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We’ve got a nice long newsletter this week, so I’m going to be brief with my bragging. The Society of Professional Journalists Region 10 chapter — encompassing Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Alaska — announced the results of its 2022 NW Excellence in Journalism awards earlier this month, and Montana Free Press staff reporters and freelancers had their best showing in MTFP history.
Deputy Editor Eric Dietrich took First Place in Audio, Feature-Hard News for his Shared State podcast episode about Bozeman’s housing crunch. Health and human services reporter Mara Silvers took a First Place in Audio, Health Reporting for her Shared State episode exploring Montana’s “Politics of Death and Dying.” Mara also snagged First Place in LGBTQ+ Equity Reporting for her collaboration with the Guardian on “The LGBTQ-Owned Bookstore That Rallied a Community.” Politics reporter Arren Kimbel-Sannit brought home a strong Second Place in Government & Politics Reporting for his first big MTFP feature, last year’s profile of Sidney pastor and GOP firebrand J.D. Hall. And the whole reporting staff, including environment reporter Amanda Eggert, education reporter Alex Sakariassen, and our dearly departed former board president Chuck Johnson, landed a solid Second Place for MTFP’s series covering the Montana Constitution’s 50th anniversary.
And it wasn’t just a strong showing for the staff. Bozeman-based freelancer Emily Stifler Wolfe earned a First Place in Science & Technology Reporting for the third installment of her series on regenerative agriculture in Montana, “Rebuilding Soil by Building Relationships.” Helena contributor Jill Van Alstyne took Second Place in Education Reporting for “Survival Mode in Lame Deer.” And Billings-based writer Anna Paige delivered MTFP’s first ever award — never mind First Place — in Arts & Culture reporting for “New Music Considers Complex History of Montana’s Catholic Missions.”
There’s a wealth of quality journalism behind those links, and I couldn’t be more proud of the work that went into these stories. And since your support made that work possible, I hope you’ll take a moment to revel in the rewards as well.
—Brad Tyer, Editor
By the Numbers 🔢
Median sales price of a home in Lincoln County in May 2023, according to data from Montana Regional MLS. That’s more than double the median sales price of $179,000 in January 2020. MTFP contributor Justin Franz wrote this week about a new housing project in Libby that aims to address rising costs in a corner of the state that once had ample affordable housing.
3 Questions For
We caught up with Micah Drew, the Flathead Beacon reporter who’s leading the Held v. Montana youth climate trial package that Montana Free Press is co-publishing. Drew received an environmental solutions fellowship from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to produce the project, which is available both on Montana Free Press’ website and at mtclimatecase.flatheadbeacon.com. On Monday, Drew will switch from pre-trial mode to daily updates on the trial proceedings. Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
MTFP: What inspired you to take on this project?
Drew: I think anybody who has kept an ear on the environmental beat has paid attention to this a little bit. In the Flathead Valley, it became a bigger deal that it’s going to trial because we have these youth who are making sacrifices and spending a lot of their young lives getting involved. I also think there was a part of me that was like, ‘hey, normally when stories in Montana get a lot of national attention, we see a lot of parachuting of national reporters who want to go in and get the scoop.’ I figured there’s probably a way to leverage our Montana reporters who know these stories and issues to report well on something that’s happening in our backyards.
MTFP: Is there anything you’ve encountered in your reporting thus far that’s surprised you?
Drew: I had this vision of this being a big project that would be like a three-act play: There would be pre-trial coverage, I’d report on the trial, and then wrap it up. But I’ve been surprised by how relentless this lawsuit has been. Three hundred and eighty-eight documents have been filed in this lawsuit, and the state has been filing motions and petitions every couple of days. Every time we think we have a grasp on the parties’ arguments, the scope is drastically narrowed or there’s an appeal to the Montana Supreme Court. Trying to do a big, robust project while also rewriting it up until the point of publication was certainly not what I expected.
MTFP: What will you be particularly keen to listen for when the trial starts next week?
Drew: I’ve had the privilege to talk to five of the youth plaintiffs, but I have not spoken to the other 11, so I’ll certainly be interested to hear how they present their own stories and articulate their experiences. I’m also really interested to hear the state’s arguments in the courtroom. They’ve done so much to try and dismiss this — even a couple of days ago they tried to get the Montana Supreme Court to throw it out. With that attempt hitting a dead end, I’m curious what they’ll argue before Judge Seeley.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
“I’m not your enemy.”
—Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg, addressing a crowd of more than 300 people who gathered in Hamilton Monday to discuss election integrity. The meeting was scheduled at the request of a group of citizens, and featured four speakers making unsubstantiated claims of widespread corruption in Montana’s election system. Plettenberg sat quietly through the presentations, but the evening grew tense during a question-and-answer session when attendees shouted about rigged voting machines and challenged the integrity of county officials. Former Ravalli County Sheriff Jay Printz came to their defense, chastising the room for “mob rule” and saying of Plettenberg and her colleagues, “These are my neighbors, for Christ’s sake!”
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
Following the Law ⚖️
Conservation groups and the Montana Association of Counties filed separate lawsuits Wednesday challenging Gov. Greg Gianforte’s veto of Senate Bill 442, bipartisan legislation passed in 2023 that reconfigures the state’s allocation of recreational marijuana tax revenues.
On May 2, the last day of the 68th Legislature, Gianforte vetoed the bill, arguing that its funding for county road construction and maintenance puts the state on the hook for expenses better left to local governments.
But the Senate adjourned before the governor’s veto had been read across the rostrum, as is standard practice under legislative rules, and many of the lawmakers who voted to end the session — including SB 442’s sponsor, Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta — seemed not to know that Gianforte had vetoed the bill.
That means lawmakers didn’t have a chance to try to override the veto while the Legislature was in session. The lawsuits seek to make sure that they’ll now have that opportunity through a mail poll.
Mail-in override polls are common for bills that are vetoed after the close of the session. But the governor’s office appears to be operating under the assumption that Gianforte vetoed the bill while the Legislature was still in session — the House continued to meet for several hours after the Senate adjourned — and that post-session polling is thus inappropriate. He’s not yet sent the bill with his veto to the secretary of state, a procedural step necessary before polls can be sent to legislators.
But the plaintiffs in the two suits — Wild Montana and the Montana Wildlife Federation in the first, and the Montana Association of Counties in the second — contend that unless the court compels the governor to initiate the veto override process, there will be a precedent that allows governors to ignore the will of the Legislature by timing their vetoes just so.
“The Constitution and implementing statutes identify no circumstance in which the Legislature cannot consider and override a veto,” the conservation groups’ suit says. “Rather, they consistently provide that, in any situation, the veto power is limited by the Legislature’s power to override.”
—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter
Glad You Asked 🙋
A couple of weeks back, we wrote about how Montana still has roughly $54 million in unspent federal COVID-19 relief funds for public schools — money the Office of Public Instruction is intent on seeing used by a Sept. 30 deadline. That news prompted one reader to ask: With so much education funding available, and set to expire soon, why did the Bozeman School District request additional tax revenue from voters through a trio of local levies last month?
According to Mike Waterman, executive director for business and operations at the district, that’s a fair question. The relief funding is a complex beast, with specific spending parameters set by both the federal government and the state Legislature. Essentially, Waterman said, any use of the relief funds has to tie in some way to the pandemic. In Bozeman’s case, the district directed the money it received toward staff stipends, hiring a few teachers for two-year stints, and preventing a closure at one of its eight elementary schools where enrollment declined. The federal funds are also a one-time-only deal, Waterman added, meaning if schools spend it on ongoing services, they’ll just end up shouldering the costs later.
According to OPI’s latest data, a portion of the remaining $54 million is actually money that was already allocated to individual districts. Some, including Bozeman, exhausted those funds months ago, while others have as much as $3 million remaining.
Unlike those restricted, one-time dollars, the high school levy approved by Bozeman voters last month is designed to cover permanent expenses — specifically, Waterman said, a 4% raise for teachers next school year, and a 5% raise for classified staff. The other two levies will create separate pots of funding for safety-related costs including school counselor salaries and the district’s school resource officer program, freeing up even more space in the general fund to address staff recruitment and retention difficulties.
Waterman understands why people would wonder about alternative sources of funding. The three levies combined will pencil out to a $9.83 annual increase for every $100,000 of assessed home value, an estimate that could change when taxable property values are reevaluated this year. He likened the pandemic dollars to the series of $1,400 checks all citizens received during COVID, framing an argument not just about availability, but sustainability.
“A one-time stipend is kind of like the pandemic-era relief that all taxpayers got,” Waterman said. “That doesn’t help people pay their housing bills on an ongoing basis or afford food or be able to pay to live here on an ongoing basis.”
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
Hot Potato 🥔
Late Thursday night, lawmakers scattered across Montana officially overrode two high-profile vetoes from Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte. The governor in May had rejected bipartisan reforms aimed at patient care and oversight at the troubled Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs, calling one policy “legally insufficient” and the other a risk of causing “irresponsible, inappropriate, inhumane” outcomes. The two-thirds vote of each chamber to uphold the laws signals the closing of one political chapter in the interbranch disagreement and the beginning of a long road toward systemic changes.
Asked Friday to comment on the overrides and the executive branch’s plans for implementing the new laws, deputy communications director Brooke Stroyke said the governor’s concerns with the policies are “well-documented” and that Gianforte “trusts [the state health department] to implement the legislation as approved by the legislature.”
In a Friday email, health department spokesperson Jon Ebelt said the agency “won’t be providing comment at this time.”
The legislation in question, Senate Bill 4 and House Bill 29, would, respectively, require the health department to share patient abuse and neglect reports with the federally authorized watchdog group Disability Rights Montana and set the state on a path to ending the involuntary commitment of patients with Alzheimer’s, dementia and traumatic brain injuries. Each passed with near-unanimous bipartisan support.
But the policies were consistently opposed by the state health department, an arm of Gianforte’s executive branch. In an 11th-hour attempt to revise the bills shortly before lawmakers adjourned the session, the governor’s office said SB 4 risked compromising private patient information, a claim Disability Rights Montana and bill supporters denied. Regarding HB 29, the governor said the policy “either represents a deep misunderstanding of or a failure to acknowledge the fundamental concepts underpinning the need for involuntary commitments of individuals suffering from a serious mental illness.” Supporters of the bill alternatively said it takes necessary steps to place people with Alzheimer’s and dementia in clinically appropriate, community-based settings rather than the state hospital.
“It is federal law, good policy and the right thing to do to make sure people are cared for in the least restrictive, most appropriate setting,” said HB 29’s sponsor, Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan.
The governor’s veto of SB 4 was overridden by more than the required threshold in the House and Senate, with 72 representatives and 39 senators voting to nullify the governor’s veto. HB 29 was upheld by a closer margin, with 67 representatives (the two-thirds threshold in that chamber) voting to override the veto, alongside 39 senators (four more than the requirement).
Several more lawmakers opposed the policies in polling than when the bills were considered during the session. Roughly 30 Republicans and Democrats voted in alignment with the governor’s vetos, shedding light on some of the tense political dynamics that have developed since lawmakers left Helena after sine die. As MTFP previously reported, the governor’s office had been leaning on lawmakers to oppose the override effort while strategically withholding approval of other bipartisan measures: an affordable child care bill and a key part of the state budget to boost reimbursements for health care providers who take care of Medicaid patients.
Despite the overrides of SB 4 and HB 29, the governor’s office notched a partial win Thursday related to that campaign. Another much-watched bill Gianforte opposed, House Bill 37, would have significantly changed the state’s process for responding to child welfare cases by requiring a judicial warrant for child removals except in certain emergency situations — a measure the health department said would risk tying caseworkers’ hands in urgent scenarios. Despite near unanimous support for HB 37 during the legislative session, lawmakers did not meet the two-thirds requirement to reverse Gianforte’s veto. The override failed by seven votes in the House.
That margin was due to flips of support from some Republicans and Democrats. Other lawmakers, including Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, simply did not return their ballots in time to have them counted. Dissenting lawmakers who responded to MTFP’s inquiries on Friday said they were swayed by the governor’s reasoning against the bills as presented in his veto letters.
Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman, the sponsor of the affordable childcare bill awaiting Gianforte’s signature, was among the legislators who voted to uphold the governor’s vetoes of HB 29 and HB 37, despite having supported both policies during the session. She attributed her decision to a reconsideration of the reforms the governor rejected.
“The vetoes caused me concern about the administration’s interest and ability to implement these policies,” Buckley said in a Friday statement. “I felt like we needed to come back to the drawing board over the interim and search for more workable policy solutions.”
—Mara Silvers, Reporter
On Our Radar
Amanda — I’ve been admiring this Lower Gallatin watershed storymap by the Gallatin Watershed Council. It includes great information on the ecology, history and policy of wetlands in the Gallatin basin.
Alex — Killer rabbits. Exploding kings. Incontinence. This was the kind of comedic material that had peasants in 15th century England rolling across barroom floors, according to a centuries-old manuscript written about in the Washington Post this week. One thing I love about studying history: Some aspects of humanity, including our sense of humor, are timeless.
Mara — For those interested in Montana’s local behavioral health providers and the availability of crisis services, some good news might be on the horizon in Helena. Helena’s Independent Record reported this week that local officials are considering routing a state grant toward the reopening of Journey Home, an eight-bed adult stabilization facility, operated by a new community mental health provider. We’ll be keeping tabs on that development.
Arren — In welcome news to reporters and politicos everywhere, iPhones will no longer autocorrect a certain four-letter word to “duck,” per the New York Times.
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