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There’s an instinct in the media to ignore — or at least to not amplify — public figures who build their reputations by being loud, cruel, and lucky enough to live in a time when a mass platform isn’t hard to find. In a world where consumer and voter attention is treated as a scarce and valuable commodity, it’s a reasonable instinct.

For example: Writing about the hateful rhetoric of a fringe religious figure may generate clicks for a news organization, but it also runs the risk of broadening that figure’s reach and lending legitimacy to their views. Perhaps it’s better to let them rise or fall under their own steam, without giving them an all-press-is-good-press push.

That strategy doesn’t work for a subject like J.D. Hall, the well-armed Baptist pastor, publisher, activist and libeler whose rise and fall in Montana politics — and in his own community — I chronicled at length this week.

Over more than a decade, Hall parlayed local successes ousting moderate Republicans in Richland County into a statewide platform that gave him access to key figures in the Montana GOP — federal elected officials, state lawmakers, party activists and others — at a time of intense intra-party debate. With the onset of the Trump era, the COVID-19 pandemic and election denialism, Hall found opportunities to exploit internal divides and push the party closer to his fundamentalist point of view.

Meanwhile, he built a national reputation as a polemicist within the Baptist church, attacking perceived liberalism in the Southern Baptist Convention on a series of blogs and podcasts. He viewed the enforcement of theological and ideological purity as twin missions, and sometimes leveraged his own congregation to achieve his political goals.

Many Republicans would have preferred to keep Hall at arm’s reach, or farther. He was pugilistic, relentless, and liable to turn on even his own allies. Still, he found growing levels of buy-in within the party, especially during the last two years, after he established the Montana Daily Gazette to publicize right-wing talking points under the guise of “conservative news.”

I wrote about Hall, who for 15 years was the pastor of Fellowship Baptist Church in Sidney until recent legal troubles saw him ousted from the congregation, because he’s more than just an angry voice with a PA system. And because the story is about more than just Hall. It’s about how a figure on the fringe can insist so fervently on their own power, threatening doubters with fire and brimstone, that people start to believe him, shepherding his views into the mainstream. I wrote about Hall not to add oxygen to that fire, but to document the flames.

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter

The Viz 📈

For much of the summer, most Montana communities were blessed with blue skies — a welcome relief to residents prepared to suffer through a smoke-drenched July and August. The skies grew hazier as September opened, though, with monitoring stations across western Montana posting particulate readings that edged into unhealthy territory.

The Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula was hit particularly hard. A monitoring station in Hamilton recorded a high enough particulate reading to rate the air as “hazardous” the morning of Monday, Sept. 12, and posted “very unhealthy” readings through Tuesday. The situation is especially frustrating for the valley’s school sports scene, with bad air fueling the cancellation of high school athletic games and prompting school officials to pull soccer, football and cross-country practices indoors.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter and Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

Following the Law ⚖️

For anyone tracking the ongoing battle over whether and how transgender Montanans can change the listed sex on their birth certificates, Thursday was quite the rollercoaster.

Let’s start with the ongoing litigation over Senate Bill 280, the 2021 law that required proof of surgery and a court order to update the sex on birth certificates. The suit was originally filed over a year ago, on behalf of two transgender Montanans. But on Thursday, attorneys for the state health department and the ACLU of Montana appeared before Billings district court judge Michael Moses to resolve an outstanding question: what rule was the health department supposedto be following to process birth certificate changes?

Moses seemed highly disgruntled that the question needed to be asked at all. In April, Moses had preliminarily enjoined the enforcement of SB 280 because he agreed with the plaintiffs’ attorneys that it appeared to be unconstitutional. That order instructed the health department to, for the duration of the litigation, revert to the status quo, which, as Moses repeatedly defined it, is “the last actual, peaceable, noncontested condition preceding the pending litigation.” The status quo that was in place before Gov. Greg Gianforte signed SB 280 into law, Moses said with some exasperation this week, was a process created in 2017 which required Montanans to simply fill out a short form requesting a change to the sex on their birth certificate.

But ever since the April order, the health department has done anything butrevert to the status quo. As first reported by MTN News, the department was not accepting any requests for sex changes on birth certificates for a time following Moses’ order. Then, in May, the department created and enforced a wholly new emergency rule dictating that a person’s listed sex cannot be changed unless in the case of a data entry error or with proof of genetic or DNA testing — making changes for transgender people nearly impossible. Then, last week, the department enacted a permanent version of that emergency rule despite an outcry of opposition and scrutiny in public testimony.

On Thursday, state attorneys made the case that the department’s new rule is in compliance with the April order — that it was not, in fact, enforcing any part of SB 280, and that the new policies are well within the department’s rulemaking authority, attorneys said.

Moses wasn’t having it.

“The department was enjoined in all aspects” from enforcing SB 280, Moses said, “and decided to pass rules anyway, claiming that they have the power to do whatever they want, notwithstanding an order of the Court. And that really is unacceptable.”

And so, at the end of a roughly 15-minute summary, Moses issued a ruling from the bench reiterating that the 2017 rules “will apply during the course of this litigation.”

Hours later, the health department issued a statement responding to the judge’s decision. Director Charlie Brereton said his staff has no plans to stop enforcing the rule it adopted last week, and said nothing of any intent to revert to the 2017 standard as Moses ordered. The more recent rule, Brereton claimed, was in line with the April injunction.

“It’s unfortunate that the judge’s ruling today does not square with his vague April decision. The 2022 final rule that the Department issued on September 9 remains in effect, and we are carefully considering next steps,” Brereton said.

As of midday Friday, it appears the entire process remains in limbo. A plain reading of the 2017 rule and the 2022 rule show they are incompatible: one allows transgender Montanans to change their listed sex based on their gender identity — the other does not. Where the department’s stance leaves the legal proceedings, the plaintiffs, and transgender Montanans more broadly, is also unclear.

The most we can promise at this point is to keep readers informed as the saga unwinds.

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

By the Numbers 🔢

Percentage of Montana high school students who tested as “novice” in math on standardized tests during the 2021-22 school year, according to data released by the Office of Public Instruction this week. The figure continues a steady decline in math proficiency over the last six years, with the share of high school students testing as “proficient” or higher slipping from 36.2% in 2015-16 to 25.3% last spring. English Language Arts scores have followed a similar trend, with 42.1% of students assessed as proficient or higher in 2021-22 compared to 52.5% in 2015-16.

—Alex Sakaraissen, Reporter

Wildlife Watch 🦌

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks yesterday released a list of proposals from the 12-member citizen elk management advisory group, which was tasked with bringing “fresh eyes” to issues surrounding elk management. FWP staff evaluated each of the 15 proposals for insight on execution, funding requirements, and any conflicts — legal or otherwise — they might inspire if implemented.

One of the recommendations likely to garner controversy is titled “choose your weapon/season.” It aims to reduce crowding by shrinking the number of hunters in the field at any given time. If implemented, it would require hunters to decide to hunt during rifle season or archery season, but not both. FWP’s enforcement division noted that it’s “likely to be very unpopular with the public and may lead to additional ‘opportunistic’ type violations.”

Another recommendation likely to stir the pot, titled “we have to manage elk where they are not,” is intended to address lower populations of elk in northwest Montana by engaging in more aggressive predator management. It asks FWP to reduce populations of wolves and black bears by expanding the seasons in which they can be hunted and consider the use of activities like aerial hunting of wolves in areas where elk are under population objectives.

The group also recommended that FWP develop a cow-only tag for hunters pursuing their quarry on private land. It would be offered in districts where elk exceed population targets. FWP staff raised concerns that this could confuse hunters by running counter to department efforts to streamline and simplify regulations, and indicated that access to private property, not access to tags, is the problem that needs solving.

A recommendation focusing on “damage hunts” would allow landowners to pull from a list of resident hunters they trust to quickly address forage-loss concerns. The group also recommended that FWP develop an educational course focused on landowner relations and hunter ethics to address some of the concerns landowners have expressed about opening their properties to the hunting public. After completing the course, participants would have expanded access to hunt on the property of willing landowners.

Proposals that are likely to spark minimal controversy include efforts to develop user-friendly data collection methods, create a landowner-liaison position to work with FWP, encourage collaboration between state and federal land managers, and establish localized elk working groups where possible.

Implementation of all 15 recommendations would require an additional 17.5 full-time-equivalent employees and $12.4 million in state special revenue in fiscal year 2024, and $9.7 million annually thereafter, as well as about $400,000 in federal special revenue each year. FWP staffers expect focused game damage tags to bring in about $55,000 in revenue each year. 

More than three-quarters of the total price tag would go toward conducting the in-depth education course. In addition to online lessons, participants would be expected to complete a marksmanship and field training course component.

The department will accept comments on the group’s proposals through Oct. 14.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Roll Call 🟢🔴

A push by a faction of Republicans to bring the Legislature into a special session aimed at passing tax rebates has failed to gather enough votes, according to polling released by the Montana secretary of state’s office this week. A majority of the Legislature — at least 76 members — must approve a call for a special session. Only 53 legislators, all Republicans, voted in favor of this particular push. 

This interim has seen several calls for a special session on a number of issues, though only two have made it far enough to be put to lawmakers for a vote. In the background of the most recent effort is a more than $1 billion budget surplus that some Republicans want to give back to Montana taxpayers (and voters) as quickly as possible. 

In July, Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, proposed in a Missoulian op-ed that the Legislature meet and pass up to $3,000 in income tax rebates for taxpayers who have filed in Montana over the past two years. That was followed by a more specific proposal by Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, to assemble the Legislature and pass both income and property tax rebates. Hertz initiated the special session process last month, asking the secretary of state to poll lawmakers on their willingness to meet in the interim. 

Democrats and some Republican detractors of the proposals said the state would be better served if the Legislature took its time in the regular session to invest the sizable surplus in various state needs, such as mental health care, and criticized the special session requests as election-season ploys to drum up votes in tight races. 

Non-responses to the poll are counted as “no” votes, and lawmakers wary that actually voting no could fuel election attacks often took that route. Several key Republican non-responders include House Speaker Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale; Senate President Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell; and House Appropriations Chair Llew Jones, R-Conrad. 

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter

Public Comment 🗣️

The Montana Board of Public Education approved its timeline this week for public comment on a raft of regulatory rewrites governing the state’s standards for public school accreditation. Those proposed revisions have stoked heated debate in recent months as Superintendent Elsie Arntzen called for the elimination of long-standing ratios for school counselors and librarians based on individual schools’ student populations. A special rulemaking committee failed to reach consensus on new language for school counseling programs, leaving it up to the board to make a final determination.

Per the timeline approved Wednesday, the board will begin accepting public comment on its proposed changes to Chapter 55 on Oct. 7, and has scheduled a hearing in the Montana Capitol on Oct. 31 to collect public comment in person. The comment period is slated to close Nov. 4. The board will draft a response to comments by late November, and those responses will be presented to the Legislature’s Education Interim Budget Committee along with the board’s recommendations on Dec. 7. Beginning Oct. 7, members of the public can submit their comments to Board of Public Education Executive Director McCall Flynn via email at; by phone to (406) 444-0300; by fax to (406) 444-0847; or by mail to 46 N Last Chance Gulch, Suite 2B, PO Box 200601, Helena, MT 59620-0601. Comments must be received no later than 5 p.m. Nov. 4.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Amanda — Tom Lutey’s story about Talen Energy’s plan to buy out a Washington-based power company’s share of a jointly owned coal-fired power plant is the latest twist in the ever-unpredictable future of Colstrip. AP’s coverage related Talen’s interest in developing a wind farm not far from Colstrip. Talen is in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings overseen by a Texas judge.

Alex — Way back in May, my neighborhood along the Clark Fork was buzzing with news about a black bear dumpster-diving in the alley a few blocks from my house. And as High Country News reported this week, the situation has grown steadily worse in Missoula, thanks to the summer’s wild weather patterns and a resultingly poor berry crop.

Eric —  Ever wondered where the trope about disgruntled audiences throwing tomatoes at stage performers comes from? So did this person who posted on Reddit’s AskHistorians forum, receiving in response a 2,000-word answer that cites more than two dozen academic sources in English and French.

Mara — A bill to legalize same-sex marriage at the national level has been kicked down the road. The legislation was expected to come up for a vote in the U.S. Senate this month after previously passing the House with bipartisan support. That vote has now been rescheduled until after the midterm elections, when Democrats hope they can win more Republican support. 

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