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.
The producers tell me we’re running long today, so I’ve got to keep this tight:
- The staff of Montana Free Press is taking our annual summer holiday next week, July 3-7. We’ll still be publishing a few pre-scheduled stories next Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, but there’ll be no Capitolized or Lowdownnewsletters next week.
- If you’re looking for a chewy longform story to tide you over, allow me to recommend education reporter Alex Sakariassen’s “How Montana schools are preparing for worst-case scenarios.” It’s a deeply reported and sensitively felt examination of the threats facing public school children and the policies and people trying to protect them, and an excellent example of the kind of journalism MTFP is sincerely proud to produce and present.
- Speaking of proud, please join me in congratulating environmental reporter Amanda Eggert, who took Best News Story in this month’s Montana Newspaper Association Awards for her investigation of the state commerce department’s “Come Home Montana” campaign. In the same contest, contributor Jill Van Alstyn earned a 3rd Place in Best Feature Story and a 2nd in Education Reporting for “Survival Mode in Lame Deer”; contributor Sarah Mosquera earned MTFP’s first-ever 1st Place Portrait Photo for her work in “A Bison Range Homecoming”; staff reporter Alex Sakariassen snagged a 2nd Place for Best Investigative Journalism; and the whole staff gets credit for our 2nd Place in Best Website. Meanwhile, the Montana Broadcasters Association’s E.B. Craney Awards recognized the second season of Shared State — a joint effort of Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio led by MTFP’s Mara Silvers, Nick Mott, and MTPR news director Corin-Cates Carney — as Montana’s Best Podcast.
- And finally, we’re looking to hire another reporter to help us produce another year’s worth and more of award-worthy reporting. MTFP’s news Indigenous Affairs reporter will join a talented team that’s dedicated to providing the best available coverage of the stories that matter to all Montanans. Is that you? Everything you need to know about how to apply is right here.
We’ll see you again on the 10th. We’re wishing you a safe and satisfying holiday until then.
—Brad Tyer, Editor
“Defendants were made aware numerous times that their conduct was in violation of this Court’s valid Order, yet they willfully and continuously thumbed their nose at this Court, wasting Plaintiffs’ time, energy, and money to enforce that Order and violating the constitutional rights of Montanans. Plaintiffs should be reimbursed for the time expended.”
—District Court Judge Michael Moses of Billings, in an order issued Monday in Marquez v. State, a yearslong court case over how transgender people can update the sex on their birth certificates. Moses held the state health department and other defendants in contempt of court for not abiding by an earlier ruling to reimplement a prior, more lenient policy for processing birth certificate changes while the challenge over a 2021 Republican-backed law was underway. Moses also ruled that the state, in addition to paying attorneys’ fees to the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Montana related to the contempt order, must pay plaintiff attorneys’ fees for the entirety of the litigation.
Hot Potato 🥔
Hikers, floaters and wildlife watchers will be required to purchase a conservation license to use a good chunk of the land managed by state agencies starting Saturday, July 1. Recreationists age 12 and older will be required to purchase a conservation license if they’re using a fishing access site, wildlife management area or state trust land managed by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks or the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The cost ranges from $4 to $10, depending on age and residency.
The fee, sometimes called a “backpack tax,” spreads the responsibility for supporting state resources by requiring those who aren’t hunting or trapping wildlife or casting for fish to pitch in for the maintenance of recreational sites. Hunters, trappers and anglers with valid 2023 licenses have already paid a conservation license, so they’re already set.
The fee was established by House Bill 521, which garnered support from 8 out of 10 lawmakers this past session.
FWP’s “support the lands you love” tag line garnered a stir on social media platforms, with some arguing it’s un-Montanan to levy fees on people picnicking at public fishing access sites or hiking trails that start on, wind up at, or pass through state trust lands. Others argue that recreational use comes with a cost, and all users should pitch in for parking areas, boat ramps, signage, trash collection, latrine maintenance and the like.
“This might be the most ridiculous thing I’ve seen yet,” Mark Ketcham tweeted in response. “Find a way to raise more taxes, without raising taxes. We’ve gotten all we can out of the middle class, let’s go after their kids now.”
A post about the license on “The Real Ask Bozeman,” meanwhile, found more conservation license-expansion defenders, including Jason C Miller:
“Everyone realizes that using fishing access sites has never been free, just that hunters and anglers have been paying everyone’s way, right? Pony up for maintenance, folks, those vault toilets don’t magically empty themselves.”
For its part, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has pitched the license as part civic responsibility, part regulatory relief.
In a June 28 press release, FWP said it and the DNRC worked with the Legislature on the conservation license expansion, which the agency described as consistent with the recommendations of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s Red Tape Relief Task Force. The agencies say they have “simplified licensing requirements on state lands” by consolidating the conservation license (already required of consumptive users) and the state lands recreational use license (which was already required for recreational use of state trust lands).
FWP said the one license now opens access to 330 fishing access sites, 77 wildlife management areas, an (unspecified) number of wildlife habitat protection areas, and “legally accessible state trust lands.”
“Conservation license purchases help fund Montana schools,” DNRC Director Amanda Kaster said in the release. FWP Director Dustin Temple said the effort will ensure that maintenance costs are “shared by all users, not just hunters, anglers and trappers.”
FWP has prepared an FAQ with more information on the why, where and how of purchasing the licenses.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
The Viz 📈
It’s no secret that prices in Montana’s real estate market have risen dramatically in recent years, but the state’s breakneck appreciation was driven home for many residents this month when the Montana Department of Revenue sent out its every-other-year reappraisal notices, informing property owners about updates to the value estimates used to calculate property taxes. The increases — commonly 40%, 50%, 60% — or even higher, left many homeowners with their jaws on the floor.
Statewide, the median residential property saw its value increase by a whopping 46%, the revenue department reported. But that value growth was distributed unevenly across the state.
Counties in western Montana — especially rural counties that were until recently blessed with cheap housing — saw the highest percentage increases. Granite County, around Philipsburg and Drummond, saw its median home valuation rise 67%, from $182,000 to $304,410, the largest increase in the state. Similarly, median values increased by 64%, to $185,880, in Meagher County (White Sulphur Springs) and 60% to $185,915 in Deer Lodge County (Anaconda).
Some of the state’s longtime real estate hot spots saw smaller percentage increases that are nonetheless significant in dollar terms. Median residential values in Gallatin County, which includes Bozeman, rose 59% to $646,000. Flathead County saw a 45% increase to $444,700, and Missoula County saw a 37% increase to $413,200.
Complete data, including similar figures for commercial assessments, is available on the department website.
Also worth a look in case you missed it last week: our visual guide to how property taxes actually work.
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
Glad You Asked 🙋🏻
We’ve had hundreds of responses so far to our call for reader questions about this year’s round of property reappraisals. Among the most common (slightly paraphrased):
Where the $#*& are these numbers coming from?
The simple answer is they’re the state revenue department’s best effort to estimate the market value for each residential property in the state as of Jan. 1, 2022. In legal terms, appraised value is the price the department thinks a property would sell for between “a willing buyer and a willing seller.”
Of course, producing reasonably accurate value estimates for hundreds of thousands of properties from Yaak to Alzada isn’t exactly an easy job. As the department details in its 61-page valuation manual, it relies on a complex statistical model to estimate property values en masse.
While actual property sale prices are kept private in Montana, department staff have access to confidential Realty Transfer Certificates filed with county clerks when properties are sold. Revenue department staff combine that sales data with information about the size and character of individual properties — things like lot size, age of the structure and bathroom count (you can look up what’s in that part of their database at property.mt.gov).
One of the primary reasons property owners are notified of new assessment values is to give them a chance to appeal the estimate. If, for example, the department is under the impression your home has a bathroom you’re not aware of, you can file an appeal form asking DOR staff to give your appraisal another look.
Keep in mind though that however jaw-dropping your appraisal increase is, there’s a non-trivial chance that it really is, for better or worse, in line with your local real estate market.
Because of Montana’s sale price privacy laws, we don’t have a perfect sense for precisely how unaffordable the state has gotten in recent years as more and more people compete for limited housing stock. But third-party estimates generally track with the state’s reappraisal numbers. Sales data from Missoula-area real estate agents, for example, suggests that the median price for homes sold in the county rose by 49% between 2020 and 2022. And real estate website Zillow estimates the typical Montana home value rose from $277,000 to $403,000 between January 2020 and January 2022. That 45% increase matches the revenue department’s number almost precisely.
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
By the Numbers 🔢
Montana students who were eligible for free or reduced-price school meals during the 2022-23 school year, according to data from the Office of Public Instruction. Starting in July, OPI will participate in a federal pilot program to test the use of income information from Montana’s Medicaid database to automatically certify students for school food assistance. Meanwhile, the Department of Public Health and Human Services this year is conducting ongoing reevaluations of its Medicaid rolls, so far resulting in lost coverage for more than 15,000 people. Both agencies claim that the reevaluations will not impact OPI’s use of Medicaid data for the school meal pilot.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
The Gist 📌
On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court released an opinion that will likely impact one of the arguments Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen has put forth in an appeal to the Montana Supreme Court about state election laws.
The high court’s decision resolved Moore v. Harper and issued a telling rejection of a legal conjecture called the independent state legislature theory. The theory postulates that the Elections Clause of the U.S. Constitution gives state legislatures unbridled authority in governing the time, place and manner of federal elections, free from the checks and balances of state judicial review. Several legal experts have described for Montana Free Press, in no uncertain terms, the implications that theory posed to the separation of powers at the center of American democracy.
As Eliza Sweren-Becker, voting rights counsel at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, told MTFP this week, the independent state legislature theory “reemerged from the wastebasket of academia” during the 2020 election cycle. It’s since been used to challenge pandemic-era changes to state voting practices implemented by non-legislative officials, and to bolster attempts at overturning the results of the 2020 presidential election. The Center for Election Innovation and Research’s executive director, David Becker, said the Supreme Court’s reaffirmation of the “guardrails” of state judicial review in election matters came at a critical time — 16 months ahead of the 2024 presidential contest.
It also comes at an interesting time for the Treasure State. Jacobsen has requested that the Montana Supreme Court overturn a 2022 district court ruling that struck down four new state election laws as unconstitutional, among them a law ending same-day voter registration. One of her legal team’s arguments is that the laws fall squarely within the Legislature’s purview under the U.S. Constitution’s Elections Clause, and that preventing lawmakers from regulating elections violates the “explicit and mandatory delegation of authority” granted by that clause.
The argument amounts to just a sliver of Jacobsen’s opening brief, which dedicates far more pages to advancing the legitimacy and constitutionality of the challenged laws. But Sweren-Becker anticipates that the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent foreclosure of the independent state legislature theory will extend to state courts as well.
“I think that is a signal to litigants who are trying to advance this theory, continuing to try to advance this theory in lower courts, that there’s no wiggle room here,” Sweren-Becker said.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
As of Thursday evening, five Montana Rail Link railcars that plummeted into the Yellowstone River near Reed Point Saturday morning had been removed by crews responding to the incident. The cars remaining in the river include two containing molten asphalt, two containing molten sulfur and one car carrying scrap metal.
Asphalt and sulfur have leaked into the river as a result of the incident, officials with Montana Rail Link and state and federal environmental protection agencies said, adding that there are no known risks to public drinking water systems or private wells.
The Oiled Wildlife Care Network is responding to the scene to provide veterinary care to impacted wildlife. The Unified Command Team said in a June 28 press release that it had not received reports of impacted wildlife.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
Following the Law ⚖️
A public records request bill the Legislature passed in April has found its way into a court order directing Gov. Greg Gianforte to turn over his communications with a mining company seeking to open two mines in northwest Montana.
In an order referencing the right to know enshrined in the Montana Constitution, a Helena judge directed Gianforte to comply with an 18-month-old request for his communications with Hecla. Montana Environmental Information Center and Earthworks requested the material in November 2021 to better understand why the Montana Department of Environmental Quality changed course under the Gianforte administration, opting not to pursue a “bad actor” designation against Hecla’s CEO, Philip Baker Jr. Baker was an executive with Pegasus Gold when it went bankrupt in the late 1990s, leaving state and federal agencies with an expensive acid mine drainage problem in the Little Rocky Mountains that continues to contaminate drinking water supplies.
Gianforte cited attorney-client privilege and “executive privilege” in declining to produce the records. Those arguments held little sway with Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Christopher Abbott.
“If there were any doubt as to the legislature’s intentions when they enacted the public records statutes, the legislature has now resolved that doubt,” Abbott wrote, going on to describe House Bill 693, which holds that a public agency can’t refuse to disclose public information just because it’s the subject of litigation or may become the subject of litigation.
Gianforte vetoed HB 693 on May 5, arguing that the bill “encourages trial lawyers with deep pockets to abuse the Right to Know, giving them an unfair advantage.” Lawmakers produced the votes necessary to override the veto in early June.
Abbott noted that the law won’t go into effect until Oct. 1. “Nevertheless,” he wrote, “it further establishes that even under present law, it is the legislature’s intention that the existence of litigation does not provide a basis for withholding information otherwise validly sought by a public records request.”
In December, one of Abbott’s colleagues in Lewis and Clark County District Court ordered Gianforte to produce records in a lawsuit that involved similar legal claims about a different set of documents: agency bill monitoring forms, which leaders of various agencies used to keep tabs on potentially impactful bills moving through the Capitol during the 2021 legislative session.
Earlier this month, the governor’s office filed a motion for reconsideration, an action somewhat similar to an appeal, except that the decision remains under the same judge’s purview. In that motion, Gianforte’s lawyer argued that she received new information regarding previous administrations’ use of agency bill monitoring forms that should inform the judge’s decision.
Attorneys representing the plaintiff in that case, public lands activist Jayson O’Neill, are expected to file a response brief next week. If one of the parties is unhappy with the outcome of the reconsideration motion, an appeal to the Montana Supreme Court is on the table.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter