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Like all good news outlets, Montana Free Press relies on reader feedback as we gather the information you need to make sense of our state. Your news tips, questions and criticism are hugely important considerations as we sort out where to focus our reporting — deciding on any given day which stories we’ll chase to the button of the rabbit hole and which ones our still-small newsroom will have to leave for another time.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how to be responsive to that feedback as we gear up to cover this year’s elections. Political journalism can often read like an insider’s game focused on candidate posturing and tit-for-tat attack ads and fundraising numbers. For those of us who are part of the state’s political class, either by vocation or hobby, those stories are often entertaining in a popcorn-munching sort of way. I’m less sure they’re always useful to Montanans who are less interested in politics as sport than in understanding what their vote means in terms of practical democracy — what the election of Candidate X over Candidate Y would actually change about the governance we get out of Helena or Washington, D.C.
So our newsroom has been experimenting with different ways to solicit input in an effort to ensure we’re fully attuned to the issues readers like you consider most important this year. Diligent Lowdown readers will remember that we asked for your input on a “rank-your-issues” poll this spring. We used those results to help develop a U.S. House candidate questionnaire for our spring election guide. (See their answers for the western and eastern district races.)
And now, as we noted in last week’s Lowdown, we have another poll seeking feedback on anything you think we missed the first time. We’ve had nearly 150 responses so far from Montanans across the political spectrum. That’s a great showing. We’d love to hear from even more of you.
You can respond to the new poll here.
Our staff, and especially politics reporter Arren Kimbel-Sannit, will mull the results of this new poll to develop the questions we’ll put to congressional candidates in interviews this fall.
Because there are only so many hours in the day — and only so many minutes we can get candidates to spend talking to us — I expect we’ll have to make some hard choices about which lines of inquiry to prioritize. So please, don’t be shy about helping us make the most of the opportunity.
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
Five of the United States’ Top 10 international trading partners are in the Asia Pacific region. As they jockey for position in shifting world order, what’s at stake for Montana and the rest of the U.S.? That question will drive a conversation between U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel, former U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus, and veteran Montana political reporters Charles S. Johnson and John S. Adams. (You might recognize those last two names as MTFP’s board president and editor-in-chief, respectively). The event, sponsored by the Max Baucus Institute and Montana Free Press, will take place at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 12, in the Hager Auditorium at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman. Doors open at 5:00 p.m. Fireside chat begins at 5:30. Reception with light bites and refreshments following at 6:30 p.m. RSVP and tickets required.
—Brad Tyer, Editor
Glad You Asked 🙋🏻
Late last month, we took a detailed look at statewide concerns about low teacher pay and how various lawmakers and public education advocates are trying to remedy the situation. But as one reader reminded us, the pay problem in Montana schools isn’t isolated to teachers. Custodians, food service workers, paraeducators, clerical staff — many of the people who make up the backbone of the state’s public school system are facing the very same situation.
In response to a request for more information, the Montana Federation of Public Employees, which represents teachers and many other public school employees, sent along some data compiled by the National Education Association. And it turns out that all those critical non-teacher positions — categorized as “education support professionals” — make less than the national average as well. The average salary in Montana for such an employee working 30 or more hours a week in the K-12 school system? Just over $30,000.
The information sent by MFPE went further. Paraeducators make up the biggest slice of Montana’s K-12 education support professionals pool, at 37.2%. Custodial positions are the next biggest, at 27.5%, which is 12% higher than the national average. More than half of those paraeducators and custodial employees work 40-plus hours a week.
The situation extends to higher education too, where the average education support professional salary in Montana is $37,338, nearly $7,000 below the national average.
Pay issues for public school employees, as for teachers, isn’t solely a Montana concern. The National Education Association noted in its latest earnings reportthat more than a third of the roughly 2.1 million full-time education support professionals working in K-12 and higher education in the U.S. earn less than $25,000 a year. About 12% earn less than $15,000.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
The Viz 📈
Montana’s Department of Labor & Industry released its annual Labor Day report this week, compiling a pile of statistics alongside more than a dozen graphics illustrating Montana’s economic trajectory. Among them was this graph tracking which portions of the state economy are growing in terms of their contribution to the state’s gross domestic product, or GDP:
GDP, the total value of goods and services produced by a given sector, provides a way to measure how much wealth is created by different parts of Montana’s economy. While sectors like agriculture and leisure are highly visible across Montana’s landscape, it turns out they’re not the most significant chunks of the economy in terms of dollars, trailing behind trade and finance.
The finance sector, including real estate, had a particularly good year in 2021, adding nearly $480 million to its gross domestic product — about $452 for each Montana resident. The presumably remote-work-friendly business services sector has also seen substantial growth since dipping during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
By the Numbers 🔢
Estimated annual amount that Montana’s mental health, addiction, disability services and long-term-care providers have been underpaid by Medicaid, according to a state-commissioned study of provider rates released this fall. The report recommends that Montana increase its reimbursement rates for those providers by about 22% to get closer to covering the true cost of services. If the Legislature adopts those changes in next year’s budget, Montana, which shares the cost of Medicaid provider payments with the federal government, would increase its Medicaid payments by about $28 million annually.
—Mara Silvers, Reporter
Wildlife Watch 🐟
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks lifted 10 river closures in the latter half of the week as a cold front and smoky conditions helped cool down stream temperatures. Going into the week, 16 rivers across the state were closed either to all angling or to fishing during the hottest part of the day due to high stream temperatures or low flows. By Friday morning, FWP lifted more than half of those closures, which are implemented to protect fish from physiological stress and fishing-related mortality. The Sun, Smith, Clark Fork, Bitterroot, Gallatin and East Gallatin hoot owl restrictions have been lifted.
Hoot owl restriction on the Madison, Ruby and Shields remain in effect. All of the Beaverhead and Jefferson rivers are fully closed, as are parts of the Big Hole River. For an updated list of which rivers are closed to angling, visit FWP’scurrent waterbody restrictions webpage.
FWP’s fisheries management bureau chief Eric Robertson said that though smoky conditions can be a nuisance for people, they help fish by reducing the amount of thermal energy going into streams. He added that he expects low-flow rivers like the Big Hole and Beaverhead to see some relief in the coming weeks as irrigators close headgates and the prospect of autumn rain develops.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, which maintains stream gauges on most of the state’s larger rivers and streams, streamflows across the state are very much a mixed bag right now. While much of the state is experiencing typical flows for this time of year, several rivers in southwest and northeast Montana are running well below normal.
USGS researchers recently published a study in Science Advances forecasting how climate change is expected to impact Montana’s cold-water fisheries. They found that 35% of the state’s cold-water habitats may no longer be suitable for trout by 2080, which could result in $192 million of lost state revenue.
“Our findings underscore the importance of maintaining a diversity of cold-water habitats and streamflows that provide options for anglers to move to as conditions change,” study co-author Clint Muhlfeld said in a release. “Such diversity could help mitigate the socioeconomic impacts of climate change on valuable freshwater fisheries.”
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
Public Comment 🗣
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is soliciting input as it prepares a new Elk Management Plan to replace the current one, which was adopted in 2005.
As outlined in a story we published earlier this week, FWP and the state Fish and Wildlife Commissions’ handling of elk management has been an extremely contentious issue this past year. Invested parties packed commission meetings, penned sharply worded editorials, convened new coalitions, and are currently making their case before a Fergus County judge, all in hopes of steering the state’s approach to elk management. But even so, the woman leading the management plan revision, FWP deer and elk coordinator Lindsey Parsons, told MTFP that engagement in the rewrite effort has been less than anticipated.
In addition to holding listening sessions around the state — FWP is hosting them in communities large and small through the end of this month — the department is also accepting public comment on what should and shouldn’t be incorporated in the new plan through Oct. 15, and hosting an online comment session on Sept. 26 from 6 to 8 p.m. Comments can be emailed to FWPWLD@mt.gov or mailed to:
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
PO Box 200701
Helena, MT 59620-0701
Parsons said FWP aims to have a new plan together ahead of the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s next overhaul of elk regulations, which is slated for the tail end of 2023.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
On Our Radar
Amanda — Wyofile’s story about the latest in a corner-crossing lawsuit caught my eye this week. In a filing included in the civil lawsuit against four Missouri hunters, the owner of Elk Mountain Range asserted that damages to his property after the hunters used a ladder to cross from one corner of public land neighboring his property to another corner of public land could top $7 million.
Alex — The death of Queen Elizabeth II — the longest-reigning monarch in British history — nabbed headlines across the globe this week. To understand why her passing commanded such broad attention, it’s worth giving a listen to an hour-long special by the BBC Woman’s Hour examining the decades of constancy and public service that made Elizabeth such a dominant figure on the world stage.
Arren — Anyone looking for a long read should check out this beautifully illustrated piece in the New Yorker about Tina Peters, a county clerk in Colorado who’s become a central figure in the “Stop the Steal” movement.
Eric — Here’s more than you ever wanted to know about the economics that drive car dealerships, thanks to NPR’s Planet Money newsletter.
Mara — As November’s general election inches ever closer, some Republican congressional candidates are trying to soften their campaign messaging on abortion. The 19th has a big-picture explainer of why that might be, and what it means for the rest of election season.
*Some articles may be behind a paywall.