Montana Free Press is taking an out-of-office holiday break Dec. 26-30. Instead of new stories, we’ll be publishing MTFP editors’ and reporters’ looks back at their most impactful, interesting, challenging, and just plain favorite stories of the past year. Today is Eric Dietrich’s turn.
I kicked off the year with an in-depth look at Constitutional Initiative 121, a California-inspired ballot initiative that would have upended Montana’s property tax system so dramatically it managed to get the realtors’ association and the public employees union on the same side of a fiscal policy issue. (Proponents, who ultimately couldn’t clear a signature-gathering threshold, called it an effort to keep rising taxes from pushing longtime homeowners from their homes.)
In May, I helped my MTFP colleague Amanda Eggert take a tough look at Gov. Greg Gianforte’s Come Home Montana program, a get-those-grandkids-moving-home marketing initiative that ran headlong into public concern over the state’s housing crisis. A subsequent records request-based story from me documented that concerns about the campaign extended to the staff at the state agency that was managing it.
By summer, the governor had joined the chorus of Montana voices treating housing affordability as a key cost-of-living concern for Montana families, convening a housing task force. As the governor discussed some of the task force’s ideas at a construction site in Bozeman this fall, we noticed that he was holding his press conference at a self-described luxury apartment complex. We’ll be watching how that task force’s recommendations, most notably making it quicker and easier to build new homes by limiting local government regulations, feed into debate as the Montana Legislature meets next year.
One of the governor’s other signature issues, broadband connectivity, also consumed a big chunk of my reporting time this year as state officials worked out how to spend what has ended up being more than $300 million in federal stimulus money on an effort to expand rural internet access. Despite concerns from small Montana internet providers about the $110 million allocated to big-dog telco Charter Communications, Gianforte authorized those grants Dec. 14.
I also got to have a little fun in the office this year, especially playing with data visualizations for our weekly email newsletter, the MT Lowdown. One week, I looked at whether Democrat- or Republican-leaning state legislative districts have grown their populations faster. Another week, I plotted where and when this year’s fire season brought Montana hazy skies.
My favorite graphic of the year by far, though, came from last winter, when a slow news week egged me into pulling data on an age-old Montana identity question, the one about whether the state still has more cows than people (answer: yes).