The MT Lowdown is a weekly digest that showcases a more personal side of Montana Free Press’ high-quality reporting while keeping you up to speed on the biggest news impacting Montanans. Want to see the MT Lowdown in your inbox every Friday? Sign up here.
There’s a lot of great stuff in this week’s Lowdown, just below my byline, so I’ll keep this short.
We’re taking a break the week after Christmas to hunker down and gear up for a very busy new year, so there’ll be no Lowdown in your inbox on Dec. 30. The Lowdown will return Jan. 6. We’ll miss you too.
In the meantime, starting Monday, we’ll be publishing a week’s worth of 2022 highlights compiled by MTFP’s reporters and editors at montanafreepress.org. If you’re curious about how a beat reporter makes sense of their year’s worth of news, you’ll find satisfaction there.
And we’ve got some great new(s) stuff headed your way in 2023, including a new season of “The Session,” the weekly legislative podcast by Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio, and Yellowstone Public Radio; and “Capitolized,” a bi-weekly newsletter for Capitol insiders and people who really need to be.
Before I let you get to the good stuff, I would also note that MTFP remains, until Dec. 31, in active fundraising mode. We work with a program called NewsMatch that helps support public-service and investigative journalism organizations like ours. The benefit is that donations made by Dec. 31 will be matched by — you guessed it — NewsMatch, and some especially generous local donors.
Our year-end goal is $150,000. That money pays for salaries and open-records requests and gas to get to Glendive and a thousand other necessary expenses. We’re still about $33,000 short. If the work we do puts something positive in your life, please consider a donation between now and the end of the year.
Thanks for reading, let us know what you’re thinking, and here’s hoping you and yours make the most of the season.
—Brad Tyer, Editor
“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but you move forward, and you respect the process and we try to be consistent with our oath of office to uphold and support the Constitution. It’s deeply troublesome that I think we are no longer doing that, that we are in fact attacking and trying to undermine the Constitution in very many ways, and I regret that my last vote and my last participation in committee is regarding that issue.”
—State Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, addressing the Special Select Committee on Judicial Transparency and Accountability Dec. 22 after Republicans on the committee adopted their report on last session’s inter-branch conflict and voted down adoption of a separate report by Democrats. Sands noted that the votes she took Thursday — against the Republican report and for her own party’s version — were likely the last of her three-decade legislative career.
—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter
Public Comment 🗣️
This week MTFP obtained a copy of a proposed rule change from the Department of Public Health and Human Services that would add layers of red tape for low-income Montanans seeking Medicaid coverage for abortions and prohibit nurse practitioners and physician assistants from billing Medicaid for those services. By Friday, it was posted publicly along with information about its upcoming Jan. 12 hearing.
You might be scratching your head — doesn’t something called the Hyde Amendment prohibit the use of federal funds for most abortions? That’s correct. But Montana is one of 16 states that requires its own Medicaid programs — i.e., state funds — to cover all or most abortions if the procedures are deemed “medically necessary.” That’s been the policy here ever since a 1995 court ruling in Jeannette R. v Ellery.
Starting in 2021, Republican lawmakers and the Gianforte administration have been investigating how abortion providers are applying that legal guidance. Earlier this year, a review commissioned by the health department found that the paperwork providers are required to submit for Medicaid coverage “lacks sufficient information to support medical necessity.” That finding led the department “to reasonably believe that the Medicaid program is paying for abortions that are not actually medically necessary,” according to the explanation of the new proposed rule.
If adopted, the new regulation would require pre-authorization to seek Medicaid coverage for abortion, requiring providers to submit a long list of information about their client’s medical history (including the “number of times the patient has been pregnant and number of times she has had a live birth”). The rule would also allow only physicians to bill for Medicaid coverage of abortions, not other medical practitioners currently providing the same procedures. The department said that change is designed to mirror federal regulations and will help the state “protect the integrity of the Medicaid program” and “protect the health and safety of Medicaid beneficiaries.”
Planned Parenthood of Montana CEO and President Martha Fuller said in a Thursday phone interview that the new rule would “force people to have abortion later in pregnancy” by adding hurdles to a time-sensitive procedure.
“It’s another attempt to keep people from accessing those services,” Fuller said.
In a statement Friday, health department Director Charlie Brereton said the state agency “must ensure that abortions paid for by Montana taxpayers under Medicaid are truly medically necessary, in accordance with the law.”
“We welcome comment on the proposed rule and look forward to further protecting the integrity of our Medicaid program through its finalization and implementation,” Brereton said.
The department will hold a public hearing via Zoom to discuss the rule changes and take public comment on Jan. 12 at 1:00 pm.
—Mara Silvers, Reporter
On the coldest day of 2022, about 40 people gathered at the Bozeman Public Library to recognize Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, an event that takes place every year on Dec. 21, the shortest day — and longest night — of the year.
“Though numbers have not yet been totaled of the people who died while homeless or unsheltered in 2022, we know it will be not in the hundreds, but in the thousands,” Reverend Margo Rinehard of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Bozeman said at the gathering. “The people who have died were sons, daughters, siblings, parents, members of our communities, and all members of the human family. They were people with unique stories, hopes, talents, struggles and dreams.”
Though the memorial has historically been held outdoors as a candlelight vigil, organizers moved it into the library lobby on account of record-breaking low temperatures. The mercury dropped to -43 degrees by the day’s close.
“I’m struck by the fact that we most years have done this service outside,” Roxanne Klingensmith of the St. James Episcopal Church of Montana said. “It was a reminder to me that if we had been outside tonight, we would have experienced, at least for a short bit of time, what it must be like to be houseless.”
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen recently announced plans to hold a “celebration” at the Montana Capitol during the opening day of the 2023 Legislature. The event comes complete with a theme — “Parents as Our First Teachers” — and will feature a panel of parent speakers.
“The parent voice is part of the support for the best public education system,” Arntzen said in an emailed statement. “Education is a generational discussion with parents and grandparents. Join me in actively listening in partnership with legislators and school leaders as this 68th legislative session unfolds.”
Arntzen’s announcement cast the event as a continuation of her December string of public forums in Stevensville and three other Montana communities. And one of her scheduled speakers will be Alba Pimentel, chair of the Yellowstone County chapter of the nonprofit Moms for Liberty. If you’re unfamiliar with that particular group, it was founded in January 2021 and has since made headlines across the country for its involvement in conservative efforts to sideline classroom conversations about race and sexuality, push back against COVID-era masking policies and ban LGBTQ-themed books from public school libraries. All three issues are hallmarks of the parental rights movement both here in Montana and nationally.
Arntzen has scheduled her celebration of parents for 11 a.m., Jan. 2, in the Capitol rotunda.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
Glad You Asked 🙋🏻
Earlier this month, Gov. Greg Gianforte issued a memo prohibiting state employees from using the Chinese-owned video app TikTok on state-owned devices or for state business. Such use, the governor cautioned, poses a “significant risk” to the state and its citizens’ sensitive data. At least 13 other states have enacted similar bans, and Congress is poised to pass one of its own at the federal level.
Social media buzz quickly turned to the potential impacts of Montana’s new TikTok prohibition, including for the Montana University System. While Montana’s colleges and universities don’t utilize the state IT network, individual campuses have taken to TikTok to varying degrees for student recruitment and engagement. The University of Montana, for example, recently reposted a promotional video to the app featuring narration by Academy Award winner and alum J.K. Simmons. Montana State University-Billings has shared nearly 50 promotional videos through its TikTok account starring students, staff and the university’s mascot, Buzz the Yellowjacket.
Will Gianforte’s directive sideline this particular slice of higher education outreach? That remains to be seen. UM Director of Strategic Communication Dave Kuntz told Montana Free Press his campus hasn’t taken any action on the matter yet, as the governor’s memo didn’t specifically mention the university system. Same goes for MSU-B, where Marketing and Communications Operations Manager Shiloh Skillen-Robison said that with students now on break, her team doesn’t have any TikTok content planned for the near future. Both Kuntz and Skillen-Robison added that Montana campuses are deferring to the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education for further guidance.
For its part, Deputy Commissioner Helen Thigpen said the office is currently gathering more information and will coordinate with all campuses “on any necessary next steps.” And those next steps could come soon. The governor did not directly address the use of TikTok for student outreach, but when asked for comment on the application of his prohibition to campuses, his office made Gianforte’s concerns about the app abundantly clear:
“The governor encourages all Montanans, including leaders of MUS campuses, to stop using TikTok to protect their private, sensitive information and data from the Chinese Communist Party.”
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
By the Numbers 🔢
Wind chill temperature recording at Elk Park, Montana, in the early morning hours of Thursday, Dec. 22. Elk Park edged out another bitterly cold reading along the Hi-Line, where a weather gauge registered a -72 wind chill four miles south of Malta on Wednesday, Dec. 21, the official start of winter.
Ryan Dennis, a meteorologist with Great Falls broadcast station KRTV, told MTFP the Elk Park reading is the lowest wind chill recording he’s seen this week. If you subtract wind from the equation and use only air temperature, Elk Park’s reading was still an impressively low -50.
Several other communities around the state set records for low temperatures recorded Dec. 21, including Great Falls, where a 130-year-old record was broken when the thermometer bottomed out at -32.
What’s responsible for the ski area-shuttering, school-closing temperatures? The polar jet stream weakened, allowing Arctic air to spill deep into the North American continent.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
On Our Radar
Amanda — Evidently it’s been 30 years since writer David Sedaris first read excerpts from his “Santaland Diaries” on NPR. I just recently encountered the seven-minute segment inspired by Sedaris’ tenure as a Macy’s department store Christmas elf. It’s offbeat and brilliant.
Alex — I’m pretty sure we can all agree that Wake Up Montana reporter Bradley Warren’s recent stab at weathercasting on Twitter is the most honest — and comical — assessment of this week’s insane cold snap that any broadcaster could come up with.
Arren — Soon-to-be Senate Rules Committee Chair Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, is shelving his proposed amendment to legislative rules that would require the Montana Consumer Counsel to get permission from an oversight committee before testifying as a proponent or opponent on bills this session, according to this report from the Daily Montanan’s Keila Szpaller.
Mara — Huge congratulations to Blackfeet documentary filmmakers Ivy and Ivan McDonald, two of the producers of Murder in Big Horn, a film that focuses on four cases of missing and murdered women and girls from the Crow and Northern Cheyenne nations. The three-part series premieres at the Sundance Film Festival in January and can be viewed online starting Jan. 24. Thanks to Lee newspapers’ Nora Mabie for this writeup in the Billings Gazette.
Eric — Gov. Greg Gianforte’s housing task force put another report out this week, this one focused on housing action the governor can take without necessarily getting the Legislature on board. I had fun comparing its take on the issue with this 180-degree perspective from Atlantic magazine writer Jerusalem Demsas, who argues “The Homeownership Society Was a Mistake.”
*Some articles may be behind a paywall.