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After weeks of hearings, robust public testimony, closed-door meetings and poring over binders full of budget estimates, lawmakers on the health and human services budget committee on Thursday moved to shore up one of the cornerstones of Montana’s struggling health care system: Medicaid reimbursement rates. In plainer English: the state’s payments to health care providers who work with some of the most vulnerable and low-income patients on public insurance.

In total, six legislators advanced a compounding 4% rate adjustment for most providers in Montana. For mental health, addiction treatment, and senior and long-term care services, dueling Democratic and Republican proposals amount to much more. By the end of Thursday’s meeting, the approach backed by four Republican lawmakers won out, allocating an additional $23.4 million from the state General Fund over the biennium to those specific providers on top of the 10% increase proposed in Gov. Greg Gianforte’s budget request.

The committee’s decision represents one of the first pieces in the legislative process of hammering out the health department’s multimillion dollar budget. As the committee’s chair, Rep. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, said Thursday, “this is step one and we’ve got probably five or six steps to go.”

The votes of committee Republicans and Democrats were rarely unanimous, signaling plenty of turbulence yet to come. The committee’s two minority party members tried repeatedly to increase behavioral health and senior care reimbursement rates even more. Sen. Chris Pope, D-Bozeman, launched a nearly 15-minute appeal for the committee to bring rates up to the benchmarks identified by a state-commissioned study released last year. That effort flopped, as did Democrats’ attempts to include a 4% rate increase for hospitals. Those institutions were segregated from other providers to keep their rate at the same level set in 2021, a decision the Montana Hospital Association called “a blow to Montana’s community hospitals” in a Thursday statement to Montana Free Press.

If eventually adopted into House Bill 2, the state’s primary budget bill, this Republican Medicaid reimbursement strategy would fall short of what health care providers say they truly need to retain staff, keep facilities open and continue caring for patients. But the committee’s decision did illustrate the majority party’s commitment to investing in Medicaid — a sea change compared to the belt-tightening of prior sessions.

Negotiations between the party’s fiscal conservatism and a business-minded acceptance that Medicaid is the backbone of the state health care system will likely continue over the next several weeks of the session. That dynamic is mirrored in health care budget debates playing out in other parts of the Capitol, too. This week, lawmakers on a different budget committee opted to fund less than half of the requested $15.9 million for upgrades at the Montana State Hospital, infrastructure repairs the health department described as vital for regaining the federal safety and quality accreditation the Warm Springs facility lost in the turmoil of 2022.

Some lawmakers are fond of saying that the state budget reflects the state’s values. If that’s the case, Republicans seem to be walking a line: making a historic effort to stabilize a critical part of Montana’s health care infrastructure without appearing spendthrift. Health care providers and advocacy groups have the remainder of the session to convince the majority party to see it a different way — that withholding critical funding for the struggling industry is the more reckless route to take.

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

By the Numbers 🔢

Days remaining to submit public comment to the state Department of Environmental Quality regarding a 20-year open-cut gravel mining permit for more than 150 acres in the Jocko Valley. The deadline for public comment is Feb. 24.

Say Again? 🤔

Utah’s Republican governor has a message for Californians looking to move to his fast-growing state: Maybe stay where you are.

“Our biggest problems are growth-related. We would love for people to stay in California rather than coming as refugees to Utah, so we’re always trying to figure that out,” Gov. Spencer Cox told reporters in Washington, D.C. Feb. 10.

“We’re not working to attract more people,” Cox added. “We’re doing just fine that way.”

Montanans haven’t heard rhetoric like that out of their Republican governor, Greg Gianforte. Like Cox, Gianforte leads a state with a Republican legislative supermajority, significant population growth and a painful housing shortage.

Gianforte, however, hasn’t signaled any interest in discouraging migration to Montana since he took office in 2021. Instead, he’s overseen a “Come Home” marketing campaign designed to lure Montana college graduates back to the state and has made tax competitiveness a signature issue, pushing for lower income tax rates that he says will bolster the Montana economy by making the state a more attractive destination for entrepreneurs.

“Our plan also makes Montana more competitive with our neighboring states, attracting innovative job creators who will invest in Montana and our people,” Gianforte said earlier this month.

In an email this week, Gianforte spokesperson Travis Hall pushed back on the notion that the governor’s competitiveness agenda is fundamentally about attracting new people to the state, saying it’s really about bolstering opportunities for current residents.

“It’s about creating an environment where Montanans can thrive, prosper, and achieve the American dream,” he wrote.

“Utah is Utah. Montana is Montana,” Hall added. “They are not the same.”

—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

Verbatim 💬

“If we’re going to have an anti-bullying policy in the state, then we also need to make sure that we’re protecting self-defense because, like I said in my intro, self-defense is an inherent right.”

Rep. Jed Hinkle, R-Belgrade, speaking about his proposal to allow students to defend themselves or others against physical attacks in public schools. Hinkle clarified that House Bill 450 would not authorize two students who “go behind the bleachers and duke it out,” nor would it permit students to use physical force in response to verbal bullying — a topic recently raised by opponents of a proposal affecting transgender students. The bill received opposition from the Montana Federation of Public Employees and the Montana School Boards Association, both of which noted that local districts already have policies addressing such behavior. However, the latter did propose changes to the bill inspired by those policies.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Happenings 🗓️

The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival kicks off its 20th year in Missoula this Friday, and with nearly 150 films slated to screen over the next 10 days, there’s a lot to choose from. We checked in with the festival staff for some can’t-miss Montana-themed options.

Jim Markel Sr. and Jim Markel Jr. visited the Khe Sanh War Memorial in Vietnam in 2018 as part of the filming of “Return.” Credit: Courtesy of “Return.”

Feb. 18: Your friendly neighborhood newshounds at Montana Free Press are sponsoring the Montana premiere of “The Grab,” which follows a journalist’s seven-year investigation into a global power struggle for land and water. The showing starts at 8 p.m. at the Wilma Theater, followed by a Q&A with director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (of “Blackfish” fame).

Feb. 19: Montana resident Jim Markel Sr. revisits his past as a Green Beret stationed in Vietnam in “Return,” a documentary from Billings-based filmmakers Pete Tolton and Stan Parker screening at 5:30 p.m. at the Wilma.

Feb. 20: Blackfeet actress Lily Gladstone appears in her latest film — a 14-minute documentary about Gladstone herself on the eve of a major Hollywood release. “Lily Gladstone: Far Out There” screens in a slate of short docs at 8 p.m. at the Wilma, followed by a Q&A with director Brooke Pepion Swaney.

Feb. 23: “Native Ball: Legacy of a Trailblazer” looks back on the legacy of Malia Kipp, a Blackfeet basketball legend who was the only Indigenous woman in the country to earn a full-ride Division I scholarship in 1992. The 27-minute doc screens at 4 p.m. at the Zootown Arts Community Center, followed by a Q&A with Kipp and director Megan Harrington.

Feb. 23: Director Nic Davis takes a deep look at the life and literary contributions of one of Montana’s most acclaimed authors in “Ivan Doig: Landscapes of a Western Mind.” Showing starts at 8 p.m. at the Wilma, with a Q&A with Davis and his team after.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Wildlife Watch 🐻

Two years after he sponsored a bill loosening regulations around killing grizzly bears, Sen. Bruce “Butch” Gillespie, R-Ethridge is sponsoring another grizzly-related measure. Among other items, the new bill seeks to put some sideboards around the earlier measure, which Gov. Gianforte signed into law in May of 2021.

Senate Bill 295 would allow a livestock owner who’s encountered a bear “threatening” livestock to make a complaint to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ director. After an investigation, the department would have the option of either sending someone in to “control, trap or remove” the grizzly, or issuing the livestock owner a permit to kill it. A Fish and Wildlife Commission-established quota on grizzly bear mortalities would be taken into consideration in the latter scenario.

Grizzly management is a particularly hot topic right now, given the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Feb. 3 announcement that it’s taking the next year to consider whether Northern Continental Divide and Yellowstone-area grizzliesshould be removed from the federal government’s list of endangered and threatened species.

Among other provisions, SB 295 directs the state to “manage grizzly bear populations at levels necessary to maintain delisted status.” How the state proposes to manage intentional and unintentional grizzly mortalities has been one of the focal points of the draft management plan FWP put out for comment late last year.

Much of the SB 295 hearing before the Senate Fish and Game Committee on Tuesday focused on the definition of “threatening” and whether SB 295 is representative of a “managing to the minimum” approach to grizzly conservation.

“If you see a bear running across a meadow, is that threatening, just because it’s there?” asked Caryn Miske, director of the Sierra Club’s Montana chapter. Miske also argued that allowing for the killing of grizzlies on public land runs counter to the public trust doctrine of wildlife management.

Asked how she would gauge what constitutes threatening behavior, Valier rancher and SB 295 proponent Trina Bradley said she would take into account her knowledge of the bear and its behavior as well as her cattle’s behavior. Some bears can be proximate to livestock without livestock garnering much notice, she said, while others present more of a threat.

“We know what we’re doing, and we know our livestock and we know the bears that live there,” said Bradley, who is the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Front Ranchlands Group.

Presented with a similar question, rancher Dave McKeon told the Senate FIsh and Game Committee on Tuesday that if he’s seen evidence of grizzly activity and his livestock and family have been adversely affected by the bear’s presence, “then he’s a threatening bear.”

The committee did not take immediate action on SB 295.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

The Gist 📌

For all the heated floor debates and packed committee hearings, there’s a lot of policy at the Legislature that drifts through the halls without much, if any, contention. These days, House Bill 15 is solidly in that camp. The proposal may not sound that exciting: approving a 3% inflationary adjustment to the state’s share of public education funding. But for local school officials racing to adopt the next academic year’s budgets in March, knowing that money will be there is critical to their calculations.

This session, HB 15 isn’t so much drifting as sailing. It passed out of the House last month, and cleared its final Senate vote on Wednesday with only five opposing votes. According to Montana School Boards Association Executive Director Lance Melton, that’s 10 days ahead of the analogous bill’s schedule in the 2021 session, which already marked the earliest in recent memory that it had landed on the governor’s desk. HB 15 will likely pass to Gov. Greg Gianforte next week.

“It appears to almost be automatic anymore,” Melton said, “and I never take that for granted, by the way.”

Why is the bill’s progress such a big deal? Up until 2015, the adjustment was something of a political football in the Legislature’s budget deliberations. Melton — unshakeable in his view that adequate funding for public schools is a “constitutional commitment” — recalled numerous instances when a “dogfight” over an inflationary increase for schools extended “literally until the last minute of the session.” He credits the shift to an exhaustive 2013 revision of school finance laws carried by then-Sen. Llew Jones, the Republican from Conradwho now chairs the House Appropriations Committee. Since then, Melton said, Montana has experienced “a consistent 10-year period” when inflation has become an increasingly nonpartisan part of education budgeting with very little dissent.

“Over time, it has made an overwhelmingly big difference for schools in their ability to adequately compensate staff, recruit and retain [staff] and so on,” he said.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

3 Questions For 

Taylor Crawford is an English teacher at Browning High School on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. She has taught in the district since 2017, and recently started up an elective journalism class in which her 21 students have resurrected the long-dormant student newspaper, Etumoe

MTFP: How did you start the journalism class?

Crawford: This semester we had an opportunity to add English electives, and so each of us English teachers kind of chose one that interested us and what we thought would interest our students, and so immediately I was like, journalism, we need to bring back a paper or something like that.

MTFP:  What does a day in the classroom look like for you?

Crawford: I’ve pretty much just been covering ethics and journalism, especially like starting off, and I think that would be something I would cover with every new class as new students join it if we do it in the future. I think it’s important so that we know we’re not putting out anything harmful or false, you know what I mean? So that’s pretty much what we do. I have press passes, so if we have time, they can leave and go work on things for the newspaper, come back, type it up, do like a writer’s workshop type of thing.

MTFP: What have you learned from starting the class and reviving the newspaper?

Crawford: I think what surprised me the most was just seeing how self-motivated they are to get articles done for the newspaper compared to writing essays in my classroom. I thought I was going to have to force them to go out and, you know, talk to people and get information, but they were all willing, and they’re really excited about the class and the opportunity to share their thoughts and ideas on their own terms or subjects that interest them.

—JoVonne Wagner, Legislative Fellow

On Our Radar 

Amanda — I stumbled on a story earlier this week about the Flathead Electric Cooperative, which is set to double the electricity-generating capacity of a project that turns landfill-generated methane gas into enough electricity to power 3,200 homes. Who knew?

Alex — With the one-year anniversary of Russia’s initial invasion into Ukraine just around the corner, there’s a short film at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival that’s pretty high on my must-see list. “Her War” is a self-shot portrait of a Ukrainian sniper, the lone woman in her regiment, and it’s streaming online throughout the festival’s full run.

Mara — The New York Times has been under fire for several months from many transgender advocates for the paper’s generally dubious coverage of that marginalized community. That critique escalated this week with two letters from a prominent LGBTQ organization and another from a long list of the Times’ own contributors. The Gray Lady has so far been standing by its coverage.

Arren — I’m choosing to practice some zen with this week’s radar pick: the New York Times has this list of 25 essential dishes to eat in Paris. Will I ever be in a position to eat any of them? Probably not, but a boy can dream.

Eric — A sobering note to ponder as Montana lawmakers gear up to discuss pro-housing regulatory reforms: As NPR reports, Turkey’s president touted his efforts to relax building codes so developers could rapidly build tens of thousands of homes for Turkish citizens. Then came the Feb. 8 earthquake that killed at least 35,000 people in the region.

JoVonne — Last weekend’s Super Bowl displayed the nation’s love of the game, but the event was also an opportunity to showcase Indigenous representation both on the field and off. ICT’s Kolby KickingWoman and Noel Lyn Smith previewed the game with special attention to the Kansas City Chiefs’ two Native players, the first Cherokee Nation citizen to help referee the game, and the intricate and colorful Indigenous artworks commissioned by the NFL.

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