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With the 2023 Legislature wrapped up and litigants taking the fight over many of the session’s most controversial bills to court, some readers have asked if we’ll be re-upping our 2021 Laws on Trial project, which collected legal filings in an effort to track bill-challenging litigation spun out of that session.

The answer? We aren’t — and here’s why.

Media organizations like MTFP can look like monolithic machines from the outside, but the reality is that our newsroom is still quite small — as of this writing, two editors, six reporters and a few regular freelancers. That’s bigger than a lot of Montana news outlets, but a far cry from, say, the 1,000-plus news staffers at the Washington Post.

What that means is that we have to be judicious about how we spend our time. For every story or news project we report, edit and publish here at MTFP, we probably leave three other opportunities on the cutting-room floor. Montana is a big, dynamic state with a lot going on. And our smart, curious and insightful readers aren’t shy about telling us when something deserves our attention. That’s great — except it makes choosing what to write about the hardest part of the job.

Which brings me back to the Laws on Trial project. Coming out of the 2021 session — the first since the early 2000s with unified GOP control of the House, Senate and governor’s office — it was clear that some of the most important legislative debates on vaccine choice, abortion rights, election administration and other issues were going to spill into the courts. We figured it would be a worthy service to maintain a comprehensive database of those court filings, making it easier for the public to read the legal arguments without having to hunt down the documents themselves.

What I didn’t quite expect, however, was just how voluminous those lawsuits would prove to be. With some of the 2021 cases still pending, we had collected 580 individual filings totaling 15,795 pages when I took a break from requesting court records to focus on covering the 2023 Legislature in January. Those filings came from cases on the dockets of nearly a dozen distinct state and federal court jurisdictions, many of which don’t make their filings available online. Building up that document stash meant exchanging hundreds of emails with (very patient) court clerks scattered across the state.

Because we’re a small staff, that effort involved some very real tradeoffs. For example: In addition to being our in-house data reporter and part-time deputy editor, I’m also the primary MTFP reporter assigned to cover housing — at a time when housing costs are increasingly the state’s single most defining economic issue. Over the last two years, I’ve certainly let a few important housing stories slide as I’ve worked to keep the Laws on Trial tracker updated. (Our team has caught some good ones, too.)

Lawsuits, of course, will continue to be big news coming out of this year’s Legislature. We’ve already seen legal challenges threatened or filed against charter school billsanti-abortion measuresdrag story hour restrictions and the state’s TikTok ban — and appeals are still pending over 2021’s election administration laws, among other things. But as our reporters strategize about how to cover that litigation through this next swing of the political cycle, we’ve come to the conclusion that focusing on narrative news stories about these lawsuits is the best way to help readers make sense of the key developments — and the best way to free up our reporting resources to cover the universe of Montana stories beyond the courthouse. 

Stay tuned — both for the inevitable onslaught of lawsuit news and for more in this space about how we’re planning to use the staff time we’re not spending tracking legal briefs.

—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

By the Numbers 🔢

Remaining federal dollars from a 2020 COVID-19 relief package for Montana public schools that are set to expire Sept. 30. The funds are from the second of three such packages, which offered schools and the state Office of Public Instruction a combined $593 million to address issues raised by the pandemic. According to OPI, Montana school districts have so far used the money for myriad initiatives including tutoring, transportation, expanded career and technical education programs and the creation of outdoor learning spaces. State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen has routinely reminded teachers, parents and school administrators of the pending deadline since late last year. The third round of federal funding — $382 million, or more than half the overall total — similarly expires on Sept. 30, 2024. As of April 30, roughly 34% of those funds had been spent.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Hot Potato 🥔

Ever since lawmakers packed up shop and left Helena earlier this month, health care and social service providers have been waiting for their hard-fought, marquee policy issue to bear fruit: a historic boost in state reimbursements for Medicaid services including assisted-living care for seniors, at-home support for people with disabilities and treatments for mental health and addiction. 

In total, Republicans and Democrats approved roughly $330 million in new state and federal funds to support Medicaid rate increases, according to Rep. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, the chair of the health budget subcommittee. Providers celebrated the fact that, over the biennium, the adjusted rates will reach 100% of the benchmarks identified by a state-contracted 2022 study.  

It’s often said that “nothing’s dead until sine die,” the official motion to end the legislative session. But when it comes to the budget, nothing about provider rates will be official until House Bill 2 is signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte and the new rates have an effective date on the calendar. 

Weeks have gone by without that long-awaited signature. Anxiety among providers, once described to Montana Free Press as “cautious optimism,” has only increased. Then, on Thursday, MTFP reported that Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, asked the governor in a May 18 letter to consider a $15 million line-item adjustment to Medicaid rates — for the sake of frugality. Gianforte exercised that same power this week to trim spending items out of House Bill 5, the state infrastructure bill. 

News of Fitzpatrick’s request did not sit well with some Medicaid providers waiting to make decisions about their upcoming budgets based on how the rate changes shake out. Any cuts to the agreed-upon rates, they said, threaten community services in the long term.

“Vetoing provider rate increases would cost the state more by people receiving services in more-restrictive higher-cost levels of care,” said Matt Bugni, CEO of Anaconda-based provider AWARE. “I appreciate the work of our Legislature regarding funding for home- and community-based Medicaid services. I trust that the governor and our [state health department] understand the behavioral health pressures on our communities and will do what is right for Montana.”

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

The Gist 📌

Earlier this month, Montana’s Board of Regents approved a series of tuition increases for resident and nonresident students on university system campuses over the next two years. For in-state students, that means the cost of higher education will grow 4% per year in 2024 and 2025. For out-of-state graduate and undergraduate students, the increase will be roughly 6%.

As Deputy Commissioner for Budget and Planning Tyler Trevor told regents during their May meeting, the primary factor driving those increases is a new employee pay plan passed by the 2023 Legislature. Trevor noted that the university system is “extremely grateful” for the plan, which includes a 4% or $1.50 per hour wage increase for state employees — whichever is higher. For campuses, half the funding for that plan, roughly $8.7 million in the next fiscal year, comes from state coffers. The other half, Trevor said, comes from higher education’s other primary revenue source: tuition.

Despite the increases, Trevor’s presentation indicated that Montana’s tuition rates will continue to be among the lowest in the western United States for resident undergraduates. Factoring in a 3% increase in fees, those students are projected to pay $8,126 per year at the University of Montana next year, and $8,030 at Montana State University. For comparison, the average tuition rate at peer institutions was $10,306 for the past academic year — a reflection, Trevor noted, of several tuition freezes implemented in Montana over the past two decades. The picture looks notably different for nonresident undergrads, as the new increase will put tuition at both four-year campuses roughly $2,000 above the latest average of other universities in the region.

The increases generated a broader discussion among the regents about the future of funding higher education. Vice Chair Todd Buchanan, the sole dissenting vote on the budget recommendations, argued a tuition increase could impact college affordability for in-state students, and suggested the state would benefit from a deeper look at how revenue is distributed across the university system. And student regent Norris Blossom, who was confirmed to the board this session, said his “gut” told him a 6% increase for nonresident students was “a little low,” given that enrollment within that demographic has increased even as Montana’s sticker-price has risen.

Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian acknowledged that Montana is “relying heavily” on nonresident tuition, but cautioned against becoming too dependent on it.

“It’s always a danger in every business to become overreliant on one [revenue] source,” Christian told the regents.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Your Two Cents 

As you might have heard, Montana and other states are now allowed to remove ineligible participants from the Medicaid rolls for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began. With the recent ending of the public health emergencydesignation, health policy experts fear that the so-called redetermination process of participant eligibility is going to create, to put it bluntly, a bureaucratic paperwork nightmare and the loss of coverage for millions nationwide. 

In Montana, fewer than half of the 32,143 people contacted by the state health department for the first round of evaluations have responded, as Lee newspapers recently reported. National research indicates that some people found to be ineligible for Medicaid might face a lapse in coverage while they find other options. 

We’d like to hear more from Montanans on Medicaid who are trying to figure out their next steps. Have you been contacted by the state health department about your eligibility? What are your future plans for health care coverage? You can let us know by filling out this short questionnaire. 

Our team at MTFP feels strongly that insight from real people makes our policy coverage more useful for everyone. Thanks for contributing your voice to help us produce stronger journalism.

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

Public Comment 🗣️

Through June 20, the Bureau of Land Management is accepting comments on a proposal that the agency put conservation priorities — e.g., ecological health and the “resilience of renewable resources” — on equal footing with long-established agency objectives such as livestock grazing and oil, gas and coal leasing.

More specifically, the proposed rule would establish conservation as a “use” under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act in an effort to “protect intact landscapes, restore degraded habitat, and make wise management decisions based on science and data.” As proposed, the new rule would allow the BLM to lease land to tribal governments, non-governmental organizations, individuals or businesses for conservation purposes. According to an Interior Department release, such leases could be used to protect wildlife migration corridors, for example, or establish carbon markets. In the latter example, the BLM might accept payment for a 10-year lease to leave a grassland undisturbed for carbon sequestration purposes.

Broadly speaking, the proposal has been cheered by conservationists and blasted by oil and gas groups and agricultural organizations.

Perhaps no other federal land managing entity has seen more change under the Biden administration than the BLM. Per Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the BLM in 2022 made sweeping reforms to its oil and gas leasing program after instituting a temporary moratorium on new leases as part of President Biden’s climate agenda. More recently, the agency announced plans to introduce a utility-scale solar leasing program in five western states, including Montana.

The BLM manages nearly one-tenth of the United States’ landmass, or 245 million acres. The agency is the second-largest land manager in Montana, providing oversight of 8 million acres of land in addition to 47 million acres of federal mineral estate. Tracy Stone-Manning, a Montanan who formerly headed up the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and worked with the National Wildlife Federation, is the BLM’s director.

Comments can be submitted to the Federal Register here. As of May 26, more than 45,000 comments on the proposal have been submitted. The agency is hosting a virtual webinar on the proposal on June 5, at 9:30 a.m. Mountain Time.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter 

On Our Radar 

Amanda —  Water has been on my mind lately. This New York Times infographic about where water pulled from the Colorado River is going boggled my mind. NPR’s analysis of this week’s SCOTUS ruling about which wetlands (dubbed the “kidneys of a water system” by one conservationist) are protected by the Clean Water Act also piqued my interest.

Alex — CNN reported this week on one of the more dramatic recent developments I’ve seen regarding the culture wars and education. It’s a complex story involving a dispute over a Disney film screened in a Florida classroom, a “parental rights” law signed by Florida governor (and recently announced presidential candidate) Ron DeSantis last year, and the resignation of a teacher over politics and fear.

Arren — Missoula-based reporter (and MTFP contributor) Max Savage Levenson’s interview with longtime lawmaker Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, has a lot to say about the antics of the session’s final days and the next steps for one of the Legislature’s most heterodox Republicans as he leaves the Capitol.  

Mara — Helena’s historic Sixth Ward (the best neighborhood in town, in my unapologetically biased opinion) is somehow getting even cooler. Next time you’re looking to peruse local crafts, check out The Railyard, a micro-retail business incubator. The shops are open Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. 

Eric — Think Montana’s state politics are messy? Take a moment to thank God we’re not Texas.

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