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Sitting in a meeting room at the Capitol this week as an obscure state commission scraped through an acronym-laden agenda, I found myself pondering a question that I still haven’t worked out how to answer:

Am I watching these people make the largest grant in state history?

Some background: The group, the ARPA Communications Advisory Commission, was tasked with forwarding grant recommendations to Gov. Greg Gianforte as the state looks to spend more than $300 million in federal stimulus money on expanding rural broadband internet connectivity in Montana.

That’s by any measure a huge sum of money. There’s been a bunch of deservedly lofty rhetoric from state officials about how it could be a transformational investment for parts of rural Montana that don’t yet have the connectivity necessary for residents to work remotely and adopt high-tech ag practices — never mind binge Netflix. Conversely, if the program falls apart, it could wind up being the state’s biggest boondoggle since the Legislature helped the Montana Power Company commit corporate suicide in the late 1990s.

Given the amount of money involved, the effort has drawn the telecom industry and its lobbyists like flies. The state, which hasn’t previously administered a large-scale broadband grant program, fielded $482 million in grant requests. That’s teed up high-stakes decisions about which companies — and which parts of the state — will and won’t get funding.

Which is where that question comes in.

The grant list that came out of the commission this week recommended an eye-catching sum of $110 million to a single company, national telecom giant Charter Communications, which proposes a suite of projects that generally expand its network in ranchette-rural areas on the outskirts of Montana’s urban centers. (I should note, too, that Lowdown newsletter sponsor Blackfoot Communications, which doesn’t know I’m writing this, is on the award list to the tune of $60 million.)

I’ve spent some quality time with the state budget as a MTFP reporter the past few years. I’m used to seeing the state make grants of tens of thousands of dollars, or sometimes a few million, at a time. For context, in fiscal year 2019, the year before the feds started pumping out pandemic stimulus bills, the grants listfor the entire state commerce department, the agency that does most of the state’s economic development spending, was $79 million. That’s less than the sum the governor could now award to a single broadband program recipient, Charter.

If good reporters follow the money — well, there’s a historic pile of it here. And as the story we published this week documents, the process the state is using to dole it out hasn’t been perfectly tidy. (One Charter competitor, for instance, has argued the broadband commission’s proposal-scoring criteria appears to violate state law.)

Close readers will note that story doesn’t, however, mention my suspicion that the $110 million award to Charter could be the state’s largest-ever grant. That’s because we do our best to stick to verifiable facts at MTFP. And despite a fair bit of trying, I can’t say I’ve figured out how to answer my question. At least not yet.

I haven’t been able to identify one, but there may well be some larger transfer of public money to a private entity somewhere in the annals of state budget history. If you’re aware of something I’m missing — or a way I could verify my hunch — please reach out.

—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

Verbatim 💬

“One of the hardest parts about this job, just in general, is it’s so isolating. I have to self-isolate. I can’t get involved with any kinds of things that are considered political, whether it be social media or whatever.”

Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan, reflecting on the major issues and challenges his office has faced in a recent interview with Montana Free Press. Mangan was appointed by former Gov. Steve Bullock in 2017 and will reach the end of his term on Dec. 30. A committee of four state lawmakers — two Democrats and two Republicans — will begin reviewing candidates for Mangan’s replacement this month. Gov. Greg Gianforte will make an appointment from the committee’s list of nominees, and his selection will then have to be confirmed by a majority of the state Senate.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Hot Potato 🥔

Newly minted House Rules Committee Chair Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, said this week that legislative rules are a “contentious issue” every session.

That may be putting it lightly. The biennial process of amending the legislative rules — the documents that lay out protocol, parliamentary procedure, leadership roles and more — is a bloody one. The ideological and political aspirations of not just the major parties but also individual members and factions are laid bare, divorced from any explicit policy. The rules are not bills, but they may determine whether a given bill ever makes it out of committee. The rules, as much as they are about decorum, are also about control.

This week’s process to adopt amendments to House and Senate rules ahead of formal votes in the opening days of the session, though not quite as dramatic as in some years past, was no different.

That was especially true in the House Rules Committee, where lawmakers wrestled over a fundamental question of political representation: How (or whether) to balance the supermajority mandate that voters gave Republicans this November with the desires and ideological leanings of individual members and their constituents. To put it in more practical terms: To what degree should Democrats and dissenting Republicans be able to use the rules to advance their agendas?

The debate manifested in seven proposed amendments from Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, a comparative moderate from a purple-red district that’s relatively urban by Bitterroot Valley standards. Bedey’s amendments would lower the vote threshold to “blast” bills that died in committee onto the floor from three-fifths to a simple majority, do the same for votes to reconfigure committees, and give individual lawmakers the ability to propose a new slate of committee assignmentsif the Legislature votes down the picks of the House Speaker, among other proposals. Bedey, for context, was part of the coalition that backed Knudsen for the speakership over its eventual recipient, Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, a relative hardliner.

“The rules are not about protecting the power of the majority party, or of the wishes of the people that voted for the majority party,” Bedey said in committee. “This is to govern the rules for all of us, to make sure the voices of all Montanans are heard.”

He said he would have brought several of the changes on principle, no matter who was in leadership. He has a prejudice, he said, toward the “diffusion of power.” But the ever-present factional divide between staunch right-wing conservatives and Republicans more amenable to bipartisanship are hard to ignore. The proposed changes would allow the latter group to leverage the lowered vote thresholds against the former. Reviving a dead bill from committee with a three-fifths vote is a difficult proposition. Doing so with a simple majority composed of Democrats and moderate Republicans is easier.

The proposals were pilloried by several other Republicans on the committee who painted Bedey as attempting to subvert the authority of the Speaker.

“When I think about this majority vote and excluding the speaker from his job into bringing order, I think of historically a democracy, where you have mob rule, where 51% can take away rights of the other 49,” said Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade. “When I look at this, I can envision a process where we have more chaos than a process that has at least brought order by an individual who was elected by the body to bring that order just as the Constitution and the rule of law brings order to our society.”

Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Glendive, put it just as explicitly in his public comments to the committee: “Empowering the minority at the expense of the majority is only acceptable in the eyes of the minority.”

When it came time for executive action, only three of Bedey’s amendments came to a vote and passed, none of which proposed sweeping changes to vote thresholds. He said the debate brought forth “relevant considerations” that led him to abandon his other proposals, at least for now. He left open the possibility that he or another lawmaker could revive the amendments during the session.

But he can’t put the pin back in the grenade he lobbed.

“Rep. Bedey, you’re luckily done here for the day, huh?” Knudsen asked after debate settled on the last of Bedey’s proposals.

“In more ways than one, probably,” came the response.

Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter

Viewshed 🌄

Credit: Cameron Evans / MTFP

“For decades, warm water fans have trekked through rain, snow and ice to soak under the stars in the natural pools at Weir Creek Hot Springs just across the Montana border in Idaho,” MTFP Local correspondent Cameron Evans wrote in this week’s story about the popular winter hotspot. “But the days of relaxing under the stars at Weir are over, and soakers who attempt to stay past 8 p.m. may now be ticketed, according to the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests.”

“Unfortunately, a significant portion of the visitors to these hot springs do not follow responsible recreation guidelines, and some choose to participate in illegal behavior,” Brandon Knapton, Lochsa-Powell District Ranger, said in a release. “Sanitation, vandalism and natural resource damage complaints are common. These issues range from littering and dispersed camping violations to illegal drug and alcohol use and improper human waste disposal.”

Brad Tyer, Editor

Glad You Asked 🙋🏻

On the heels of recent public meetings and full-page newspaper ads encouraging resistance to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes-Montana Water Compact, we received a reader question asking whether the compact is a done deal or still winding through the various approvals required for it to become the law of the land.

There’s some truth to both assessments. The Flathead Reservation Water Management Board began sorting out water rights issues within reservation boundaries after U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland ratified the settlement in September 2021 — an action that followed compact approval by the Montana Legislature, U.S. Congress, the Trump administration and the CSKT tribal council. But the compact, which packages federally reserved tribal water rights in about a dozen basins west of the Continental Divide into one massive agreement to reduce the expensive and time-intensive adjudication of individual water rights, also deals with off-reservation water rights.

The Montana Water Court, one of the compact’s final hurdles, is still accepting comments on the compact, and will likely order a hearing so that parties supporting or objecting to the compact can make their case before a judge. The water court’s authority is limited, though: Judge Stephen Brown can vote up or down on the settlement, but can’t really modify it. Judge Russell McElyea, one of Brown’s colleagues at the Montana Water Court, said that if prior tribal water compacts suggest a reliable forecast, Brown will issue a decision in two to three years.

If Brown votes the agreement down, the decades-in-the-making compact goes back to the drawing board and is effectively “void.” If Brown approves it, the water court will issue a preliminary decree codifying the water rights changes proposed in the compact. That would also mean that large federal projects included as part of the settlement — rehabilitation of the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project, for example — can move forward.

It’s worth noting that parties opposed to the compact could appeal an approval decision to the Montana Supreme Court, and from there, potentially, the U.S. Supreme Court. In other words, it could be a while before the compact’s fate is finally, decisively, irrevocably settled. In the meantime, Compact Implementation Program Manager Arne Wick with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said the department has been fielding “a lot” of calls about the compact.

Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Public Comment 🗣️

The Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission is in the final stages of drawing new legislative districts that will in part shape election results for a decade beginning in 2024.

Earlier this month, the commission advanced the district map favored by Democrats on a 3-2 vote. But that map isn’t final. Though the two sets of partisan commissioners have signaled that there’s little room left for negotiations, they’ve all said they’re at least willing to try to reach consensus, a key priority of commission chair and tie-breaking vote Maylinn Smith.

Republicans, in particular, will likely look to rejigger the map’s configurations in urban areas like Missoula and Bozeman, which are set to heavily favor Democrats under the proposal adopted last week.

And they’ll be taking into account public comment from Saturday, Dec. 10, one of the final opportunities for the public to chime in on the decennial process. The commission is soliciting feedback on the proposed House districts, as well as possible pairings of House districts into Senate districts. On Thursday of next week they’ll take another vote, this time on both the House districts and the Senate pairings.

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter

Wildlife Watch 🐻

In anticipation of eventual delisting, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has produced a proposal to guide grizzly bear management in Montana, which is home to more than half of the Lower 48’s grizzlies.

In an introduction to an Environmental Impact Statement accompanying the plan, FWP Director Henry “Hank” Worsech said the proposal forwarded by FWP will support a more coordinated approach, increase clarity surrounding state management of grizzlies, and strengthen the regulatory mechanisms required for grizzlies to be delisted.

On Tuesday, FWP announced the release of three versions of the plan: a 217-page draft proposal, a 202-page environmental impact statement analyzing potential outcomes if the state adopts the plan, and a 15-page FAQ that highlights some of the plan’s key directives.

Three pieces of the plan that are likely to garner considerable interest include the state’s strategy for handling bears that stray outside of established recovery zones, how wildlife managers will deal with bears that come into conflict with humans by, say, killing livestock or damaging property, and whether FWP will support a grizzly bear hunting season.

Before being driven to near-extinction in the 20th century, grizzly bears were widespread in North America, ranging from the Pacific Coast to the Mississippi River. Though wildlife conservationists celebrate the fact that grizzly populations are growing and dispersing, that same recovery puts wildlife managers in the difficult position of mitigating conflicts between humans and bears as the two species push further into each others’ habitats.

USFWS has identified four grizzly bear recovery zones located at least partially in Montana. The August 2020 report, produced by the Grizzly Bear Advisory Council, stresses the importance of achieving connectivity between these recovery zones.

FWP’s plan recommends that grizzlies wandering east of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem be “tolerated only insofar as they remain conflict free” and says “grizzly bear presence would not be an objective in areas far from their largely mountain habitats and in prairie habitats where agricultural development predominates.”

The plan includes squishy language regarding population objectives, saying the development of statewide minimum, maximum or optimum population objectives “would not be useful.”

The proposal also says grizzlies could be subject to a recreational hunt if the governor-appointed Fish and Wildlife Commission establishes one. Such hunts “would most likely be focused on (although not restricted to) areas where connectivity is unlikely,” the plan continues.

FWP is accepting comments on the plan and environmental impact statementthrough Jan. 5.

Amanda Eggert, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Amanda — Hat tip to Montana Water Court Judge Russ McElyea for flagging this Washington Post story about the dire situation facing Western states dependent on the rapidly diminishing Colorado River for water and power.

Alex — Back in 2014, I had the incredible opportunity to interview Montana pro skier Maggie Voisin ahead of her Olympic debut at the Winter Games in Sochi. She’s made a big name for herself on the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team since then, but as the Flathead Beacon’s Maggie Dresser wrote in a recent profile, Voisin’s career has been marked not just by X Games medals but by personal challenge and family loss.

Arren — I’m a sucker for the emotional nuance and moral ambiguity in the great spy novels of David Cornwell, better known as John le Carré, as was my late father, from whom I received several old le Carré editions. No surprise, then, that I found myself engrossed in this essay from The Baffler examining le Carré’s work and life through the lens of his troubled relationship with his father, a philandering, violent con man. (My dad, I should note, was neither of those things).

Mara — This New York Times feature profiles a financially strapped rural hospitalin Idaho considering whether to accept a financial lifeline from Congress, even if it means discontinuing inpatient care. It’s worth the read. And if you know about any Montana hospitals in the same circumstance, I’d love to hear from you.

Eric — There’s been a lot of internet nerd chatter the last few weeks about the implications of GPT-3, an artificial intelligence system that has gotten advanced enough to spit out prose (and poetry!) that looks like it came from a mediocre human writer. One consequence? The traditional college essay could be toast.

*Some articles may be behind a paywall.