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Montanans have probably felt a fair amount of whiplash this year regarding the laws governing our elections. One minute, Election Day voter registration is out the window. The next, it’s back on. Student IDs aren’t sufficient at June’s primary polls, then word comes down they’ll be OK to use in November’s general election.
These seemingly constant legal shifts were sparked by changes implemented by Republican lawmakers in 2021 and the pitched courtroom battle challenging them. A district court put all that back-and-forth to bed (at least for the time being) last month, ruling all three contested laws unconstitutional. Even so, voters can be forgiven a little confusion when it comes to what’s allowed and what isn’t when casting their general election ballots this fall.
County election officials have done what they can to alert people about which laws have or haven’t been blocked by a judge’s order, but the picture hasn’t always been clear to them, either. Lewis and Clark County Election Supervisor Connor Fitzpatrick said he felt some “finality” about the status of the laws heading into the June primary — until the Montana Supreme Court reactivated the new laws just weeks before the polls opened. That experience has left him exercising a degree of caution in the lead-up to Nov. 8.
“I touched the stove — ‘stove hot,’” he said of the primary. “I’m pretty sure this [district court ruling] is the last we’ve seen of this until the general, but I’m staying on my toes regardless.”
The suddenness and frequency of the changes — and the stakes they raise for Montanans seeking to access the ballot — are precisely why Montana Free Press has dedicated so much digital ink to this lawsuit. We’ve tracked the status of temporary injunctions through our Laws on Trial tracker and written copious stories about the legal arguments and their ramifications. We’ve also made sure that our 2022 Election Guide is as up-to-date as possible, not just with information about the candidates on the ticket, but with a handy — and again, up-to-date — Q&A-style “How to Vote” page.
Voting is an integral part of democracy, and the people casting those votes deserve to have the freshest, most accurate information at their fingertips, with respect to both the people they’re electing and the status of the process through which they elect them. And if the ground shifts again between now and Election Day, you can bet we’ll be there to spread the word, right up to the moment you enter that voting booth.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
A proposed expansion of the Holland Lake Lodge near Condon has raised concerns not only about the historic lakeside resort, barely visible on the distant left shore in this spring 2021 photo, but about the future of the secluded Swan Valley. Those concerns come as the U.S. Forest Service is wrapping up a public comment period about a Utah-based developer’s plan for the lodge and surrounding resort. Justin Franz wrote about the ongoing controversy this week.
—Brad Tyer, Editor
Former Bozeman-area Republican lawmaker Joe Balyeat was found dead this week in the Bridger Range after officials received reports that he was overdue to return from a hunting trip, as first reported by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
Balyeat, 65, died of natural causes, the Gallatin County Coroner’s Office told the Chronicle. An accountant by trade and an avid hunter, Balyeat was an influential conservative voice on tax and outdoor recreation issues during a legislative tenure that spanned from 2001 to 2011. In 2012, he left the Legislature to work as state director for the Montana chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a libertarian advocacy group.
“The first time I met Joe, he stood up on the floor and made a change to remove me from the Senate Taxation Committee and replace me with himself because he wanted to serve on Senate Tax,” recalls Jeff Essmann, a longtime Republican lawmaker and former Senate President. “His motion failed for whatever reason. I overlooked that, and we became good friends.”
Essmann said he was bow hunting just two weeks ago with Balyeat, who had struggled with heart issues in the past, but seemed to be feeling well.
In 1998, Balyeat was the chief spokesperson for ballot initiative CI-75, which would have amended the state Constitution to require voter approval of any new tax levied by state or local government. Voters approved the measure, but the state Supreme Court ultimately struck it down, citing constitutional conflicts.
As a lawmaker in the 2003 session, he successfully carried another constitutional amendment referral, this time to enshrine the right to harvest wild fish and game in the Montana Constitution. The following year, voters approved the measure, now listed as Article IX, Section 7.
Vestiges of Balyeat’s brand of conservatism are evident in some of the prevailing political debates within the current state GOP. He was skeptical of the state Supreme Court, Essmann said, and a vocal critic of the state Constitution, which he called “one of the most left-wing constitutions in the U.S.”
He was also deeply religious, though he described himself as more libertarian than Christian conservative by the time he came to the Legislature. Nevertheless, in 1991 he published a book titled “Babylon, The Great City of Revelation” that called for Christians to get involved with politics and the public forum, or else “not only will hell prevail against us, but abortionists and homosexuals and humanists and pornographers and tin-horn TV networks will as well.”
“Joe Balyeat was a hardworking senator for Montana taxpayers who brought a lot to the table with his accounting and sportsman background,” Senate President Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell, said in a statement. “He was an avid hunter and outdoorsman and died doing what he loved. He was a fighter for freedom and will be deeply missed.”
—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter
“I’m a big supporter of these early diversion programs. Particularly for nonviolent people that are trapped in addiction, whether it’s a treatment court or other diversion programs, because locking them up doesn’t get them help.”—Gov. Greg Gianforte, speaking in Butte on Tuesday to a coalition of community members working to find local and statewide solutions to curb drug use and overdoses among residents, specifically from fentanyl.
—Mara Silvers, Reporter
Wildlife Watch 🐻
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks announced Tuesday that wildlife managers relocated a pair of 2-year-old grizzlies that had been spending time along the northern edge of the Bitterroot Valley since early August.
The agency said the two bears — a female weighing 172 pounds and a male weighing 230 pounds — probably migrated from the Blackfoot Valley to an area between Florence and Lolo via the Sapphire Mountains.
“Although the bears had not yet been in conflict with attractants or people, they were increasingly spending time near garbage, fruit trees and livestock food in recent weeks, prompting Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to consider preemptively moving the bears,” an Oct. 4 release reads, noting that the bears are likely siblings.
“In consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, FWP staff trapped, radio-collared and relocated the bears to a remote area on the edge of the Welcome Creek Wilderness in the Sapphire Mountains. The site was one that was approved by the Fish and Wildlife Commission earlier this year as a relocation site for grizzlies, when situations such as this arise.”
The relocation site selection has a political angle. During the 2021 legislative session, state lawmakers passed Senate Bill 337, which gives the governor-appointed Fish and Wildlife Commission greater say in grizzly management by hamstringing state wildlife managers’ ability to relocate bears outside of commission-designated grizzly recovery zones. (The measure doesn’t apply to federal wildlife managers — an interesting complexity since grizzlies are protected under the Endangered Species Act.)
Though there’s increasing evidence of grizzly bears traipsing the Bitterroot, there are presently no resident bears in the area, according to FWP.
People and Carnivores Executive Director Lisa Upson described the Bitterroot Valley as “one long, attractant-filled corridor with a really, really busy road through it” that will be difficult for grizzlies to navigate safely. But she also noted that grizzly advocates and federal wildlife managers would like to see the bears move into central Idaho’s Bitterroot Recovery Zone, which boasts historical grizzly habitat with lots of wilderness. Facilitating that migration will take a lot of education and conflict prevention, Upson said.
“Grizzly bears are going to walk into [central] Idaho, and as soon as a female follows a male, there’s going to be a slow development of a resident population,” she said. “It’s going to be a challenge, but if we can work collaboratively with officials and residents, we can make this happen in a way that keeps people safe and bears alive.”
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
By the Numbers 🔢
Estimated percentage of eligible families who are receiving childcare subsidies from Montana’s “Best Beginnings” scholarship fund, which can pay between $35 and $45 per day for one child’s care. A recent legislative audit of the program recommends the Department of Public Health and Human Services update the program to better distribute funds based on financial need and demographic information from each county. Families in 11 counties don’t currently receive any childcare subsidies from the program.
—Mara Silvers, Reporter
Public Comment 🗣️
Montanans interested in weighing in about the work of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s housing task force have the next week to submit comments on a draft report that details ideas for addressing the state’s affordability crunch — mostly by making it easier and faster to build new housing. There are some big ideas on the table, such as subsidizing the streets and sewer lines for high-density housing projects and eliminating zoning designations that restrict neighborhoods to single-family homes, as opposed to allowing duplex and triplex-style development.
The 60-page report is available here and our story summarizing its recommendations is here. Comments on the document can be submitted through the task force website, and the group is planning to submit a final version of the report to the governor by Oct. 15.
If you have a take on the housing proposals that you want us to factor into future coverage, give me a shout at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
On Our Radar
Amanda — I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading “This America of Ours: Bernard and Avis DeVoto and the Forgotten Fight to Save the Wild,” by Nate Schweber, who spent much of September hop-scotching around the West giving readings. Learning about public lands battles of old has given me a more fulsome appreciation of the environmental and land-use tangles coloring public discourse today.
Alex — The name Stewart Rhodes was a familiar one in Montana long before the Oath Keepers founder stepped before a jury to face charges of sedition and conspiracy for his role in the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol. To mark the trial’s start last week, the Flathead Beacon caught up with Rhodes’ estranged wife and son to learn more about the Oath Keepers’ origins in the Kalispell area and the personality that propelled them to escape Rhodes’ influence.
Eric — The Onion, aka America’s Finest New Source, has filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court of the United States in a case over an Ohio man who was jailed after creating a parody Facebook page that mocked his local police department. It’s everything you could hope for and more.
Arren — Helenans have long heard rumblings that former Gov. Steve Bullock is planning to open a taproom in the Queen City of the Rockies. The Helena Independent Record nailed down the details in a story this week. Among other features, Confluence, set to open early next year on Helena’s Last Chance Gulch, will include weekly community conversations and debates called the “Soapbox.”
Mara — Kaiser Health News and NPR published a story this week that made my throat tight — it’s about one North Carolina cancer survivor’s battle against medical debt. That state never expanded Medicaid after the Affordable Care Act, so Penny Wingard isn’t eligible for public assistance. It’s a vivid snapshot of one part of our health care system that eludes logic, and compassion.
*Some articles may be behind a paywall.