The MT Lowdown is a weekly digest that showcases a more personal side of Montana Free Press’ high-quality reporting while keeping you up to speed on the biggest news impacting Montanans. Want to see the MT Lowdown in your inbox every Friday? Sign up here.
As we head into summer — and it is going to warm up eventually, right? — we’ve been looking for ways to help our newsroom staff expand beyond their usual haunts (the halls of the Capitol in Helena, for instance). For one of our reporters, that means a first-ever float down the Smith River this week. For another, it’s an investigative reporting conference in Orlando that’s wrapping up as I write this. And for each of our reporters, before fall’s first snow flies, it will be participation in a new initiative we’re calling “reporter residencies,” where MTFP reporters will spend a week embedded with a local newsroom serving a community that’s a bit off our beaten track. What we hope to get out of the project is a summer’s worth of local reporting informed by local expertise that we can share with you.
First up, Deputy Editor Eric Dietrich will be in Stevensville next week, working out of the Bitterroot Star newsroom June 26-30. Eric, who focuses on business and economy reporting, will spend his time working on stories about small-scale manufacturing businesses in the Bitterroot and property tax reappraisals. He’d also love to hear from you if you have other ideas for people or topics he should look up while he’s out that way (or if you just want to say hi). You can reach him at email@example.com.
—Brad Tyer, Editor
“Plaintiffs have essentially characterized the state as so-called climate deniers, but in doing so they conveniently ignore the fact that defendants have explicitly agreed that components of their governmental functions have resulted in the extraction, transportation and consumption of fossil fuels, and this results in greenhouse gas emissions. Those are agreed facts 19 and 20. Plaintiffs further ignore the fact that before trial started, we stipulated for the purposes of trial, that there is a scientific consensus that earth is warming as a direct result of human GHG emissions, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels. These facts, therefore, are not at issue.”
—Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell, speaking before Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Kathy Seeley in closing arguments for the Held v. Montana youth climate trial. The seven-day trial brought an international spotlight to Helena, and has been the subject of much interest in environmental and legal circles.
Russell went on to argue that while scientific interpretations might not be central to the lawsuit, legal interpretations are — namely whether the state should be held responsible for its contributions to a global issue and whether the judicial system rightly possesses the authority to steer Montana’s energy sector toward a fossil fuel-free future.
Attorneys for the 16 youth plaintiffs and for the state have been asked to submit proposed findings to Judge Seeley, who will then issue an order. The timing for that order remains uncertain. If you’re interested in blow-by-blow coverage of the trial produced by Flathead Beacon reporter Micah Drew in conjunction with Montana Free Press, you can find that here.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
The Viz 📈
We’ve been hearing from many, many Montanans who’ve received eye-popping property tax reappraisal notices this month — so many, in fact, that we figured it was a good time to take a crack at explaining how property taxes actually work.
Our full explainer story, available here, is quite long and (inevitably) pretty wonky, but it does include a bunch of images in an effort to make things at least a little easier for interested readers to digest. Here’s a sample:
The big thing to know here? Basically, if you own a home in Montana, what matters as far as your tax bill is concerned isn’t its dollar value, which has probably gone up a bunch the last couple years. What matters is the proportion of your community’s tax base that your home’s taxable value represents.
If you own one of the $300,000 homes in this example, you’re 8% of the tax base and responsible for 8% of the school budget. If you live in a larger community where your property is, say, 1/10,000th of your county or school district’s tax base, you’re responsible for 1/10,000th of its budget (or 1/10,000th of the portion of its budget that’s funded by property taxes).
That means that what matters for your tax bill isn’t your home’s dollar value, but its dollar value relative to all your neighbors (non-residential properties included). If everyone’s property values go up proportionately, your tax bill theoretically shouldn’t change — unless your local governments are growing their budgets.
Anyway, that’s the short version of our effort to make some sense of some very tricky (and very expensive) math. Again, you can find the full version here.
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
The Gist 📌
Roughly three dozen people tuned into a virtual forum Wednesday hosted by state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen, many with burning questions about the evening’s central topic: charter schools. With not one but two new Montana laws creating separate pathways for starting such schools, the Office of Public Instruction’s chief legal counsel, Rob Stutz, sought to highlight the key distinctions between House Bill 549 and House Bill 562. But as participants chimed in, the conversation remained largely fixed on the latter law, now the subject of a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality.
The barrage of queries probed various aspects of HB 562’s so-called community choice schools: Will those charters be required to comply with the Montana Constitution’s Indian Education for All provision? Who will be allowed to vote in the charters’ school board elections? Will teachers at the schools need to meet state licensing requirements? The participants behind such questions repeatedly prefaced them with references to HB 562’s exemption for charters from much of Title 20, a block of state law governing various aspects of public education including teacher licensing and Indian education requirements.
Stutz strove to answer each question in the context of both bills, pointing to near-identical language laying out the Legislature’s intent to advance “preservation of American Indian cultural identity” and to “eliminate” the achievement gap for Indigenous students. He also stressed the role that per-pupil state funding would play in holding charters accountable to Indian Education for All. He sidestepped the issue of constitutionality, citing the ongoing litigation, but as to licensing, he acknowledged that HB 562 allows charter schools to contract educational services from outside entities, which “wouldn’t necessarily include teachers licensed by OPI.”
In the forum’s final minutes, one participant pressed Stutz a final time about the Title 20 exemptions, saying he found HB 562 to be “problematic.” Stutz replied that the law’s reference to Title 20 “certainly says whatever it is that it says.” But, he added, HB 562 doesn’t say that it’s exempt from compliance with the state Constitution — a document many education advocates have characterized as the bedrock of a free, quality public education for all Montanans.
The next milestone in the lawsuit questioning that compliance will come July 17, when a Lewis and Clark County District Court judge holds a hearing on whether to grant an injunction blocking the law while litigation proceeds. As for Arntzen’s continued slate of virtual “parental updates” about recent changes to education policy, the second is slated for June 26 at 7 p.m., and will focus on new laws governing obscenity and religious practices in public schools.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
Tyson Middle is the most public graffiti artist in Billings, having produced work from the west end to downtown. He has spray-painted the Shiloh Road pedestrian tunnel, created elaborate murals in the downtown skate park, and worked with many private businesses who offer up “sanctioned walls” for Middle and other artists to paint.
“I am the name and face to graffiti in Billings,” he said.
Billings-based reporter Anna Paige profiled Middle this week for MTFP’s story about a Montana artist walking a fine line between craft and vandalism.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
Wildlife Watch 🎣
Troubling declines in trout populations across several of Montana’s iconic fisheries have led a group of anglers, fishing guides and community members to launch a “Save Wild Trout” initiative in hopes of better understanding the cause of those declines.
Earlier this week, Wade Fellin, co-owner of Big Hole Lodge, announced the launch of the privately funded effort to develop science-based solutions to the problem, which he describes as an “ecological emergency” affecting salmonid species in the Big Hole, Ruby and Beaverhead rivers.
“We are near or at historic lows throughout the basin, with very few recruitment numbers for younger trout — and no one knows exactly what’s causing the crash,” Fellin said in a video posted to the recently unveiled website. “It’s an emergency situation for one of the last intact, cold-water wild trout fisheries with Arctic grayling and westslope cutthroat in the Lower 48.”
Fellin added that Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has yet to conduct testing on dead fish it collected last year, and while there are theories about the collapse of rainbow and brown trout populations — fungal diseases and bacterial outbreaks among them — the cause could lie in a confluence of factors. Nutrient pollution, algal blooms, angling pressure, and warmer, lower streamflows wrought by earlier snowmelt have been suggested as possibilities.
Fellin said outfitters who’ve joined Save Wild Trout have committed to measures to protect the fishery (e.g., catch-and-release angling only, stowing double-barbed hook lures, nixing grip-and-grin photos, and calling it quits for the day when stream temperatures exceed 68 degrees).
The economies of rural communities such as Wise River, Melrose and Twin Bridges are also threatened by the declines, Fellin said. The fisheries that help sustain those communities demand that “we act boldly and decisively,” he said. A release about the launch of Save Wild Trout also notes that concerned citizens and organizations have for three consecutive years pitched Gov. Greg Gianforte on the development of a cold water fisheries task force composed of experts in biology, water quality and water quantity — to no avail.
For its part, the state Fish and Wildlife Commission voted June 8 to adopt angling restrictions on stretches of the Big Hole, Beaverhead and Ruby rivers. Though summertime “hoot owl” (afternoon) closures are common on those rivers, they aren’t typically implemented this early in the season. The restrictions were triggered by bleak population data, which show that stretches of the Big Hole River, for example, have dipped below the 25th percentile in terms of trout-per-mile counts. The Jerry Creek stretch of the Big Hole hasn’t seen such low combined densities of rainbow and brown trout in nearly 40 years of electrofishing data collection.
The restrictions adopted by the commission vary from river to river, and even within different stretches of the same river. Details are available here.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
On Our Radar
Amanda — I worked as a freelance writer (including for MTFP!) for a few years prior to being offered a spot on MTFP’s masthead. Those days are behind me now, but I’m still fascinated by the creativity and hustle I find in friends who make the writing life work. I therefore loved this story in the Guardian about one writer’s avenue to both community and a (reasonably) stable income.
Alex — Every so often, I get the feeling that I’m watching a major news event shoulder-to-shoulder with people across the globe, all of us gripped by some universal fascination and suspense. That’s exactly what the past week felt like reading about the Titan submersible search, which culminated in a tragic announcement Thursday that some seasoned deep-sea explorers believe was all too predictable.
Eric — Reddit management drama has replaced Twitter management drama as the big news about social media spaces on the Internet the past couple weeks. I’ve found Casey Newton’s Platformer Substack to be the most consistently useful reporting on the turmoil that could usher fundamental changes into some of the most widely visited places on the web.
*Some stories may require a subscription. Subscribe!