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It’s a big week on the collaboration front here at Montana Free Press, and I’d like to introduce you to some fresh names.

You might have noticed a new credit on some of our sharper-looking photography over the past few days. That’s Sam Wilson, of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, who’s in Helena documenting the 68th Legislature for a photo feature we plan to co-publish with the Chronicle next week. We’ve long been fans of Sam’s work, and we’re awfully excited to share it, so keep an eye out. 

We’re also introducing a new byline next week. That’s JoVonne Wagner, who joins MTFP’s Helena newsroom in the brand-new position of Indigenous Montana Legislative Fellow. That position is the result of an equally brand-new collaboration between MTFP and ICT, formerly Indian Country Today, a fast-expanding national newsroom focused on Native American communities and news. JoVonne, a member of the Blackfeet Nation from Browning, graduated from the University of Montana School of Journalism in December, and has worked for Buffalo’s Fire, a nonprofit news organization on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in western North Dakota. She’ll be working with ICT National Editor/UM journalism professor Jason Begay, myself, and MTFP’s statehouse reporters to cover the state Legislature’s American Indian Caucus jointly for ICT and MTFP. Please say hi when you see JoVonne at the Capitol. 

And don’t forget broadcast. “The Session,” MTFP’s weekly collaborative podcast with Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio, has been enlivening the airwaves since the start of the session, and will continue through sine die. A new episode drops every Monday. 

Each of these collaborations draws on a diversity of talents from across Montana’s media landscape with the end goal of providing you with more thorough, more illustrative, more insightful, more accurate, more inclusive and more expansive coverage of the news that matters most to you. Thanks to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, ICT, MTPR, YPR, and you for helping us make it happen.

—Brad Tyer, Editor

The Viz 📈

As legislators meet this winter to craft new laws and negotiate the next state budget, a quirk of Montana’s Constitution means there’s a notable misalignment in the state’s political math: Every representative has one vote on the floor of the Montana House of Representatives, but some represent thousands of constituents more than do their neighbors a few seats over.

The state’s current legislative districts, adopted in 2013, evenly divide the state’s population as it was counted by the 2010 census. Since that count, though, certain parts of Montana have added residents at breakneck speed while others have held steady or even lost population.

The state Constitution specifies that legislative districts are rebalanced following every decade’s national census count, but it also lays out a timeline that creates the demographic equivalent of a lame duck congressional session by giving lawmakers elected under the old map a chance to comment on the new one drawn by the state’s independent Districting and Apportionment Commission.

As that process plays out in this year’s Legislature, data compiled by the state Census and Economic Information Center shows just how far out of whack the state’s political boundaries have gotten.

In several cases, 2010 districts saw their populations swell by 50% or more. That means, for example, that House District 65’s Kelly Kortum, a Democrat who now has about 17,800 constituents in northwest Bozeman, represents nearly twice as many people as does, for example, House District 1’s Steve Gunderson, a Republican with about 9,500 people in his Libby-area district.

Notably, however, overpopulated districts have elected both Republican and Democratic representatives this year, meaning the aging political map’s misalignment doesn’t confer either party an obvious political advantage. South of Kortum’s district, for example, Republican Rep. Jane Gillette represents an overstuffed House District 64 of about 14,500 people — and Republican lawmakers this year represent about 10,800 constituents on average, compared to 10,900 for Democrats.

Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

By the Numbers 🔢

Percentage of federal resilience funding included in the 2021 congressional infrastructure package that requires a local match, according to recent analysis by Headwaters Economics, a Bozeman-based research group.

The group argues that the local match requirement can impose an insurmountable burden upon rural and lower-income communities, which often have fewer people to foot the bill for a local match and less philanthropic investment than their wealthier, more densely populated neighbors. Among other things, the $38 billion in funding included under the infrastructure package’s “resilience” umbrella will support projects designed to mitigate the impacts of extreme weather events — flooding, wildfires, droughts, extreme heat, etc. — on roads, electrical grids and public buildings.

Report author and Headwaters Economics researcher Kris Smith said many smaller governments in Montana already have their hands full ensuring that their roads are plowed and water and sewer systems are functioning properly, so dedicating limited resources to a time-intensive grant application and securing a local match can feel out of reach.

The issue is garnering more interest as the federal government starts to create programmatic and grant-allocation structures for the $1.2 trillion included in the sprawling infrastructure package the U.S. Congress passed in November 2021.

“There’s a real risk that if we don’t work with rural communities right now to help them make sure they have the money for this local match, they are going to lose out on all of this funding for things like proactive planning and infrastructure investment,” Smith said.

Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Verbatim 💬

“As difficult as it is, we must have the courage to recognize that Indigenous children as young as 5 years old were brought by force to these federally funded institutions, where they were subjected to severe and even fatal abuse. We must have the courage to recognize that the violence towards Indigenous people and the trauma of the boarding school era continues to be reflected in our society to this day — in the missing and murdered Indigenous women and children epidemic, suicide rates, and the struggles to reclaim Indigenous languages and cultures.”

—Alyssa Kelly, ACLU of Montana spokesperson and member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, testifying before lawmakers in support of a resolution to formally recognize the Indian boarding school experience in Montana. The initial hearing on Senate Joint Resolution 6, sponsored by Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, drew roughly a dozen proponents to the Capitol Jan. 25, many of them descendants of boarding school survivors. Webber noted that she herself attended an Indian boarding school in Cut Bank, adding that she is “so glad that [the era] ended with me.”

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Viewshed 🌄

Credit: Sam Wilson/Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Legislators applaud Kylee and Nathan Urie, teachers at Harlem High School and Turner Public School, respectively, after they were commended by Gov. Greg Gianforte during his State of the State address in the state House chamber on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023.

Hot Potato 🥔

Policy prescriptions for homelessness are never not contentious, but the Flathead County Board of Commissioners turned up the heat last week with a letter suggesting that the county’s homeless population is surging based on the availability of local resources to “serve their lifestyle.” The letter further expressed the commissioners’ hope that “our community will be unified in rejecting all things that empower the homeless lifestyle.” 

Enter firestorm.

Whitefish housing advocate Nathan Dugan described Republican commissioners Brad Abell, Randy Brodehl and Pam Holmquist as “out of touch” and said, “I believe they should be removed from office for signing that letter. It’s disqualifying.” 

Tonya Horn, executive director of the Flathead Warming Center in Kalispell, which the commission’s letter called out as one of the county’s magnets for homeless people, described the letter’s claims as “outlandish.”

Meanwhile, Flathead citizens, according to Horn, responded by boosting donations to the Flathead Warming Center. MTFP contributor Justin Franz has the story

—Brad Tyer, Editor

On Our Radar 

Amanda — This Montana Public Radio story about a measure that would expand food pantries’ ability to obtain fruit, veggies, meat, eggs and dairy products from local producers caught my ear this week. It brought to mind another uniquely Montana approach to minimizing food insecurity: a decade-old Montana Food Bank Network program that allows hunters to donate their quarry.

Alex — With all the national buzz about the text-generating AI software ChatGPT and its implications for education (think students using it to cheat on classwork), All Things Considered recently turned to a digital media professor at MIT to learn why he’s advising colleagues to adapt to the technology.

Mara — In case there was any doubt, this Kaiser Health News piece shows that the funding crisis enveloping Montana’s nursing homes is also a national problem

Arren — This beautifully illustrated piece in the New York Times makes clear the stakes that the seven states relying on the rapidly shrinking Colorado River face. If they can’t come to an agreement on how to share the dwindling water supply, the federal government is set to step in. 

Eric — Not that the Montana Legislature needs any help coming up with ways to spend the state’s $2.5 billion surplus, but they could do worse than this if they’re looking for inspiration about producing unadulterated joy with taxpayer dollars: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Portland District’s 2023 Cat Calendar.

Brad — A reader wrote this week wanting to know why this extraordinary true-crime-meets-Montana-mining story in the New York Times hasn’t gotten more attention from in-state media. I don’t have an answer for that, other than that reporter Hiroko Tabuchi thoroughly owns it. 

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