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.

Chuck Johson with Sally Mauk and Mike Dennison
William Marcus

As you might have heard, the Lee newspaper chain, which publishes most of Montana’s larger papers, is closing its state bureau in Helena. Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison, the two veteran reporters who staff the bureau, are leaving the company.  The news stunned many Montanans who follow politics. Johnson and Dennison have been honored with blog posts on the internet and speeches on the floor of the U. S. Senate.

Recently I sat down with Chuck Johnson in his Helena office to talk about his 43 years covering the state of Montana, starting with how he found out it was coming to an end.

Fewer state and federal dollars are filling Montana school district coffers, so school officials are turning to local voters for help.

Bob Vogel of the Montana School Boards Association says bonding requests are becoming more common.

Bill Gallagher, former Montana Public Service Commission Chairman
Montana Public Service Commission

The chairman of the Montana Public Service Commission remembers his predecessor, Bill Gallagher, as a man of courage and grace.

Gallagher died of pancreatic cancer late last week.

Jonathan Motl, Montana Commissioner of Political Practices speaks during a forum about the "Disclose Act" in Missoula, MT
Josh Burnham

Montana’s new campaign finance law still has at least one loophole that needs to be addressed. That’s according to state Political Practices Commissioner Jonathan Motl.

A Montana lawmaker is praising President Obama’s decision to restrict the kinds of military surplus equipment that go to local police departments.

Greater Sage Grouse
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Pacific Southwest Region (CC-BY-2)

Montana will spend about half-a-million dollars annually to assemble a team to oversee management of sage grouse. The bird is a candidate for listing as a threatened or endangered species.

Dartmouth College may be looking at a substantial fine for violating Montana’s campaign finance laws.

Today State Political Practices Commissioner Jonathan Motl found that the school, along with Stanford University, broke state law last October, when the two mailed fliers to 100,000 people in Montana purporting to rank candidates for state supreme court on a liberal to conservative scale.

State of Montana

In late April, as the Montana Legislature was getting ready to adjourn, the state Senate confirmed Jonathan Motl as Commissioner of Political Practices, a job he’s held since being appointed by Democratic Governor Steve Bullock in 2013. Montana has had four different Political Practices Commissioners since 2011, and Motl is the first in that time to win Senate confirmation, against harsh criticism from some Republicans.

Chuck Johnson, Sally Mauk and Mike Dennison
Eliza Wiley

On the final "Capitol Talk" of the 2015 session, Sally, Chuck, and Mike talk about the death of the infrastructure bill, the session's winners and losers, and how the outcome might affect the 2016 election.

The Montana Republican Party claims a non-profit group from Billings broke election laws during the 2014 campaign season.

The complaint filed with the Commissioner of Political Practices charges that the Montana League of Rural Voters used “dark money” to influence the 2014 election. 

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?”

State of Montana

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.

FH Stoltze Land and Lumber in Columbia Falls, MT
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."

Sen. Jon Tester (D) Montana
Courtesy photo

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.

shannonpatrick17 (CC-BY-2.0)

Both of Montana’s Senators voted today for the bill to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Democrat Jon Tester says he looks forward to the day when clean, renewable resources provide most of America's energy needs:

"But until we get to a point when that's affordable and available, it appears to me that I'd rather do business with Canada than I would the Middle East."

Tester says the recent Bridger Pipeline oil spill on the Yellowstone River was not only a catastrophe, but entirely preventable.

Jim Peaco (CC-BY-2.0)

Yellowstone National Park has started capturing bison near the park's north entrance and bison advocates have sued to stop it.

Disease management and carrying capacity are at the center of the operation.

Park spokesman Al Nash says a total of 800 to 900 bison that migrate out of the park could be removed.

"We're doing so to be able to approach the target bison population and to see if we can reduce the potential for a mass-migration of bison into Montana where there is still some limited tolerance."

The chairman of a Montana Indian tribe says he thinks the federal government may formally recognize his tribe by the end of this year.

Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians’ Gerald Gray made that prediction one day after Montana's U.S senators introduced a bill to federally recognize the Great Falls-area tribe. The senators say Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke intends to introduce similar legislation in the U.S House.

Gray says federal recognition would be critically important to the Little Shell people who number about 6,500 members.

Eric Whitney

A group of nine Montana state lawmakers has put out an alternative to Democratic Governor Steve Bullock’s plan to expand Medicaid. They call it the Healthy Montana Family Plan, and it aims to cover more people, without the long term expense of Medicaid expansion.

Montana Legislature

A group of Montana Republicans have released their plan to improve health care and insurance coverage in Montana.

Stevensville Senator Fred Thomas says: “Improving our healthcare system is a far more complicated equation than simply expanding government insurance coverage. Any solution must be a comprehensive plan that does more than just provide health insurance through the Obamacare framework.”

You can see the proposal below.

Eric Whitney

Jim Nelson was appointed to Montana's Supreme Court by Governor Marc Racicot in 1993, and retired in 2012. He's long been an advocate for electing state Supreme Court justices. But now he's changed his mind.

The Flathead Joint Board of Control, the body that represents most irrigators on the Flathead Reservation, is sharply divided over the proposed water compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

At a meeting Tuesday, a majority of the board decided to draft a resolution urging the state legislature to reject the proposal. Vice Chairman Jerry Laskody says most of the commissioners feel the state and the tribe have ignored the concerns of irrigators.

As a proposed water compact involving the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes moves closer to consideration in the Montana Legislature, we’re talking to people on all sides of the proposal.

Today we’ll hear from Mark Blasdel of Kalispell, who is leaving his post as Speaker of the House to take a seat in the state Senate. Blasdel opposed the compact that died in the last legislature, and he says he’ll oppose the latest version as well.

2015 Legislative Preview

Dec 22, 2014
MTPR

Here are some topics we’re sure to see from this year’s state legislative session starting on Jan. 5th.

Medicaid Expansion

Governor Steve Bullock is still looking to get health care for the state’s 70,000 lowest-income members. Last session, he tried to expand Medicaid, but Republican members blocked it.

This time, however, he’ll be promoting something called “Healthy Montana,” which is an alternative meant to use federal dollars to contract with a private insurer for negotiated rates.  

Attorney General Tim Fox

Christopher B. Allen

As the price of oil continues to fall, Governor Steve Bullock says he’s not worried about the impact on Montana’s budget from declining oil tax revenue.
 
"I don’t go into the next legislative session saying revenues will live or die on what happens with oil prices."
 
Bullock says oil revenues only represent about $100 million worth of Montana’s $2.5 billion general fund budget.
 
"Now, that’s not to say that the oil and gas boom is not significant, because it’s also additional employment."
 

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