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On Wednesday, I accompanied MTFP founder John Adams to the state Capitol building to set up a spread of Jimmy John’s sandwiches, single-serving chip bags and bottled water in the room that once served as the state Supreme Court chambers. We’d extended an open invitation to state lawmakers and the Capitol press corps to join us for lunch.
2023 is the fourth Montana Legislature that MTFP’s reporters will cover, and a lot has changed since the 2017 session. John had founded Montana Free Press the previous year in large part to help bolster coverage of state government with the ranks of the Capitol press corps dwindling. Happily, that’s no longer the case. In addition to MTFP’s five reporters, journalists from Lee newspapers’ Montana State News Bureau, Montana Public Radio, the Associated Press, MTN News, the Daily Montanan, Kaiser Health News and the University of Montana’s Legislative News Service (apologies if I’m forgetting anyone!) took turns at the podium introducing themselves to the assembled lawmakers. And then we stepped away from the mic and mingled with dozens of legislators both seasoned and new, Republican and Democrat, press-shy and stage-savvy. Relationships may not be literally everything in the Capitol, but they count for a lot, and trust between reporters and the people we cover is a key component in getting it right.
And getting it right is the key component in the media’s trust with readers — the reason all those reporters are working so hard to build relationships inside the Capitol in the first place.
Montana Free Press will be covering the 68th Montana Legislature from a variety of angles in the coming months.
- Starting next week, look for “The Session” podcast, our weekly collaboration with Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio, airing on both those stations and available at montanafreepress.org every Monday.
- Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon we’ll be sending our new “Capitolized” email newsletter, with its insider view of how your elected representatives are conducting the people’s business.
- Next week we also plan to launch our new and improved “Capitol Tracker,” compiling all the data you need to know about your legislators and the bills they’ll be debating on your behalf.
And of course there will be the stories — in-depth, accurate, probing and fair — unearthed by our reporters as they roam the halls and work the phones in search of answers to the whos, whats, whens, wheres, hows and whys of representative democracy in action.
Why? Because readers tell us it’s important. And on that note, I’d like to invite you to join a conversation with us about who, what, when, where, how, and why at the Legislature is most important to you. The Capitol can be a bubble where big personalities and arcane procedures obscure why what happens inside matters. Just as we can do our jobs better by being connected to lawmakers, we can only do our jobs well by being connected to you. Let us know your questions and concerns. Let us know what information you need, but can’t find elsewhere. Let us know how the news you’re reading, watching and hearing affects you.
Here’s where our reporters are focusing their efforts:
- Deputy Editor Eric Dietrich is covering the state budget, economic development, housing and tax policy. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Reporter Mara Silvers is covering health and human services and the social safety net. Reach her at email@example.com.
- Reporter Amanda Eggert is covering environmental issues and energy policy. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Reporter Alex Sakariassen is covering education and election administration. Reach him at email@example.com.
- Reporter Arren Kimbel-Sannit is covering politics, partisanship and power. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you’re not sure what category your question falls in, or if you want to talk about our coverage in general, reach me at email@example.com.
We’re looking forward to hearing from you, and working for you, and I’m sorry we didn’t end up with any leftover sandwiches to offer you. That was a hungry crowd on Wednesday.
—Brad Tyer, Editor
By the Numbers 🔢
Number of bills introduced in the 2023 Montana Legislature as of 9 a.m. Friday. More than 4,400 bill drafts have been requested by lawmakers, though not all of them will ultimately be introduced.
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
As many as 90,000 Montanans are estimated to have a substance use disorder, according to recent data from federal behavioral health researchers. As in other states, many of those people end up navigating the chutes and ladders of the criminal legal system after being charged with drug- or alcohol-related offenses. And while awaiting trial, on probation, or after being released from a correctional setting, those Montanans need a place to go where they can stay clean and sober.
That’s where the sober living industry comes in — homes that range from a multi-tenant place to sleep to a supportive environment based on peer support and accountability. But as Montana Free Press reported this week in a two-part series, the state’s growing industry isn’t regulated by the state health department, and recovery programming can vary dramatically between homes.
Unlike clinical settings that are licensed by the state, sober living homes don’t have to employ licensed addiction counselors or therapists, or provide evidence-based recovery support — even when their residents are referred by district court judges or probation and parole. At least one group operating in Montana, Hope Center Ministries, requires its residents to participate in mandatory Bible study and dispatches residents to job sites for eight months of “vocational training,” during which the ministry takes the wages as revenue.
Industry experts in Montana are in the process of introducing an accreditation option for recovery programs, in line with national standards. The group, called the Recovery Residences Alliance of Montana, or RRAM, hopes to encourage homes to operate with ethical business practices and treatment of residents. In the year since RRAM was established, it’s certified 10 homes run by three different organizations in Billings, Missoula and Ronan.
The state also has an opportunity to increase oversight and regulation during the current Legislative session. Senate Bill 94, carried by Sen. Barry Usher, R-Billings, is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. If passed by lawmakers, the unregulated sober living industry could see some new checks and balances in the coming years.
—Mara Silvers, Reporter
“This is honestly the most important fight of my life, protecting my granddaughters from the psychology that is sweeping this country. I believe everyone has the right to be who they want to be. That’s a great part about being an American. But society should not have to yield to the fancies of the few and rewrite the societal norms that have been part of this country for years.”
—Belgrade grandparent Butch Barton, speaking in the Capitol Rotunda Monday as an invited speaker at Superintendent Elsie Arntzen’s “celebration of parents.” Barton’s comments specifically targeted sex education in public schools that he alleged includes lessons on gender identity and instructional involvement by reproductive health clinics. The event’s other four speakers made similar appeals for lawmakers to bolster parental oversight of classrooms, to focus education strictly on reading, writing and math, and to support policies that would aid parents seeking alternatives to public school.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
Photographer John Stember spent a day in November with reporter Victoria Eavis chronicling the growing population of homeless people in Bozeman. Along the way, Stember captured this photo of people sitting around a fire and enjoying a view of the Bridger Range while waiting for the city’s Warming Center to open.
Bozeman gets plenty of props as an idyllic college town, often with good reason. The reporting by Eavis and Stember, however, highlights how homelessness has become one of the most difficult problems facing the expanding city and its residents.
—Nick Ehli, Associate Editor
Wildlife Watch 🦬
On the heels of a U.S. 191 collision that resulted in the deaths of 13 bison, a buffalo advocacy organization has garnered more than 1,700 signatures on an online petition asking U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly and Custer Gallatin Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson to build a “buffalo bridge” north of West Yellowstone to prevent future fatalities.
The wreck drew national attention. Outlets including the Guardian and USA Today ran stories about the Dec. 29 collision between a semi truck and 13 bison. Some of the female bison and their yearlings were killed instantly. Others were euthanized due to the extent of their injuries.
Buffalo Field Campaign spokesperson Tom Woodbury described the collision as “a real kick in the gut” — and a familiar one. Volunteers with Buffalo Field Campaign counted 17 highway-related bison fatalities on Highway 191 in 2022.
Woodbury noted that bison are especially prone to getting hit at nighttime (the collision happened at 6:30 p.m.) due to their dark color and the fact that their eyes don’t reflect headlights the way other animals’ eyes do. They also tend to frequent highways in the wintertime since the cleared surfaces can be easier to traverse than snow-laden stretches of land adjacent to roadways.
In a Dec. 30 statement, the West Yellowstone Police Department said it deals with wildlife-vehicle collisions “on a regular basis” due to Yellowstone National Park’s proximity and its abundance of wildlife. “We are always saddened by any of these incidents, particularly when so many animals are lost,” the statement continued.
In addition to calling for a wildlife crossing where U.S. 191 spans the Madison River, the petition Buffalo Field Campaign began circulating this week asks federal agencies to support a speed limit reduction. Grizzly bears, moose and elk have also been killed by motorists along that stretch, according to the group.
“U.S. Highway 191 cuts right through a critical migration corridor that’s important to wild buffalo, elk, grizzly bears, wolves, moose, coyotes, and many other wildlife species who inhabit the Yellowstone ecosystem,” the petition reads. “Every spring, hundreds of wild buffalo migrate along the Madison River toward their favored calving grounds on and around Horse Butte, but they must cross this dangerous highway to get there.”
Later this winter the Center for Large Landscape Conservation is expected to release a study identifying stretches of U.S. 191 that are hot spots of animal sightings and collisions, as well as locations that could accommodate wildlife overpasses or underpasses.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
The most protracted fight for the speakership of the U.S. House of Representatives in 164 years has divided Montana’s Republican congressional delegation. On one side, Rep. Matt Rosendale is among the group of conservative hardliners dead set on stymying the Speaker bid of former GOP Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, the presumptive inheritor of the speakership. Rosendale long been a critic of McCarthy, and has only ratcheted up his rhetoric as the contest has dragged on.
“I will not support anyone for speaker that has played a part in the leadership team over the last 10 years, that has managed the demise of our country, over the last 10 years,” Rosendale told reporters Tuesday.
On the other hand, newly elected Montana congressman Ryan Zinke has called the stalemate “embarrassing.”
“I’m one that if you have differences, then solve the differences internally,” he told CNN Thursday. “Don’t run them up the flagpole and show disorganization and dysfunction, not only to America but the world — because the world is watching us.”
That the two are split isn’t necessarily a surprise. Zinke, generally speaking, is an institutional player who established an early reputation in the state Legislature as a relative moderate. Rosendale, on the other hand, has never been even slightly shy about signaling his hardliner bona fides. What’s interesting is that both are rumored to be considering a run for U.S. Senate next cycle. How this saga might affect their chances and their standing with the Republican electoral machine remains — like McCarthy’s Speaker bid as of Friday morning — an open question.
—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter
On Our Radar
Amanda — Over the holiday break I revisited Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, a short book published in 2016 containing heaps of commentary on modern society. Some of it is unexpected, but I found all of it thought-provoking. Journalist Sebastian Junger seeks to explain “why — for many people — war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations.”
Alex — While catching up on some reading over the holiday break, I came across an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that spoke to the staffing challenges schools have faced since the start of the pandemic. Turns out that two-year colleges nationwide experienced a dramatic drop in faculty — one that many institutions are having a difficult time bouncing back from.
Arren — I’ve been relying on this guide from the New York Times to understand the players opposing the speakership bid of California Republican Kevin McCarthy and the concessions they hope to receive.
Mara — As the driver of an old car that lacks any semblance of a modern sound system, I listen to the radio quite a bit and enjoy shuffling through stations to hear the range of conversations broadcasting across Montana. That’s why a segment (on the radio) caught my ear today promoting a new-ish series from WNYC that probes the history of conservative talk radio.
Eric — The Washington Post published an absolutely bonkers story over the holidays about how the Social Security Administration’s disability claims system relies on a 45-year-old list of job titles to determine who qualifies for benefits. Among the job titles the agency considers viable work options more than two decades into the twenty-first century? Nut sorting and dowel processing.
Brad — It’s been a while since the phrase “sponge palace” crossed my mind, but it emerged immediately when a mid-week Slate scroll unearthed a new story about the convoluted history of the ill-fated Today Sponge contraceptive. That rabbit hole took me back to this remarkable 2017 story from the University of Montana’s Kaimin about the Salmon Lake mansion that sponge inventor Bruce Vorhauer built with the contraceptive’s proceeds.
*Some articles may be behind a paywall.