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Just hours before the commencement of the Montana Republican Party’s 2023 officers’ convention, the U.S. Department of Justice unveiled a federal indictment of former President Donald Trump, who faces 37 felony counts related to his alleged mishandling of classified documents after leaving the White House and subsequent attempts to muddy the waters of a federal investigation. Trump, who is running for his old job again in 2024, is the first former president to face federal charges.
But inside the convention — at least the limited portions that were open to the press and public — you’d hardly have known it. And that was with former Trump cabinet official turned Montana congressman Ryan Zinke in attendance and former Trump adviser Stephen Miller delivering the weekend’s keynote address.
Among the convention’s official speakers and guests, the indictment seemed barely to register. Most of Miller’s speech was focused on U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, Montana’s lone statewide-elected Democrat and a major target of the GOP both locally and nationally as it looks to retake the U.S. Senate.
Miller, an architect of the Trump administration’s immigration policies and a major proponent of 2020 election fraud theories, addressed the former president’s unprecedented indictment only in the context of criticism toward the Oval Office’s current occupant and Democrats’ approach to migrants at the southern border.
“To show you how sick and demented the Democratic Party has become, we’re getting lectures from them, from their DOJ, right now, on the rule of law, when Jon Tester, the Democrats in the Senate and Joe Biden are participating in the largest human trafficking scheme in human history,” Miller said, referring to migrants crossing the southern border. He then set his sights on Hillary Clinton and her email controversy while serving as secretary of state.
“And they’re trying to put President Trump in jail over a documents dispute, when you had Hillary Clinton deleting 30,000 emails after she got a congressional subpoena?” he continued.
The indictment released by the Justice Department last week says that as he left the White House, Trump directed dozens of boxes of personal effects and papers to be transported to his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida. Allegedly, the boxes also contained hundreds of pages of classified documents.
Some of the documents made it to his summer residence at New Jersey’s Bedminster golf club, where on some occasions Trump — again, allegedly — showed classified materials to political associates without security clearances, and seemed to know he shouldn’t.
The indictment also alleges that Trump and his aides tried to conceal boxes of documents in response to a grand jury subpoena, among other acts of potential obstruction. Trump pleaded not guilty on all 37 charges earlier this week.
Following the convention in Missoula, Montana GOP Chairman Don “K” Kaltschmidt was asked by a reporter whether the indictment suggests a need for the party to reappraise Trump, or even move past him.
In 2020, Kaltschmidt dubbed Montana “Trumptana.” This weekend he left the question up to voters.
“If Trump’s our candidate, then we’re gonna get behind him and go full-bore,” Kaltschmidt said. “In Montana, he plays pretty well. We’re not afraid of President Trump being our nominee. However, if the voters go with [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis, [former South Carolina Gov.] Nikki Haley, somebody else, then we’ll get behind them. That’s what it’s about. The Montana Republican Party is not about primaries.”
Members of Montana’s federal delegation, meanwhile, have been relatively quiet about the Trump indictment. A spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, Tester’s GOP counterpart, said Daines would not be available for a phone interview this week and directed Montana Free Press to one of the junior senator’s tweets. Daines, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has already endorsed Trump for the presidency in 2024.
“The two standards of justice under Biden’s DOJ is appalling,” the tweet reads. “When will Hunter Biden be charged?”
“Look, you have the sitting president of the United States pushing for his administration to indict his most likely opponent in the 2024 election. It’s politically charged,” Daines told Vox this week.
A spokesperson for Tester said Tester also would not be available for an interview this week, but relayed the following statement, which danced around the core of the investigation: “Senator Tester believes everyone should be treated fairly and without bias during a criminal investigation, and he expects the treatment of former President Trump to be no different. He believes our criminal justice system must be without political influence, where no one is above the law, and all Americans are presumed innocent until proven guilty.”
Spokespeople for Montana’s U.S. House Reps. Zinke and Matt Rosendale, both Republicans, did not respond to MTFP’s requests for an interview. In a podcast with fellow GOP Reps. Andy Biggs and Bob Good, Rosendale framed the indictment in terms of unraveling trust in institutions like the courts, the Department of Justice and the FBI.
“That is the breakdown in these institutions that’s being caused by an out-of-control Department of Justice and a rogue administration,” he said.
—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter
By the Numbers 🔢
Spending authorized by the final version of the state budget bill, House Bill 2, signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte this week.
That sum includes $4.3 billion in spending from the state General Fund, which is funded in large part by income tax dollars. It also includes more than $7 billion in federal dollars routed through the state’s coffers.
Nearly half of the overall budget, $7.1 billion, is directed at health and human services programs, including hundreds of millions of dollars for increasing the rates paid to health care organizations that provide care through the state-administered Medicaid program. The budget bill also routes more than $600 million to the Montana University System and authorizes about $500 million for the operation of the state prison system.
The budget will guide state agency spending for the two-year budget cycle that starts July 1. It complements an array of other spending measures that, among other things, fund one-time infrastructure spending, adjust tax rates and expand childcare and housing affordability efforts.
While Gianforte issued line-item vetoes on portions of a major infrastructure billlast month, he signed the main budget bill in its entirety. In a release this week, the governor’s office touted the overall suite of spending measures passed this year as “one of the most transformational budgets in state history.”
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
On Your Radar
If you’re fortunate enough to own a home in Montana, keep an eye out in the coming weeks for a reappraisal notice from the state Department of Revenue that will tell you how much the property value used to calculate your tax bill has changed over the last two years.
Given Montana’s soaring housing prices, those notices are likely to cause a few heart attacks. Revenue analysts told lawmakers last November that they expected residential property values to increase by a whopping 43% on averagebetween 2022 and 2023.
It’s tricky, however, to tell precisely how those higher property values will translate to tax bills. The state’s appraisal notices will estimate new tax obligations, but its calculations will use last year’s tax rates — meaning tax rates that aren’t adjusted to account for reappraisal. In theory, at least, widespread property value increases will grow local tax bases, meaning cities, counties and school districts could bring in the same amount of tax dollars with lower rates going forward. For taxpayers, that dynamic could offset some property value growth.
Another wrinkle: The department’s projections expect residential values to grow faster than valuations for commercial and agricultural properties. That means this reappraisal cycle will likely pull tax burden onto homeowners from people and businesses that own non-residential property. And that’s all on top of how local government budgets are shifting as they try to maintain services amid high inflation.
A spokesperson noted this week that the revenue department plans to conduct a series of public meetings in July to give property owners a chance to learn more about their new valuations.
While rising property taxes have become an increasingly hot-button political issue, Montana lawmakers didn’t manage to negotiate a politically viable long-term fix for property tax pain during this year’s legislative session. The Republican-controlled Legislature did, however, approve a short-term measure: property tax rebates that will provide two-time relief of up to $675 a year for Montana homeowners on their 2022 and 2023 taxes.
Have questions about your reappraisal notice once it comes in? We’d love to hear about it as we think about how we can effectively cover tax angst going forward. Reply here or email reporter Eric Dietrich at email@example.com.
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
“It’s just really scary that life is going to change when you feel so good.”
—Butte resident Jessica Cash, 48, who credits Medicaid coverage for her significantly improved mental and physical health over the last three years. An office manager whose hours were cut during the pandemic, Cash told MTFP she anticipates an end to her eligibility for the public health insurance program now that she has returned to working 40 hours a week at $16 an hour. The insurance coverage of more than 320,000 Montanans will be reevaluated over the next eight months as the state health department sifts through Medicaid rolls for the first time since a freeze in early 2020 — a freeze that was lifted with the end of the federal public health emergency designation.
—Mara Silvers, Reporter
Following the Law ⚖️
House Bill 971, a measure passed by the Montana Legislature in April and signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte May 10, is making another round of ripples in legal and regulatory settings. Citing passage of the bill, which bars the state from considering greenhouse gas emissions and climate-related impacts in environmental reviews, Yellowstone County District Court Judge Michael Moses on June 8 lifted his stay on the gas plant NorthWestern Energy is building in Laurel.
The state’s largest utility told the Billings Gazette it will resume construction on the plant as soon as possible. NorthWestern reported that about 110 people were laid off in mid-April as a result of Moses’ earlier order revoking the plant’s air quality permit on the grounds that the state had failed to consider the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions and lighting in its environmental review.
In addition to featuring prominently in the debate over the gas plant, HB 971 was referenced in the proceedings of the Held v. Montana climate trial that started Monday and is expected to continue through next Friday.
During her expert testimony for the plaintiffs, Montana Environmental Information Center co-director Anne Hedges said bills like HB 971 are representative of the Montana Legislature’s willingness to do the “bidding of the fossil fuel industry.” Allegations of a strong preference for fossil fuel energy sources among the executive and legislative branches features prominently in that lawsuit.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
Hot Potato 🥔
On Wednesday, a coalition of teachers, parents and state education associations brought a legal challenge against one of Montana’s two new charter school laws. The complaint laid out a string of arguments alleging that House Bill 562 violates the Montana Constitution in its use of taxpayer funds to support charters and the exemption it grants those schools from compliance with existing teacher licensing and school quality regulations.
The lawsuit came as little surprise to anyone, and not just because one of the plaintiffs — the Montana Quality Education Coalition — announced its intentions last month. Debate over the likelihood of litigation came up throughout the bill’s bumpy road to passage in the 2023 Legislature. When HB 562 first appeared on the Senate floor during the final days of the session, a majority of the chamber resisted, voting the measure down 23-27. When they revived the issue two days later, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick acknowledged the constitutionality questions hanging over the bill.
“We should pass the bill, let the court decide whether it’s valid or not, because this issue’s going to come around forever and ever and ever,” Fitzpatrick told his Republican colleagues during a pre-vote caucus meeting April 28.
Despite repeated warnings of the possibility of a lawsuit — one that would inevitably cost the state money — HB 562 cleared its second Senate attempt 28-22.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, was less than shocked by the events of this week. Speaking with Montana Free Press Wednesday, Vinton framed the lawsuit as an “unfortunate” but foreseeable response from HB 562’s opponents.
“They can’t win in public opinion or at the Legislature, so they go to the courts,” she said.
As far as the public opinion argument goes, those opponents beg to differ, pointing to the latest messaging logs on HB 562 from the Legislative Services Division: 574 public messages for, 2,030 against. Even so, lawmakers opted to take a chance on the law, as did Gov. Greg Gianforte. Now, as predicted, the question of its constitutionality falls to the third branch of Montana’s government to resolve.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
On Our Radar
Amanda — News out of Colorado regarding a fisherman’s attempt to expand wading access to the Arkansas River (spoiler alert: the judge didn’t rule in his favor) reminds me how unique Montana’s Stream Access Law is. This piece in the Colorado Sun highlights some of the legal push-and-pull between the public trust doctrine and private property rights.
Alex — Last weekend I hoovered up all 387 pages of author Damien Lewis’ 2022 biography “Agent Josephine,” which chronicles St. Louis-born singer Josephine Baker’s transformation from famed Paris entertainer to French resistance fighter in World War II. As tired as the cliche is, the book is impossible to put down for anyone interested in history, politics or the struggle against bigotry.
Mara — Reporting on the ongoing Medicaid eligibility reviews in Montana has introduced me to the world of health cost sharing programs, such as Christian Health Care Sharing from Samaritan Ministries. This KFF Health News piece is a good primer on the difference between health insurance and cost sharing. If any of our readers have good, bad or mixed experiences with a program like this, I’d love to learn more. Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arren — That the American West — and especially the southwest — is in the midst of a water crisis is no surprise. But this collaboration from High Country News and ProPublica illuminates a deeper struggle for water rights between my home state of Arizona and the Navajo Nation, the largest land area held by a tribe in the U.S.
Eric — Why is a Missoula garbage-hauling company shipping trash to Helena’s landfill, on the far side of the Continental Divide? As the Missoulian’s David Erickson details here, the answer involves utility regulators, landfill access and an all-out price war as a longtime garbage monopoly tries to defend its turf.
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