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I feel like I’ve been driving past the “Bleu Horses” sculptures, amid the hills off Hwy 287 near Three Forks, at least since I first set foot in Montana, in 2002. That can’t be true, of course — the horses weren’t installed until 2013, and I’d moved to Montana and then away and then back by then. But the impression fits a work of art so well-tailored and integrated into its environment that it seems utterly, inevitably, at home.

Even so, I didn’t know the artwork’s name. Or the artist’s. I didn’t know when (or how) the steel horses were anchored to the ground, or on whose authority. I didn’t even know they were partly painted blue. I’d never noticed any color in the silhouettes. I could never afford to take my eyes off the road quite long enough to study them that closely. I didn’t know there was a path where I could stop and walk among them.

Artistic metal sculptures of horses, painted in shades of blue, stand amidst a golden grassy field. The horses appear in various poses, capturing a sense of movement. In the background, rolling hills rise under a blue sky with scattered clouds.
“Bleu Horses,” includes 39 life-sized metal sculptures placed across a 160-acre parcel of sloping prairie adjacent to Highway 287, which runs between Three Forks and Helena. Credit: Anna Paige / MTFP

Anna Paige’s story this week about the sculpture herd, “One project for the people of Montana,” answers those and many other questions I didn’t know I had. It’s not necessarily a typical Montana Free Press story: about a policy, or a lawsuit, or an ideological line in the political sand. But it did connect me to a shared experience rooted in curiosity about this frequently fascinating state that not one of us knows every single thing about. 

I was gratified to see a small rush of emails thanking Anna for the story, pitching in readers’ own universe of experiences and interactions with the art. I felt a kinship with their gratitude, and more than a little sheepish that I hadn’t thought to look into the installation myself. The Bleu Horses had been hiding in plain sight. 

Paige is in the business of seeing Montana with fresh eyes. I’m always excited to see her stories come across the desk because I know I’m going to be shown something new. Her story about artist Jim Dolan and Bleu Horses was one of my favorite eye-openers of the season. It contained so much personality, so much character, and so much vision. I feel like I learned something worth knowing about Montana by reading it. And that’s my daily ambition for the stories we publish at MTFP: that they show you something about your state you might not otherwise have seen, or even thought to look for. 

—Brad Tyer, Editor

By the Numbers 🔢

Potential annual property tax revenue forgone by state and local governments in Montana as a result of the $31 billion in known property classified as tax exempt, according to a new report by the nonpartisan Legislative Service Division.

The report indicates that about 10% of Montana property by market value is exempt from property taxes, meaning the burden its owners could theoretically carry for the cost of funding schools, law enforcement and other local public services falls instead on other property owners.

About a third of the forgone tax revenue, $114 million a year, is on government-owned property such as federal land and school buildings. An additional $81 million a year is an exemption for what’s classified as “intangible personal property,” or paper assets owned by businesses, such as stocks, patents and software. (Physical business property is taxed under the state’s business equipment tax. Lawmakers have repeatedly increased the exemption threshold for that tax, meaning up to $1 million of a business’ property will be exempt from that tax as of next year).

Also notable is $28 million in foregone annual tax revenue from properties owned by nonprofit health care providers, including hospitals, which own property statewide valued at $2.3 billion. A further $23 million a year is attributed to tax-exempt churches and $18 million a year to the state’s property tax assistance program, which reduces taxes for some low-income taxpayers.

—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

The Viz 📈

Montana’s utility regulation commission has come under criticism this month for an agreement that lets the state’s largest power company, NorthWestern Energy, implement a 28% residential electric rate increase. With some help from retired MTN News reporter (and occasional MTFP contributor) Mike Dennison, we’ve compiled a comparison of the residential electricity rates charged by different utilities around the region, estimating the typical monthly electric bills paid by residential customers who consume 750 kilowatt-hours of power each billing period. 

Though still below the national average, the state’s largest utility, NorthWestern Energy, is a bit spendy when compared to its peers serving homes in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah — as well as some of the companies that provide service in the portions of Montana outside of NorthWestern’s coverage area.

Our analysis estimates that the typical NorthWestern residential customer’s bill is 6% higher than the second-most-expensive utility and 73% higher than the most affordable utility in our round-up, Idaho Power, which obtains about one-third of the power it transmits to the larger Boise area from hydroelectric sources. 

NorthWestern points out that some of its aforementioned peers, such as Rocky Mountain Power, are in the midst of rate reviews like the one NorthWestern just wrapped up, which could mean higher rates are coming for their customers. Company spokesperson Jo Dee Black also said that 16% of the per-kilowatt-hour rate incorporated into NorthWestern’s residential rate structure can be attributed to local and national taxes. (If that cost was stripped from power bills, we estimate the typical 750-kWh NorthWestern customer would pay about $96 a month, on par with the existing rates for Montana-Dakota Utilities customers.)

While NorthWestern and some other utilities also provide their customers with natural gas service, these numbers represent the costs for electric power alone. The utilities in our sample typically charge their customers a base rate for monthly service and then add a per-kilowatt-hour rate that scales based on electric consumption. Where that rate varies between winter and summer, we’ve calculated our figures using time-weighted average rates. Additionally, we’ve sourced the national average we’re presenting here to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter and Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

How To 🧑‍🏫

The enrollment period that lets Americans purchase health insurance coverage for the next year through the federal Health Insurance Marketplace is open now until Jan. 15.

An estimated 50,000 Montanans are covered through the marketplace, according to the health care advocacy group Cover Montana, an increase from about 41,500 in 2020. Roughly 85% of those insurance holders have been eligible for reduced rates because of their income and household size. 

If you’re among the Montanans who’s facing health insurance instability as the state trims back its Medicaid enrollment, the enrollment period might be an opportunity for you to find an affordable plan. More than 92,000 people have been removed from the state’s Medicaid rolls between April and August because of the ongoing mass-review of eligibility happening nationwide. Nearly 64% of those in Montana have lost coverage because of failing to return requested paperwork by the state health department’s deadlines.

If you want to consider signing up for coverage through the Health Insurance Marketplace, here’s where to start:

  • Gather the materials you’ll need to fill out the necessary paperwork (household information, social security numbers of your dependents, wage and salary amounts, etc.).
  • Create an account in the marketplace system.
  • Browse plans for 2024. Depending on your income, you may be eligible for federal subsidies that can reduce your monthly fee and qualify you for lower deductibles and copays.
  • Decide which plan works best for you and sign up. 

If you’re still learning about health insurance or want a refresher, Cover Montana has a good summary of the basic information you should know. To get an idea of what subsidies you might be eligible for, check out this cost calculator from KFF, the health policy and research group. And if you want to find help with your application in your local area, you can search for nearby navigators on Cover Montana’s website. 

—Mara Silvers

Following the Law ⚖️

Last week, the national Republican Party’s governing body asked for a federal court’s permission to join a lawsuit challenging one of Montana’s newest election administration laws. The Republican National Committee, along with the Montana Republican Party, are seeking to help the state defend its new law adding voter registration requirements that conservative lawmakers said would prevent voters from casting ballots in multiple locations during the same election.

The legal challenge against the law was filed last month by the Montana Federation of Public Employees and the Montana Public Interest Research Group. Both groups contend that House Bill 892 creates confusing barriers for people registering to vote while applying harsh criminal penalties to any violators. Now, state and national Republicans intend to counter that framing by arguing that any move to block the new law “threatens the credibility” of Montana’s election process. 

HB 892 passed this year’s Legislature with predominantly Republican support. Additionally, two of the named defendants in the lawsuit — Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen and Attorney General Austin Knudsen — are elected Republicans (the third, Commissioner of Political Practices Chris Gallus, was appointed by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte but holds a nonpartisan post). In presenting their case for entering the litigation, however, the RNC and Montana GOP make a point of arguing that, while they may share a partisan identity with defendants who hold official positions, the political party has a unique stake in the case’s outcome.

While Jacobsen, Knudsen and Gallus represent the “sovereign interests of the state,” the RNC argued, unlike a political party they have “no interest in the election of particular candidates, the mobilization of particular voters, or the costs associated with either.” That the lawsuit comes on the eve of a major campaign cycle wasn’t lost on the RNC either. With the plaintiffs asking the presiding judge to block the law before next year’s election, the RNC and Montana GOP said their interests extend to the outcome of next year’s presidential, congressional and “more than 100” state races.

This is the second time in as many sessions that changes to election administration laws have triggered litigation. A district court judge in Billings last fall overturned four laws passed by the 2021 Legislature, ruling them to be unconstitutional. That case, whose lead plaintiffs included the Montana Democratic Party, is now on appeal to the Montana Supreme Court. To date, the RNC has not asked to join that legal battle.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Public Comment 🗣️

The state Department of Environmental Quality is soliciting input on projects that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality in Montana as it participates in an Environmental Protection Agency-administered program that will dole out billions of dollars in competitive grants. With grant application deadlines approaching early next year, DEQ has hosted public meetings and launched an online survey to plumb the minds of energy- and climate-oriented Montanans working across multiple sectors of Montana’s economy. 

More specifically, DEQ is seeking information on measures — outlined in as much detail as possible — that could be a good fit for the Climate Pollution Reduction Grant. Per the agency, helpful information might include when a given project could be initiated, data sets illustrating greenhouse gas-reduction potential, and the entities or partnerships that could implement a given project. EPA guidelines specify that funding must be allocated to governmental entities such as a state agency or a city, county or tribal authority.

The deadline for submissions, according to the form, is “as soon as possible, but no later than Jan. 5, 2024.” 

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Amanda — If you’ve noticed an uptick in messaging around hunting best practices, it’s not just a coincidence. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has developed a campaign to encourage ethical hunting and support landowner participation in various public access programs. Most recently, FWP launched a “Thank a Landowner” online portal.

Alex — Big news on the election administration front out of Ohio this week as the Republican secretary of state there purged more than 26,000 inactive voter registrations from the rolls. As the Guardian reported, the move came weeks ahead of a vote on a proposed constitutional amendment protecting the right to abortion, sparking outrage among voting rights advocates who argue the removals lacked transparency.

Arren —  The home of New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ top campaign fundraiser was raided by the FBI, per the local outlet Hell Gate. But the real highlight of this story is the fundraiser’s eccentric neighbor, Christopher Kelly Burwell Jr., who claimed to have a video of the raid and sparked a bidding war among the NYC tabloid crowd

Brad — UM journalism professor Lee Banville, a frequent source of media critique and political analysis in Montana media, has a well-oiled BS detector. We wrote about his new University of Montana class — “Calling Bullshit” — back in September. And now Lee is taking his media-literacy show on the road. “Preparing for the Flood: Misinformation in 2024,” presented by the Helena League of Women Voters, aims to help citizens identify and debunk bad election information. Banville will present the program in-person (and via Zoom) at the Lewis & Clark Library at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 6. Registration required

Mara — Lee newspapers has a piece this week about the Fort Peck Tribes ramping up operations at a crisis call center in Wolf Point, giving local residents a community resource when they’re struggling with mental health issues. Residents say the rurailty of northeast Montana and the Fort Peck Reservation can be isolating, and that having a local on the other end of the line can help callers feel understood, supported and connected to resources. 

Eric — The OG energy bars were… made of meat.

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