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Next Monday, Oct. 8, is, at least by federal proclamation, Indigenous Peoples’ Day. But most states — including Montana, where about 9% of residents have Native American heritage — don’t treat it as a paid holiday, or even officially recognize the day at all. 

Even nationally, despite President Joe Biden’s formal commemoration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day two years ago, federal employees will have a day off Monday in celebration of Christopher Columbus, the 15th-century Italian explorer who opened the door for European colonization of the Americas — and the ensuing rape, genocide, exploitation and enslavement of its inhabitants.

(A coalition of federal lawmakers has reintroduced legislation to strip Columbus’ name from the second Monday in October, replacing it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, though it hasn’t passed.)

Still, official Columbus Day holidays are on the wane. According to Pew Research, only 16 states still mark the day with a paid holiday for state workers, Montana among them. Most states let the day pass like any other. Some commemorate the day but don’t grant time off, others celebrate both Columbus and the people for whom his arrival in the New World was a harbinger of doom. 

Additionally, a handful of states specifically commemorate Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a paid holiday, including South Dakota, which calls it Native Americans’ Day, alongside New Mexico, Washington, and others. 

Montana lawmakers have attempted to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day as recently as the 2023 legislative session, when a group of Democrats from the Legislature’s American Indian Caucus led by Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, introduced a bill to that effect. 

The bill died in committee, but supporters made a motion on the Senate floor to revive the proposal for debate. The motion led to bruising comments in opposition from Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, who chaired the committee that tabled the bill. 

Salomon told the Senate that in committee testimony, “[Morigeau] starts off with, and I can quote, with accusing Columbus of rape, beheading, amputations, slicing torsos in two, sex trafficking. You can imagine where this hearing went in a hurry.”

Salomon said the comments infuriated him, and accused Morigeau, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation, of killing his own bill. 

“The committee killed the bill, not me,” Morgieau responded. “I don’t know how you have a discussion about someone who was identified historically during his time to have done things that were not part of the norm without actually talking about those things. I don’t think we can have discussions about things and hide history and whitewash history.”

The motion to bring the bill back for debate failed. Montana, which counts about 67,000 Indigenous residents and another 30,000 multiracial residents with Indigenous ancestry, will celebrate Columbus Day on Monday.

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter

Following the Law ⚖️

The state of Montana has formally appealed a judge’s ruling in favor of youth plaintiffs in the Held v. Montana case, where a group of Montana youths had alleged that the state’s permissive approach to fossil fuel permitting has harmed their constitutional right to a “clean and healthful environment.”

The widely expected Notice of Appeal, filed in Lewis and Clark County District Court by the Montana attorney general’s office on Sept. 28, appealed eight orders issued by District Court Judge Kathy Seeley, including her most sweeping one — an Aug. 14 ruling declaring that the climate is included in the environmental protections enshrined in Montana’s Constitution.

The appeal also encompasses several earlier orders, such as the judge’s decision not to dismiss the case outright and not to rule on the case without taking it to trial. The state has also appealed a procedural order relating to which expert testimonies and reports were admitted into the lawsuit’s proceedings.

In future filings before the Montana Supreme Court, the state will describe why it believes Seeley erred in her orders. The plaintiffs will also have an opportunity to rebut those arguments.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter 

The Gist 📌

This spring, Republican lawmakers in Montana passed some of the most significant policy gains for the school choice movement in the state in decades. But, according to one of the nation’s leading promoters of conservative legislation, the Treasure State is still an average C student when it comes to “education freedom.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council — a conservative nonprofit that crafts model legislation with input from state lawmakers and private sector representatives — released a 50-state index of school choice policy last month. The new ALEC index based the rankings on each state’s embrace of school choice tenets including education savings accounts, charter schools and tax credits for private school scholarship donations. Montana fell in at 19th with an overall score of 50. For context, Florida — the poster child for Republican-favored education policies — topped the rankings with a score of 95. Idaho came in 8th with a score of 68.

The index marked a departure from ALEC’s past method for ranking states on their education laws. Prior to 2023, the organization produced an annual report card that also weighed outside factors such as national test scores and per-pupil spending (Montana’s most recent ranking under that model was 43rd). Now the rankings lean exclusively on the types of policies ALEC itself has helped draft and promote through its model policy library, items like a tax exemption for church-owned properties used for homeschooling and a charter school bill that bears numerous similarities to Montana’s new community choice school law.

In fact, according to ALEC’s scoring methodology, charter school laws are one of the areas where Montana skews closer to the conservative ideal. House Bill 562, which is now partially blocked by a district court order, established a new system for authorizing charter schools and placed no cap on how many charter schools can operate in the state — provisions that won Montana a B grade in ALEC’s eyes. The organization noted that its source for scoring data was the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a prominent supporter of HB 562 last session.

Montana scored far lower in the areas of funding and open enrollment, not quite meeting ALEC’s benchmarks for making state education dollars directly available to families and allowing students to attend whatever district they choose. Given the regular appearance of school choice proposals and ALEC-inspired policy in Montana, those low scores could well telegraph the next round of policy battles between the school choice movement and the public school advocates who view such changes as an existential threat to the quality of Montana’s K-12 system.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Closeup 📸

Elizabeth Kohlstaedt, a retired clinical director of Intermountain Residential, helped build up the Helena therapeutic group home’s nationally recognized developmental/relational model for treating emotionally disturbed children and adolescents, many of whom have experienced trauma or neglect. “What is harmed by relationship can be healed by relationship,” Kohlstaedt often says. 

The decades-old, 32-bed group home has struggled to retain staff and operate at full capacity in recent years, a trend staff attribute to pandemic burnout and disruptive leadership turnover since 2022. After deciding in September to temporarily close the residential campus due to staff shortages, the board, interim CEO and staff have since announced plans to keep one eight-bed housing unit open while the program is rebuilt, citing a shared commitment to helping distressed children and honoring the developmental/relational model.

READ MORE: Why Intermountain Residential is ‘worth fighting for,’ despite months of turmoil.

Hot Potato 🥔

A war of words over one part of Montanans’ property tax bills escalated this week, with state government filing a lawsuit against Missoula County and the Montana Association of Counties accusing Montana School Boards Association Director Lance Melton of spreading “misinformation” regarding the dispute, which centers on a state-level property tax that collects money for schools.

Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office said it hopes the lawsuit will give a judge a chance to clarify how a state law that caps local government collection growth applies the “95 mills” property tax, which produce some of the revenue the state uses to equalize funding between rich and poor school districts. As rapidly rising property values swell that tax’s potential revenues, many county leaders have concluded the tax cap statute should prevent them from collecting the full 95 mills this year.

The governor, his legislative allies and education advocates — who built the current state education budget around collecting the full amount — consider that interpretation hogwash. They’ve argued in various forums that scaling back the 95 mills would both threaten school budgets in the near-term and set the state’s education funding system on a path toward long-term disarray.

The county association is adamant that the lower collection level it’s proposing won’t hurt school funding, noting the tax will still bring in more money than it has in years past. County officials also point to a state General Fund balance that they consider plenty ample to make schools whole. Legislative fiscal analysts said in July they expect the state to end its two-year budget cycle with a $539 million General Fund balance. If all counties collect the lower amount suggested by their association, it would reduce state revenues by about $80 million a year.

“No school will be impacted. No property taxpayer will make up the difference. When Mr. Melton states otherwise, he is wrong,” Montana County Association Director Eric Bryson wrote in an email to county and school officials this week.

Melton, though, was equally adamant in an interview this week that the counties are fundamentally mistaken about the workings of the state’s complex education funding system. He also argued there’s a very real risk that a $160 million hit over the state’s two-year budget cycle could trigger a budget crisis.

“The wheels could come off next year if you have a recession — you could very well end up in a second-year special session where there are cuts,” Melton said.

Further complicating the picture is a new law, House Bill 587, that reworked how dollars from the 95 mills run through state government en route to schools when it took effect in July, keeping them entirely separate from the General Fund.

That bill’s sponsor, House Appropriations Committee chair Llew Jones, R-Conrad, has said the new system will actually provide homeowners about $33 million a year in property tax relief by letting school districts levy lower local taxes in future years. Jones has also shared analyses indicating the counties’ 95 mill reduction would be a boon for major industrial taxpayers — saving BNSF Railway, for example, $1 million a year.

In the meantime, with the Missoula County lawsuit pending, even as many counties take action to scale back their 95 mill collections, it’s unclear whether those actions themselves violate state law.

—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

This item was updated Oct. 24, 2023, to correct the date the relevant portion of HB 587 takes effect, as well as the estimated amount of property tax relief the measure will provide each year.

Tooting our Horn 📣

MTFP’s digital guide to this year’s Montana Legislature, our 2023 Capitol Tracker, picked up a national “Product of the Year” award this week from the Local Independent Online News Publishers.

The Capitol Tracker, which MTFP has published for each legislative session since 2019, complements the Legislature’s somewhat archaic official tracking system by providing a modern interface for looking up bills and lawmakers on computers and phones. The association’s judges called the tool “a data-rich resource hub, meeting readers where they are and delivering actionable information for driving civic engagement.”

It’s the second year in a row MTFP has been recognized by LION, a major industry association for organizations that are trying to build sustainable local news businesses. Last year we won another product award for our 2022 Election Guide, in addition to two awards for the strength of our business operations.

On Our Radar 

Amanda — Ever wondered how Americans would feel about a solar array or wind turbine in their vicinity? The vast majority would be in favor, per a poll by the Washington Post out this week. Perhaps more surprising is the finding that support for these renewable energy projects crosses political lines.

Alex — As of last week, Kalispell’s ImagineIF Library has seen three directors resign since 2021. Micah Drew with the Flathead Beacon, who’s been covering the library’s various controversies closely in recent years, reported that director Ashley Cummins’ last day overseeing ImagineIF operations will be Oct. 27.

Arren —  For those compelled to argue that Columbus was merely a product of his time, it’s worth reading “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies,” a history and compelling denunciation of the actions of Columbus and other Europeans in the Americas written by one of his contemporaries, the Spanish Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas. An early English translation is published here.

Brad — Like seemingly everyone else who watched it, I’m still suffering withdrawals after the end of HBO’s “Succession.” So when quintessential media insider Michael Wolff’s IRL version — “The Fall: The End of Fox News and Murdoch Dynasty” — came up in my recommendations, I snapped it up. It’s not the best-sourced reporting I’ve ever read, but damned if it doesn’t keep me turning the pages. 

Nick — I have not watched the television show “Yellowstone,” nor do I intend to. Stories in the national media, too, about the apparent cultural phenomenon’s influence on our state have been mostly cringeworthy. (I just can’t stomach one more description of hats.) That said, this recent offering in the Washington Post does a nice job of including the bad with the good and features some lovely photography by Bozeman’s Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez. 

Mara —  My book club recently dove into “Brothers On Three,” a powerful work of nonfiction about the Arlee Warriors, the boys high school basketball team from the town on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Whether you’ve heard of the team or not, I’d encourage you to give it a read — it’s hard to put down, and even harder to stop thinking about after you’ve finished the last page.  

Eric — Pig racing? Of course that’s a thing.

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