Wall Street Journal pieceexplains the shortcomings of specialized mental health services for wildland firefighters — and what the federal government is trying to do about it.
*Some articles may be behind a paywall.