Montana politics

In a debate that seemed as late as Friday not likely to happen, Republican Ryan Zinke met Democrat John Lewis in a statewide debate that focused on experience and education Monday night in Billings.

Montana PBS had already cancelled broadcast coverage after Zinke cited a scheduling conflict, but the Monday evening debate was available across the state on radio. You can listen to the debate from Yellowstone Public Radio.

Neither candidate has widespread name recognition – Zinke having served in the state legislature and Lewis as state director for former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus – so the debates are a vital piece of both men’s campaigns, according to University of Montana political science professor Christopher Muste.

I think Zinke will attack Lewis for being inexperienced and Lewis will attack Zinke for being out of touch and having extreme views on a number of issues,” Muste said in the pre-debate analysis with Montana Public Radio.

The debate, in the end, was largely a civil and substantive affair. Zinke stuck hard to the issues of education and energy independence, claiming that Montana “had enough coal to support the nation at peak consumption for the next 100 years.”

Lewis countered that Zinke would pursue oil and gas exploration at all times and criticized him for not support limits on energy exploration near Glacier National Park, a position supported by current U.S. Rep. Steve Daines.

On education, Zinke stated he rejected the increasingly controversial learning standards known as Common Core and wanted to boost more training for skilled labor.

Lewis focused his efforts in staking out support for higher education and reducing student loans. He said by financing student loans “much like you would a house” and ensuring continued access to Pell Grants, he could cut the amount of debt many Montana students have. He added that Zinke would cut support for higher education, making it more expensive for students.

The two meet again on Saturday for a debate in Bozeman.

Montana Republicans Divided Over Open Primaries

Mar 18, 2015
Michael Wright - UM Community News Service

Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick, the tall, bespectacled Republican from Great Falls, stood up on the House floor in late February and explained his bill that would allow local political party officers to be appointed by the state party instead of elected in primary elections.

But the bill was about something bigger, Montana’s century-old open primary law.

“It’s really a fundamental question with this bill,” Fitzpatrick said. “Do you believe in open primaries or do you believe in closed primaries?”

Jonathan Motl is the Commissioner of Political Practices in Montana. It turns out, that's a difficult and controversial job. Serious state and national political interests care deeply about campaign contribution rules, anonymous or "dark money",  the definition of independent committees, and host of other issues. To top it off, Motl is up for confirmation during this session of the Montana Legislature. He has been strongly praised by some, sharply criticized by others. Listen in to hear what he has to say.

Courtesy photo

Today in Missoula, Senator Steve Daines held the second of three meetings he’s called to talk timber issues. He’ll do the same in Bozeman tomorrow.

The Republican Freshman Senator is calling the meetings “Timber Management Reform Roundtables,” and he’s invited mostly timber industry representatives to give him input on what they need to maintain or grow their operations.

Eric Whitney

Tuesday in Columbia Falls, Senator Steve Daines kicked off a series of three meetings in western Montana that he’s calling “Forest Management Reform Roundtables.”

Around the table were executives from three timber mills, county commissioners from Sanders, Lincoln and Mineral counties, and Montana leaders of The Wilderness Society, The Nature Conservancy,  and the National Parks Conservation Organization.

Democratic Senator Jon Tester has signed-on to a new bill that he says would bring badly-needed financial security to Montana's most rural and timber-dependent counties.

Senator Tester says the "Secure Rural Schools and Payment in Lieu of Taxes Repair Act" would annually reauthorize Montana's SRS payments for three years at $23 million, the level provided in 2011.

Courtesy photo

Montana’s Senators are back from Washington and gathering input on transportation and timber issues.

Friday Democrat Jon Tester convened several panels in Helena to prepare for when the federal highway bill expires in May. He invited representatives from transportation, Chamber of Commerce and agriculture and construction companies to talk about the importance of good highways and bridges in Montana.

This is the last week for Montanans to shop for health insurance on HealthCare.gov. The deadline is Sunday, February 15. And it’s a hard deadline, says Jeff Hinson, with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"They will not be able to enroll after the 15th, unless they have a life-changing event."

A life-changing event is something like leaving a job with insurance benefits, getting married or divorced, or having child.

Bell & Jeff (CC-BY-2.0)

Montana's timber counties recently lost lots of federal revenue. Local officials say public services are going to suffer as a result.

"It's very scary. We're pretty bare bones out here the way it is," said Mineral County Commissioner Duane Simons.

"What do we do? We've got a four-man road crew. Do you lay four guys off? Do you lay three guys off? We've got some real difficult choices ahead of us here."

He's talking about the loss of federal "Secure Rural Schools" funds. The program expired this fall and wasn't reauthorized by Congress.

Montana’s new Senator, Republican Steve Daines, is asking Montanans for their input on how to better manage public lands in the state, but some conservation groups are wondering if he really wants to hear from them.

Rick Potts, who’s on the Montana Wilderness Association’s state council, is troubled by some recent Daines votes.

"I know my colleagues in the Montana Wilderness Association and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers as well, feel like they’ve been sucker punched. They didn’t see this coming."

Jon Tester

It's been eight months since the Montana VA had a permanent director and Senator Jon Tester says he's fed up with the delay.

Tester fired-off a letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald this week calling it "completely unacceptable".

The Democrat says he only recently found out that a hire was imminent about three months ago. However,  the Office of Management and Budget found a "screw-up" that scuttled the process.

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