Montana group launches coverage campaign after Medicaid unwinding

Montana group launches coverage campaign after Medicaid unwinding

Late Thursday morning, representatives from Missoula community organizations packed into a conference room at Partnership Health Center to coordinate solutions to a collective problem: How to help thousands of people removed from state Medicaid programs in the last year regain health care coverage as quickly as possible.

The campaign, titled “Get Covered Again,” is spearheaded by Cover Montana, a federally supported arm of the Montana Primary Care Association that helps Montanans find and access health insurance. The group’s director, Olivia Riutta, told attendees Thursday that 1 in 10 Montanans have lost coverage since the state’s mass-eligibility review began last April, a statistic she described as a “pretty staggering coverage loss.”

“We are really interested in what we can do, across the state, to get folks covered again,” Riutta told the full room. The sooner someone can find stable coverage, she continued, the less likely they will be to have their health care interrupted or be hit with expensive medical bills. 

Over the last year, Cover Montana helped many of the more than 300,000 Montanans on Medicaid navigate the redetermination process, a multi-month whirlwind during which states began vetting eligibility for the public health program for the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services’ March data update, more than 132,000 people lost coverage between April 2023 and January 2024, 64% of whom were disenrolled for procedural reasons or due to “failure to provide requested information.” Comparatively, 30% of people who lost coverage were deemed ineligible because of changes in income, household composition or other factors.

Public health advocates, medical providers and community groups have recounted widespread anecdotes of Montanans struggling to navigate the state’s online application portal, clogged phone lines and mail notifications, or turning in their enrollment packets only to be disenrolled weeks later regardless. 

The administration of Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, often through its appointed health department Director Charlie Brereton, has repeatedly defended the state’s federally approved redetermination plan, despite receiving federal notices in recent months about long call center wait times and high rates of childhood disenrollment. 

In response to a Democratic press event with health providers and Medicaid applicants this week, the governor’s office told KTVH News that Medicaid enrollment in Montana has returned to pre-pandemic levels and dismissed critiques it attributed to “far-left activists” who “want to overburden the system by keeping folks who are ineligible on the rolls and having Montana taxpayers foot the bill.”

“Redetermination is working as intended: people who are ineligible for Medicaid are no longer on it,” the statement said.

One by one, attendees of the Thursday meeting in Missoula shared stories about clients, patients and families who are floundering after losing Medicaid coverage for procedural reasons. 

“Sometimes they don’t realize until they’re in a crisis,” said Jill Bonny, executive director of the Poverello Center, an emergency shelter in Missoula. “They go to the Partnership [Health] Clinic that we have at the main shelter, or somewhere else, and they find out they don’t have coverage, which just adds to their crisis.”

A representative from Mountain Home Montana, a mental health center in Missoula that houses young mothers and pregnant women, said roughly half of the organization’s 70 active clients lost coverage during the unwinding period. 

“From our perspective, there’s a lot of work to be done to make sure that those 125,000 folks don’t kind of join the long-term ranks of the uninsured.”

Cover Montana Director Olivia Riutta 

“So much of the reason that our clients are still able to be covered is because they have case management and care teams that keep them enrolled when they are disenrolled,” said Development Director Kelsie Severson.

Riutta said the scale of the disenrollment calls for an all-hands-on-deck approach, in which community groups can be trained on how to help work through the state’s Medicaid application process or connect people with affordable options through the federal marketplace or their employer.

In an interview after the meeting, Riutta said Cover Montana did not invite representatives from the state health department to participate in Thursday’s discussion, emphasizing the role that front-line groups and service providers will play in re-enrollment efforts.

“I think that the lion’s share of the enrollment work that’s going to happen is really within communities,” Riutta said. “DPHHS does enrollment work all day, every day. People know to call the [Office of Public Assistance]. But I think people need to know that there are hopefully more access points to get information.”

Campaign members at the table Thursday, including Missoula Mayor Andrea Davis, swapped ideas about pop-up enrollment assistance at schools, libraries and social service organizations. Representatives of mobile crisis support teams, housing support programs and emergency shelters discussed bringing in Cover Montana to train staff on state and federal health care sign-ups and referring clients to one-on-one enrollment counseling.

“How can we all help with a guerilla marketing campaign in ways that really try to get the message out to folks where they are?” Davis said. “I’m thinking, like grocery stores, are there pop-up tables? Are there ways for community members to help volunteer in that?”

Riutta seemed enthusiastic about the brainstorming, saying the group is willing to try “anything and everything” to amplify the message about new enrollment opportunities. 

“If what we need to do is print more posters everywhere, we’ll print more posters,” she said.

Riutta said the group is trying to determine where else in the state to schedule roundtable discussions with community groups, or to deploy navigators to convene smaller groups. She estimated as many as 125,000 Montanans will need help reapplying for Medicaid or finding other insurance. 

“We want to make sure we’re having a conversation with them in the event that they do qualify, that they’re getting re-enrolled. But in the event that they don’t qualify, that they’re also getting re-enrolled in the marketplace or employer coverage,” Riutta said. “From our perspective, there’s a lot of work to be done to make sure that those 125,000 folks don’t kind of join the long-term ranks of the uninsured.”

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Tribes call for apology from SD governor

Comments made by South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem during a March 13 bill signing in Mitchell and later at a town hall in Winner led four tribes to call for her to apologize.

During the two town hall meetings, Noem accused tribal council members of “standing in her way,” failing youth and benefiting from drug cartel operations. Now, tribal leaders from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Oglala Sioux Tribe, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and Crow Creek Sioux Tribe are responding to those allegations.

“Her remarks were made from ignorance and with the intention to fuel a racially based and discriminatory narrative towards the Native people of South Dakota,” said Rosebud Sioux Tribe President Scott Herman in a March 15 press release. “We demand an apology from the governor.”

During a question-and-answer session after signing two new education bills, Noem commented on low graduation rates and low attendance rates due to a “lack of parental involvement.”

“Because they live with 80 percent to 90 percent unemployment, their kids don’t have any hope. They don’t have parents who show up and help them,” Noem said. “They have a tribal council or a president who focuses on a political agenda more than they care about actually helping somebody’s life look better.”

Noem said as of 2022, six of the 11 poorest counties in the United States were in South Dakota: Todd County, which is part of the Rosebud Reservation; Mellette County, Oglala Lakota County and Jackson County, which are part of the Pine Ridge Reservation; Corson County, which is part of the Standing Rock Reservation; and Ziebach County, which is part of the Cheyenne River Reservation. 

“I have tribal councils that are standing in my way,” Noem said. “Because they’ve got control and they’ve got money coming into their pockets, they’re taking from their people and their communities. They’re not benefiting their kids. That’s next on my agenda.”

A majority of Native children in South Dakota are enrolled in public schools off-reservation. Data from the South Dakota Board of Education indicated only 5,013 children, or 25 percent of the state’s Native youth, attended tribal schools for the 2023-2024 school year, 300 fewer than the previous school year. Statewide, one-third of Native students don’t graduate from public high schools and 84 percent are not considered college-ready. 

“If the Governor truly wants to help Native children be more successful, she should stop selling lies about them, our Tribes, our students and our parents,” said Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Ryman LeBeau in a March 20 press release. “She should give our tribes the federal funds that are sent through the State of South Dakota instead of turning them back to the United States government.”

Later that day during a town hall in Winner, Noem again alleged Mexican cartels are operating on tribal lands in South Dakota and are trafficking drugs, children and sex to the rest of the Midwest. She then accused tribal leaders of benefiting from cartel presence. 

Noem has previously alleged that cartels are operating on tribal land, specifically within the Pine Ridge and Lake Traverse reservations. 

After the first cartel allegations were made Jan. 31, representatives from the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate held a meeting with Noem to discuss her remarks. The tribe requested she collaborate on a cooperative law enforcement plan with tribal governments. 

The Oglala Sioux Tribe also moved to ban Noem from the reservation a second time. 

In response to the March 13 allegations, the Oglala Sioux Tribe pointed to a 2007 publication from the National Drug Intelligence Center stating that most illegal drug activity in South Dakota moves through Sioux Falls and Sioux City.

“I suggest that Noem as Governor should, perhaps, clean up her own backyard in the Watertown and Castlewood area (where her ranch is located) instead of trying to cast the Sioux Tribes in a false light by insinuating that all the Mexican Drug Cartel trafficking comes to South Dakota population centers like Sioux Falls and Rapid City – from the Sioux reservations,” said Oglala Sioux Tribe President Frank Star Comes Out in a March 16 press release. 

In 2022 The Oglala Sioux Tribe launched a lawsuit against the federal government to try to get the United States to honor its obligation to provide the reservation with adequate public safety resources. For years, the reservation has experienced high rates of murder, suicide, drug offenses, robbery, rape, aggravated assault, burglary and missing persons cases, according to tribal officials.

The Crow Creek Sioux Tribe has also struggled with a lack of police officers, leading to the development of a citizen police force. The tribe is also requesting additional law enforcement personnel and general public safety assistance. 

In the eight months since the citizen police force was established, calls to dispatch dropped by 30 percent to 40 percent and ambulance calls are down 30 percent to 35 percent. Over one dozen employees have been hired by the tribe to aid in the program. 

Tribal leaders said a majority of the guns and drugs brought into reservations are coming from cities like Sioux Falls and Rapid City, not directly into the reservation. 

Ian Fury, chief of communications for the governor’s office, said Noem has attempted to schedule meetings with Rosebud Sioux Tribe President Scott Herman, Crow Creek Chairman Peter Lengkeek and Oglala Sioux Tribe President Star Comes Out, but has not heard back. 

“She is loving all the conversations that she’s having with their community members – she has appreciated their encouragement and support,” Fury said in an email to ICT and the Rapid City Journal. “We would challenge the tribes to prove the Governor’s comment false by banishing the drug cartels from their reservations.”

*This story was updated to include comments from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

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Nearly 900,000 acres of Montana in access limbo 

When four hunters used a specially constructed ladder to step from one corner of public land in southern Wyoming to another, the ripples from that decision were initially small but have since ignited an impassioned debate that could open — or unequivocally restrict — access to more than eight million acres of public land across the West. Here, in the second of our three-part series, we explore why Montana lacks a clear “test case” on the legality of corner-crossing.

Nearly a decade before four Missouri Hunters drove to Wyoming for a now-famous hunting trip that landed them before state and federal judges on trespassing charges, Bozeman-based hunting personality Randy Newburg planned something similar. Like the Missouri hunters, Newburg was going to use a ladder to avoid stepping on private property as he corner-crossed, or climbed over the point where two-square-mile sections of public land meet two-square-mile sections of private land.

Newburg, who stars in a hunting-themed TV show and podcast, said he picked a “high-profile” corner in central Montana’s Crazy Mountains involving a wealthy, access-adverse landowner’s property that, once crossed, opened access to thousands of acres of U.S. Forest Service land with plentiful elk hunting. An accountant by trade, Newburg even worked out a script to guide his interactions with the property’s ranch manager. 

“I was going to call the county sheriff [and] the landowner and say, ‘This is what I’m doing opening morning,’” he recalled.

Newburg said he’d hoped that the resulting conversations would provide something that’s sorely needed in Montana: clarity on whether corner-crossing is legal, so that hunters, landowners, land managers and law enforcement officials can work off of a common understanding of Montana law. After consulting a Bozeman law firm founded by Jim Goetz, the attorney who secured for the state what is widely considered to be the most progressive stream access law in the country, Newburg scrapped his plan to establish a corner-crossing “test case” in Montana.

“They thought it would not be criminal trespass, but the legal opinion I got said there’s a high likelihood it’s civil trespass. As someone who respects private property rights, I was not going to take that chance,” Newburg said. 

In addition to the ethical and legal considerations at play, there are logistical complications that have thwarted a corner-crossing test case in Montana, which has nearly 900,000 acres of public land stuck in access limbo because of checkerboard land ownership. Even with sophisticated and widely available mapping technology, it can be hard to find the precise location of a checkerboard corner in Montana. 

“The county attorney in every case that has been brought to us has [ultimately] said, ‘This is corner-crossing, we’re not going to pursue it. The case is being dropped against you.”

Drewry Hanes, consultant for the Public Land Water Access Association

Devlan Geddes, a Bozeman-based attorney active on public access issues, told Montana Free Press that two undisputed facts that worked to the hunters’ favor in the Wyoming case — the precise location of the corners involved and the fact the four Missouri hunters never physically stepped on Elk Mountain Ranch property — are harder to replicate in Montana. That’s due in part to the fact that there are fewer checkerboard corners in Montana than in Wyoming — and fewer yet with an intact brass cap marker that surveyors installed decades ago when they were mapping the West. 

Furthermore, county attorneys have considerable discretion when deciding whether to prosecute a case — and few in Montana are inclined to. Drewry Hanes, a consultant for the Public Land Water Access Association, a nonprofit that represents recreationists in public access disputes, said her organization has fielded calls from hunters concerned that a trespassing citation could lead to a conviction punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $500.

“The county attorney in every case that has been brought to us has [ultimately] said, ‘This is corner-crossing, we’re not going to pursue it. The case is being dropped against you,” Hanes said. 

The case against a Townsend bowhunter — recently charged with hunting without permission, a misdemeanor that can result in the loss of hunting privileges for one to three years — ended similarly. Joshua Sangray, who owns an excavation business in Broadwater County, had been preparing for a jury trial over the alleged corner-crossing incident that occurred in 2021 when the prosecuting attorney last fall abruptly dismissed the charges

Sangray declined to be interviewed by MTFP, but Molly Woodman, the attorney representing him, said Sangray was happy the charges were dropped. He was also, she added, “frustrated that it took this long and frustrated with these wealthy landowners that are trying to interfere with public access.” 

Woodman said that the allegations that Sangray entered private property owned by the G/T Ranch during his hunt on Bureau of Land Management land were not as clear-cut as originally asserted by the Montana Department of Justice attorney who’d been assigned to the case at the request of the Broadwater County Attorney.

Neither the prosecutor for the DOJ nor the spokesperson for his boss, Attorney General Austin Knudsen, replied to MTFP’s multiple requests for comment regarding the state’s decision to drop the charge against Sangray. MTFP’s request for the report prepared by a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks warden who investigated the 2021 incident has been deemed off-limits by public record gatekeepers at FWP and DOJ, who argue it’s “confidential criminal justice information.” The state’s reasoning in dismissing the charge — like so much in this debate — therefore remains opaque, adding a layer of murkiness to an already muddy issue. 

Montana’s lack of an unambiguous law regarding the legality of corner-crossing has served to preserve the issue’s haziness. The Montana Legislature has twice taken up the issue in the past decade, but those forays were short-lived. 

In 2013, a Democratic lawmaker from Missoula introduced House Bill 235, which sought to make corner-crossing explicitly legal by establishing it as an exception to the state’s criminal trespassing statute. The measure failed to make it out of committee. 

A Republican representative from the Livingston area drafted a bill four years later to make the practice explicitly illegal. Had it passed, someone crossing a shared corner without the permission of the adjacent landowner could face a fine of up to $500 and up to six months in jail. House Bill 566 was abandoned before even receiving a committee hearing.

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen
Attorney General Austin Knudsen. Credit: Photo courtesy Austin Knudsen

That two bills, diametrically opposed, failed to gain any traction in the Legislature demonstrates how politically “radioactive” the issue is, according to Geddes, the Bozeman attorney who’s worked on access issues. 

Montana’s Legislature has a fairly large contingent of politically conservative landowners with strong convictions surrounding private property rights. Many of them would probably prefer to make the practice illegal, Geddes said — but such a vote could come with a political cost.

“Legislators are never going to say corner-crossing is illegal because they will be labeled anti-access, but they’re never going to go against their high net-worth constituents, either, because they have too many ranching-slash-recreational property owners who want to preserve the status quo of keeping the public out,” Geddes said.

Access advocates like Geddes note that in addition to the political calculations at work, philosophical and economic considerations are coloring land management debates. 

Montana has more than 30 million acres of public land, an engaged contingent of recreationists who use it, and one of the largest recreation-based economies in the country on a per-capita basis — all things that tend to mobilize voters when access issues crop up at the state Legislature. 

“Legislators are never going to say corner-crossing is illegal because they will be labeled anti-access, but they’re never going to go against their high net-worth constituents, either.”

Attorney Devlan Geddes 

On the other hand, property rights are enshrined in both the U.S. and Montana constitutions, with the latter holding that “acquiring, possessing and protecting property” is an inalienable right. Property rights find their way into conversations about everything from eminent domain to government “takings” of physical property or economic interests to historic easements

Property rights, of course, also enter into any conversation about trespassing. United Property Owners of Montana, a group that intervened in the trespass lawsuit Elk Mountain Ranch’s owner brought against the four Missouri hunters in the Wyoming case, is partial to the term “corner-trespass” to describe the practice. Regardless of the term used, it’s impossible to do without crossing “all four corners, including the private ones,” according to UPOM

“That is a trespass — a physical occupation of private property,” UPOM maintains.

Different state and federal land managers have differing guidance about the practice’s legality, adding yet another layer of complexity to the debate.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, for instance, said in June that it’s illegal. FWP directs agency wardens, who investigate game and hunting violations, to forward corner-crossing reports to local county attorneys. (Access proponents note that the agency’s earlier guidance was more hands-off: In 2001, FWP’s then chief of enforcement proposed that the department “refuse to issue a citation and refer the landowner who complains of trespass to the county attorney.”)

A spokesperson for Region One of the U.S. Forest Service, the largest land manager in Montana, told MTFP that the agency “does not have a national (or regional) policy regarding corner-crossing.”

Public land advocate and Hunt Talk Radio host Randy Newburg on a caribou hunt in northern British Columbia. Credit: Marcus Hockett

“The Forest Service is a strong supporter of legal public access, and corner-crossing is not legal in the states in our Northern Region (ND, ID, MT and SD),” Dan Hottle wrote in an email. “If the law were changed we would support that access, but we would not advocate for public access where it is deemed illegal in those states.”

The Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that has the most corner-locked land nationally, told MTFP in an email that it’s aware of the Wyoming civil trespass ruling in federal court that vindicated the Missouri hunters.

“Our current response is that we are aware that the court’s decision on this issue has been appealed and have not currently issued any formal guidance,” spokesperson Brian Hires said.

For someone like Newburg, who’s built a following around hunting on public land, the fact that land managers don’t have a common understanding of the legality of corner-crossing underscores the importance of the Wyoming lawsuit against the four Missouri hunters.

Newburg said he expects both the Forest Service and the BLM to take notice when the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decides whether the ladder-wielding hunters committed civil trespassing when they hunted BLM-checkerboard sections interspersed with Elk Mountain Ranch property. The ruling there could force land managers to revisit their long-held “let-the-sleeping-dog-lie” strategy, he said.

“There’s been a default feeling that the landowners are going to rule the day,” Newburg said. “If the Wyoming case gets decided in the benefit of these four hunters, the agencies are not going to have any choice: They don’t get to pick and choose what part of [the] law they’re going to follow.”

The final installment of this series will be published on Monday, March 18. In it, MTFP will explore a handful of proposals that could bring clarity to the legality of corner-crossing or establish access to corner-locked property with government agency-sponsored initiatives.  

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How Montana pays for its public schools, in pictures

Educating Montana’s youth is one of the state’s most costly endeavors and a responsibility shouldered by citizens of all stripes: teachers, parents, voters, taxpayers. It’s a promise baked into the very fabric of the state Constitution, which vows to develop the full educational potential of each citizen. How Montana tries to meet that lofty goal, financially speaking, is a constant point of policy wrangling. The intricacies of school budgeting are also a perennial source of confusion for Montanans who would like to better understand where the money comes from and how it’s spent.

Recent school funding debates have focused heavily on school choice initiatives that supporters maintain give students more freedom in the type of education they receive and that critics argue will divert essential state funding from public schools to private enterprises. Additionally, the “95 mill” property tax that helps equalize revenues between tax-base-rich and tax-base-poor districts has come under scrutiny as part of the broader statewide debate over rising property taxes — a debate playing out as many large school districts contemplate major budget cuts.

We hope this article can help Montanans more fully understand the financial recipe that feeds the state’s public school system so they can be better prepared to contribute to those and other policy debates in the years to come.

Welcome to Big Rock Public Schools, a fictional elementary district that serves 640 students in kindergarten through eighth grade and employs about 51 licensed staff in a single school building. It’s roughly typical of Montana’s 235 elementary districts — neither especially big nor small, serving neither a particularly affluent nor low-income part of the state.

The graphic below represents the school district’s budget: all the things it has to spend money on in a given school year. The budget is approved each year by the district’s locally elected school board, though in some cases spending also requires voters’ endorsement.

We’re representing the budget for our fictional district as a cafeteria tray.

Each compartment in the tray represents a portion of the district budget that’s typically segregated into its own account: teacher retirement payments, school bus upkeep and money set aside for building upgrades, among others. (Note that for simplicity’s sake we’ve lumped together a few separate-but-related accounts, like transportation operations and school bus replacement).

The most important account is the district’s General Fund, which is analogous to an individual household’s primary checking account. It’s the pot of money from which school administrators pay teachers, buy textbooks, fund extracurricular activities and cover other basic costs like utilities and liability insurance. 

During the 2022-2023 fiscal year, Montana school districts collectively spent $1.2 billion through their General Funds, according to an expenditure breakdown from the state Office of Public Instruction — a touch under half of all K-12 school spending.

We’re representing the Big Rock Schools General Fund as a soup bowl.

Montana’s school funding formula, outlined in state law by the Legislature, essentially tells school leaders how much money they must put in the soup bowl. The state formula specifies a “Base Amount for School Equity” — or BASE — fill line, which represents the legal minimum amount of General Fund money a district has to spend each year. In an effort to limit the school tax burden on homeowners, the Legislature’s formula also defines a MAX fill line, which in most situations dictates the maximum amount a district can budget for general education expenses.

Increasing a district’s budget above the BASE line generally requires the district’s school board to ask local residents to pay more via a mill levy vote, which authorizes the district to collect more property taxes than would be necessary to get the bowl to just the BASE fill line.

For our fictional Big Rock Schools, the BASE fill line is a $3.9 million annual General Fund budget, while the MAX line is set at $4.8 million.

The BASE and MAX lines are calculated using a complex formula in which the most important factor is the number of students enrolled in the district. Here’s an overview of how that formula works:

Most of the money in the BASE budget formula is driven by a per-student entitlement amount based on enrollment. The enrollment figure the state uses for budgeting is known as “Average Number Belonging,” or ANB, a figure each district determines by averaging the number of students in their classrooms as counted on two fixed days during the previous school year.

For our Big Rock Schools, that means the fill line levels are largely dependent on how many kids are in its classrooms — just like every other district in the state. Districts also receive a basic entitlement that increases with enrollment.

The Legislature adjusts the rates for those entitlement payments and other education programs as part of the state’s two-year budget cycle, typically following a guidance statute that suggests rates be increased by no more than 3% per year to account for inflation. As consumer inflation has outstripped that rate in recent years, clocking in at 8.0% in 2022 and 4.1% in 2023, the Legislature’s decision to maintain that comparatively slow pace of funding growth has become a source of frustration for some lawmakers and school officials.

Specific details about this formula are available in the “Understanding Montana School Finance” guide published by the state public education office each year. The formula also gives districts the option to average their enrollment counts over a three-year period, creating flexibility that helps schools avoid sudden budget cuts if their enrollments decline.

Other portions of the fill-line formula include a special education allocation and five state-funded programs:

  • Quality Educator program — a payment districts receive for each full-time teacher or other licensed employee. Under the TEACH Act, passed in 2021, districts can also earn a second payment for each teacher in their first three years of employment who receives a pay raise.
  • At-Risk Student program — a state payment to help districts meet the needs of at-risk students who may face academic challenges that threaten their ability to graduate. 
  • Indian Education for All program — an enrollment-based payment to help schools meet the Montana Constitution’s requirement that K-12 instruction include lessons about Indigenous culture and history.
  • American Indian Achievement Gap program — a payment districts receive for each enrolled Indigenous student to help close academic achievement gaps.
  • Data for Achievement program — a per-student payment that helps districts cover the costs of participating in state-level data collection related to student performance and achievement.

When the time comes for district officials to adopt their budgets for the coming school year every August, both the state budget and local property taxes are tapped to fill the General Fund bowl:

The first portion of the soup bowl is filled from the state budget, which supplies funding for the five state programs detailed above, some of the special-education money, and about half of the combined basic and per-student entitlements. Some local funding is spooned in next: any money left over from the prior year, as well as non-property tax revenues like the portion of state oil production tax collections that is routed to schools.

With that money in the pot, state and local entities split the space that’s left below the BASE fill line through the Guaranteed Tax Base program, which is intended to help school districts with small tax bases fill their bowls without putting undue burden on local taxpayers. This is the “GTB-Aided Portion” of our soup bowl graphic above.

Once the bowl is filled to the BASE line, any extra funding the district puts in comes entirely from local tax dollars. In the case of our example Big Rock Schools budget, the district has topped the bowl off with local dollars to about halfway between its BASE and MAX fill lines, budgeting for $4,370,000 in annual General Fund spending.

The state uses multiple portions of its budget to help fill district General Funds. The first pot the state draws on is the School Guarantee Account (an entirely different thing than the Guaranteed Tax Base program), which is largely filled with revenue from grazing, timber harvests, recreation fees and resource extraction on state-owned trust lands. Collections from the state’s 95 mill school equalization property taxes (more about those below) are similarly routed to school districts through a special-purpose School Equalization Account.

Once those two pots are scraped clean, any extra state funding responsibility is paid for out of the state General Fund, which is primarily filled by state income taxes

Before the Legislature adjusted the system last year, 95 mill revenues were mixed into the state General Fund before school funding was withdrawn. That shift, and the General Fund’s continued use as a school funding backstop, has given some critics of the state’s current tax system reason to argue that the 95 mill tax could be scaled back without directly cutting into school funding.

(The Legislature’s new process, encapsulated in House Bill 587, also specifies that when revenues from the 95 mill tax rise in the future, some of that new money will be routed to teacher retirement accounts so districts can lower the local taxes they levy to cover teacher retirement funds in the years ahead.)

Locally collected school dollars come mostly from property taxes. Each property within the district pays a share proportionate to its tax valuation (for example, if your neighbor’s house is valued twice as much as yours, they pay twice your share of local school taxes).

Districts with bigger tax bases — those, for example, with high-value industrial or resort properties in their jurisdiction — can collect more money overall while collecting less from individual taxpayers. Inversely, districts with smaller tax bases or lots of students to educate can have a hard time filling their budgets.

The Guaranteed Tax Base program, which uses state dollars to supplement local funding as the soup bowl is filled to the BASE line, is an effort to resolve such disparities.

The state funding formula assigns each district a “GTB ratio” that scores how wealthy the district’s tax base is relative to how much help the district needs getting its budget to the BASE fill line. That ratio is used to calculate how the shared portion of the bowl is split between state and local dollars.

Each district’s GTB ratio is compared to a statewide benchmark. Above-benchmark districts are considered wealthy enough to fund the remaining portions of their budgets without additional help (they still get the initial part of their bowl filled by the state). Below-benchmark districts get help from the state depending on how far below the benchmark they are.

The math that produces the statewide benchmark includes a multiplier factor, currently set by the state Legislature at 254%. While it’s an obscure detail down in the depths of the school funding formula, the GTB multiplier is one of the most important pieces of the state’s education policy because it controls how funding in the GTB-aided portion of the bowl is split between state and local funding sources. When the Legislature increases the multiplier, it makes more districts eligible for guaranteed tax base funding and gives more state dollars to eligible districts, reducing how much districts have to collect from local property taxes. Decreasing the factor reduces how much the state spends to help districts fill their bowls, lowering state General Fund spending and putting more pressure on local taxpayers.

The richest parts of Montana as measured by the Guaranteed Tax Base formula tend to be either resort communities a la Big Sky or small communities with a substantial tax base from natural resource operations, such as Ekalaka and Colstrip. Schools in those areas don’t qualify for state help in getting their budget bowls filled to the BASE line.

Middle-of-the-road districts like our fictional Big Rock Schools also tend to have their remainder portion funded mostly by local, rather than state, dollars. Poorer districts and larger districts with bigger budgets, in contrast, tend to get much more help from the state.

The 95 mill tax serves as the flip side of the school equalization funding formula, pulling more money from tax-base-rich areas than it does from comparatively poorer ones. That’s because it assesses an essentially flat tax: $95 in school taxes for every $1,000 in taxable value on a statewide basis.

As a result, taxes paid by high-value properties such as oil pipelines and Yellowstone Club homes benefit schools across the state, instead of just those in their local jurisdictions.

Taxpayers in Ekalaka’s tax-base-rich Carter County, for example, pay more than six times as much into the 95 mill tax on a per-property basis as do taxpayers in Big Horn County, where Hardin is the county seat.

While the funding formula we’ve discussed so far only accounts for the General Fund — that roughly $4.4 million in the Big Rock Schools’ soup bowl — that’s far from the only compartment on the tray for school districts across the state. Districts also manage other accounts with their own funding formulas and their own specific purposes, such as transportation, building funds, and teacher retirement (again, we’ve lumped some of those together for simplicity’s sake).

For example, our cafeteria tray above has a compartment specifically for vegetables, a small but nutritionally key part of lunch. That’s not a bad way to think about a district’s transportation needs. To access their education, some students need to ride a bus to school, and schools need to pay for those buses, along with the drivers and fuel to operate them. District officials cover those costs through a transportation fund and a bus depreciation fund, which stores dollars for later use in replacing aging buses.

As is the case with its General Funds, a district’s transportation needs are covered by a combination of local taxes set by the elected school board and state dollars, with the state’s share calculated by the state public education office based on how many miles a district’s buses travel and how many students they transport. When non-General Fund accounts are filled by local taxes, those collections can in some cases be authorized by school boards through what’s known as a permissive levy, while in other cases school boards must seek the greenlight for those taxes from voters. 

Similar cost sharing also helps fill other tray compartments, with different formulas determining how much local and state funding goes toward particular expenses. The state, for example, supplements the local tax dollars that districts use to pay for major building maintenance projects and to make debt payments on construction bonds. State dollars also help local taxpayers pay for teacher retirement contributions, technological equipment, vocational training, and the costs associated with students attending school in districts other than the one they live in.

While district General Funds are composed entirely of state and local dollars, some of those other compartments in the tray benefit from a source of funding we’ve touched on only briefly: the federal government. According to OPI, money from the U.S. Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies accounted for roughly 19% of the overall funding that flowed to Montana public schools in 2023, compared to about 40% from the state and about 36% from local property taxes. Largely due to an influx of federal relief funding for schools, that federal share was slightly higher than pre-pandemic levels, which hovered around 12%. The remaining 5% of 2023 funding came from other sources, such as oil and gas taxes.

Federal contributions to education in Montana range widely, from support for school nutrition programs to Title I disbursements to districts with high concentrations of low-income students. Most of those funds are controlled by formulas developed at the federal level and flow into accounts that are managed separately from the state and local tax dollars we’ve focused on here. As such, we’ve represented Big Rock Schools’ cut of federal funding above as a breakfast bar on the side of the tray. The millions of dollars Montana schools received in one-time federal COVID-19 relief funding in recent years was also treated separately, though some of that money did pass through state coffers en route to districts.

There’s no question that Montana’s school finance formula is an extremely complicated recipe, one that combines a host of ingredients from various sources into a whole that, ideally, provides a fulsome and accessible education to the state’s youngest inhabitants. As dizzyingly complex as the formula is, though, a few things are worth keeping in mind for anyone who’s trying to follow school budget debates — or trying to make sense of what political candidates say about education policy on the campaign trail this year.

First, for all the wonky details we’ve covered here, the fundamental school finance issue is how the cost of paying teachers, buying textbooks, and all the other expenses required to run a school district are divided between local dollars (i.e., property taxes) and the state budget (mostly funded by income taxes, the 95 mills tax, and trust land revenues). Additionally, while local school boards and their voters have the ability to modulate school budgets between the BASE and MAX fill lines, the contours of the state-local funding breakdown — and the math that determines the way those fill lines are calculated — is firmly in the hands of state lawmakers.

There’s more to be written about Montana’s school funding formula and how well it’s meeting the state’s education needs. We’ll be doing that in the coming months as Montanans look to elect a new superintendent of public instruction and emissaries to the 2025 Legislature. In the meantime, we welcome your thoughts and questions at and

The post How Montana pays for its public schools, in pictures appeared first on Montana Free Press.

Can Montana mend its racial gap in foster care?

Native American children make up more than a third of the foster care caseload in Montana, despite representing less than 10% of the state’s child population. While there’s a broad consensus among child welfare experts that this outsized representation is a problem, there exists no collective strategy to address it. The Montana Free Press series Keeping the Kids, supported by a data fellowship through the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, explores the available data and highlights examples of local solutions around the state. This article focuses on MTFP’s analysis of the available data and some of the factors contributing to racial disproportionality in foster care. 

In light of the 2023 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the Indian Child Welfare Act, and as a reckoning with the traumatic legacy of federal Indian boarding schools continues to spread, more attention is being paid nationwide and in Montana to the existential threat that the removal of Native American children from their families poses to Native American communities. 

It’s not clear, however, how that growing awareness might change one of the defining characteristics of Montana’s foster care system. As the available data documents, Native American children in Montana have long been and remain dramatically overrepresented in foster care, and are separated from their families at a significantly higher rate than white children. Child welfare experts say that pattern is devastating for many parents, children and tribal nations, but difficult to change.

In cases handled most often by the state, but sometimes by tribal authorities, Native children are involved in out-of-home foster care placements at roughly five times the rate of white children, according to a Montana Free Press analysis of federal data collected between 2012 and 2021, the most recent decade for which data is available. During that span, the recorded number of children in Montana’s end-of-year foster care caseload ranged from a 2012 low of 1,937 to a 2018 high of 3,946. 

Among the states with the largest proportions of Native American citizens, Montana has one of the largest percentages of Native children in foster care, according to a 2023 analysis by the national research group Child Trends. A review of 2021 state caseload data by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges recorded that Native Americans in Montana are more overrepresented in foster care than any other racial group in the state based on population.

“We know that racism exists in child welfare systems, but it also is the creator of all the factors that bring families into the systems over time.”

Dr. Deana Around Him, researcher, Child Trends

Child welfare experts say the skewed number of Native children in foster care stems from both unequal access to economic opportunity and health care resources in Native communities and deeply rooted biases held by child protection authorities about what safe and stable families look like.

“We know that racism exists in child welfare systems, but it also is the creator of all the factors that bring families into the systems over time,” said Dr. Deana Around Him, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and researcher at Child Trends. 

The racial gap in Montana is particularly striking when described at a smaller scale. While an average of roughly 9 out of 1,000 white children in Montana were in foster care over the last 10 years, Native children appeared at a much higher rate, with an average of 44 of every 1,000 spending time in the system, according to MTFP’s review of the available federal data.

And those figures are likely an undercount, arising from gaps in data collection by local, state, tribal and federal child welfare agencies. The federal database used to track state-level foster care trends relies primarily on information from the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, which operates the largest child protective system in the state. It does not include comprehensive reports from tribes, which, as sovereign nations, operate their own child welfare programs and adjudicate cases in tribal court, or from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which handles a portion of child abuse and neglect investigations and foster care placements for some tribal nations. That federal agency acknowledged but did not provide answers to a list of questions submitted two months before our February publication date about the caseloads its workers handle through contracts with various tribal nations.

While foster care is designed to protect children from abuse and neglect, jointly defined in Montana statute as “actual physical or psychological harm to a child” or “substantial risk of physical or psychological harm to a child,” child welfare experts also recognize that removing children from their families or caretakers can be traumatic and deeply destabilizing.

In recent years, national child welfare authorities and policy researchers have pushed states to focus on keeping children safely in their homes by providing more resources, support and guidance for parents. Montana has reduced its overall foster care caseload since 2018, but the disproprotionate representation of Native Americans remains, continuing a damaging cycle of family separations in Indigenous communities.

“You think about the future of your nation, nation building, hope for the future,” said Dr. Maegan Rides At The Door, an enrolled member of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation, descendent of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, and co-founder of the National Native Children’s Trauma Center, based in Missoula. “What does our future look like? How can we continue to revitalize our culture if we don’t have our kids here?”

Lesa Evers, the recently retired tribal relations manager with the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, called the overrepresentation of Native children in foster care “unacceptable” in a December interview. But, she said, publicly acknowledging and addressing it has not been a consistent priority for state health officials, and tribal governments are often focused on child welfare work at a local level rather than statewide solutions. 

Evers, a member of the Little Shell Tribe and a Blackfeet descendent, said that while the issue spans jurisdictions and is inherently complicated, the overrepresentation of Native children in the state’s caseload can’t be solved without the health department’s focused attention.  

“They’re aware of it,” Evers said about state officials. “Why is it not alarming? And if it’s alarming, why are we not addressing it?” 

There are no demographic breakdowns of the state’s out-of-home placements on the health department’s public-facing foster care dashboard. The state does not publish regular reports about case outcomes such as reunification, adoption, long-term guardianship, or kinship placements for Native or non-Native youth, though some of that information is available through federal reports. The state also does not collect or publish data about the number of cases it handles that are subject to the provisions of the Indian Child Welfare Act, the federal law that requires collaboration between state and tribal governments on child welfare cases involving tribal members that originate outside of tribal jurisdiction. 

“They’re aware of it. Why is it not alarming? And if it’s alarming, why are we not addressing it?”

Lesa Evers, recently retired tribal relations manager with the state Department of Public Health and Human Services

“MT currently has minimal data available to analyze disparities or disproportionalities in either race or other historically underserved populations,” notes a 2023 assessment by the state health department’s Child and Family Services Division. It later states that, in April of the prior year, Native Americans comprised more than 38% of the foster care caseload. 

“The disproportionality of Native American children in Montana’s foster care system is a longstanding problem,” the report continues. “There are many factors contributing to this including socioeconomics, access to physical and mental health services and historical trauma which is primarily the result of historical governmental policies dictating the treatment of Native American children and families. CFSD cannot address all these issues.”

In a December interview, Nikki Grossberg, director of DPHHS’ Child and Family Services Division, also acknowledged the problem of Native overrepresentation but emphasized that the state, which employed 172 child protection specialists throughout 2023 and handles thousands of reports of child mistreatment annually, is not the only entity with a responsibility to address an issue spanning multiple jurisdictions and professions. 

“I think it's really about continuing to have the conversation,” Grossberg said. “And with the whole system, right? So really talking with the judges, the attorneys, our providers. One, to acknowledge it, make sure we know what's out there, and two, to bring people together, to really help try to figure out, you know, the ‘why’ and then ‘how do we do what.’”

Sunrise illuminates Pioneer Park in Billings on Jan. 3, 2024. Credit: Tailyr Irvine

Neglect, an overarching category that can include many types of physical and psychological maltreatment, is the most common factor associated with a child of any racial group entering foster care in Montana. That reason, sometimes in combination with other factors, was listed by child protective workers in an average of about 73% of all cases over the decade’s worth of data analyzed by MTFP, reaching nearly 85% in 2021. Physical abuse, by comparison, was cited much less frequently, appearing in an average of about 7% of foster care cases involving Native children, and 10% of those involving non-Native children, over the past decade. 

While the broad category of “neglect” often co-exists with conditions of poverty, unemployment or parental addiction, researchers at Child Trends have pointed out that exposure to those risk factors does not mean a child will experience neglect or abuse — one of the common myths about the child welfare system.

“Certainly, while poverty does not make one a bad parent and does not equate with abuse and neglect, poverty does expose family members' kids to risks of involvement with the child welfare system,” Kelly Driscoll, head of the Family Defense Bureau within the Office of State Public Defender, said at a January meeting of a legislative group studying the state’s child welfare system. “My kids can look like total street urchins and I'm given some deference as a highly educated white woman in Montana. Poor parents, Native parents, are sometimes not treated with that deferential treatment.”

Determinations of whether a child is being neglected, or is at risk of neglect, are often influenced by the subjective viewpoints of individual child protection workers, said Rides At The Door, of the National Native Children’s Trauma Center. Despite agency efforts to standardize the investigation process, she said, personal lenses are inevitably applied to determinations of safety. 

“‘Oh, this child doesn’t even have their own bed, their own room.’ How are they assessing things? How are they determining neglect, unsafe environments?” she said. “And that gets to bias … It’s not just these systemic things.”

"... I'm given some deference as a highly educated white woman in Montana. Poor parents, Native parents, are sometimes not treated with that deferential treatment.”

Kelly Driscoll, head of the Family Defense Bureau, Office of State Public Defender

In response to questions from MTFP, the state health department in November said it regularly trains caseworkers how to detect and avoid personal biases of all sorts in their decision-making and standardizes removal procedures statewide to insulate the processes from personal opinions. Other mandatory training for child protection workers focuses on compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act and trauma-informed practices specific to racial minorities, department spokesperson Jon Ebelt said.  

Parental drug use is another removal factor that has been more commonly listed in the last decade for Natives and non-Natives alike as Montana’s population struggles with addiction, rising rates of drug-related deaths and inadequate treatment options. Drug abuse was cited as a factor in an average of about 42% of Native family separations between 2012 and 2021, compared to 28% of cases involving non-Natives.

Child welfare researchers and advocates say addiction and mental health issues are often symptomatic of generational trauma in Native communities resulting from centuries of colonization and violence, including the suppression of Indigenous languages and cultural ceremonies. As recently as the 1950s and 1960s, tribal members were still directly experiencing the abuses of the Indian boarding school era, when Native children were separated from their families by federal workers and sent to non-Native institutions designed by the U.S. government to erase cultural identity and force assimilation. 

Dr. Maegan Rides At The Door, a cofounder of the National Native Children’s Trauma Center, poses for a portrait in her office at the University of Montana on Jan. 9, 2024. Credit: Tailyr Irvine / MTFP

Many tribal members interviewed by MTFP referenced that painful history as being closely linked to high rates of foster care involvement in their communities.

“When you look at being an Indian, our historical legacy is children being taken from us,” said Paula Bighorn, deputy director of the Fort Peck Tribes’ Health Promotion and Disease Prevention program, in a December interview.

Bighorn, who was raised by a relative in Montana after being placed in foster care at a young age, also reflected on the systemic challenges that make the modern-day problem of Native family separation hard to solve. Having worked as a child protection specialist for the state and for her tribal government before taking her current job, Bighorn described seeing how social and economic barriers can work against keeping children safely in their homes or connected to family networks. 

“Are there jobs here? Is there housing here?” Bighorn said, raising examples of challenges facing families on the Fort Peck Reservation in the largely rural northeastern corner of Montana. “Those are two of the main things that you need to get your kids back, is housing and a job.” 

Resource disparities and risk factors for child neglect and abuse are also present in more urban, resource-dense parts of Montana, where racial disproportionality in foster care involvement continues. Between 2018 and 2022, an average of 119 Native American youth living in Cascade County, which includes Great Falls, were in foster care at the end of each calendar year, compared to the average of 156 white children in foster care, according to state health department data examined by MTFP. Those figures don’t reflect the county’s demographics, which show that roughly 6% of the county’s under-19 population is Native, and 82% is white, according to population data collected by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center.

In Yellowstone County, home to Billings, about 83% of the youth and teen population is white, and about 9% is Native American. But the county’s foster care caseloads tilt toward Native overrepresentation, with a five-year average of about 200 Native children in end-of-year care, compared to 355 white children.

Grossberg, from the state health department, attributed the high representation of Native children in Cascade and Yellowstone counties to proximity to reservations — the Blackfeet, Rocky Boy’s and Fort Belknap reservations north and east of Great Falls, and the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations east of Billings, respectively — and the frequency with which families move between the reservations and nearby cities.

“When you look at being an Indian, our historical legacy is children being taken from us.”

Paula Bighorn, deputy director, Health Promotion and Disease Prevention program, Fort Peck Tribes

When asked, Grossberg said it would be possible for the state to track racial disproportionality in each of the child welfare division’s six regions, but that the department has not done so.

“We know it,” Grossberg said about the persistent racial imbalance in foster care. “For us, it's more about the energy of how we work on it than, you know, where that happens.”

Asked if she thinks the racial gap in Montana’s foster care system can be closed, Grossberg said yes, and referenced the importance of lowering health care and economic barriers in Native communities. Speaking about early intervention services, she said the department is trying to increase its outreach to local Urban Indian Health Centers in multiple cities to make sure culturally appropriate health services are available where families need them. She also said her team is working to make voluntary custody agreements with the child welfare division more accessible to Native families that are struggling, rather than waiting for a situation to escalate and trigger an involuntary child removal.  

Grossberg indicated that rather than developing specific initiatives designed to prevent Native family separations, the department is trying to ensure that all families, regardless of race, have access to the resources they need to succeed.

The sun rises over Billings, on Jan. 3, 2024. Credit: Tailyr Irvine / MTFP

“[We focus on] providing the families, Native or non-Native, all the same efforts we do to try to prevent removal,” Grossberg said. “It's not like we're going to separate it out and say, ‘Do something different,’” she said. 

Grossberg also said the state will stay involved in discussions about racial disproportionality in foster care, such as the Moving the Dial initiative organized by the state judiciary, especially when there’s an opportunity for collaboration with tribal nations and state or tribal court systems.

“The conversation is not going away. It's something that all states, including Montana, need to really focus on and continue to work and address. And I think we do that by engaging our tribal partners to figure out and find solutions,” Grossberg said.

Evers, who worked in tribal relations with the state for more than a decade under the administrations of governors Brian Schweitzer and Steve Bullock, said bringing change to large-scale problems affecting Native communities requires sustained and explicit effort. She said state officials were more focused on understanding Native overrepresentation in foster care in 2019, when the issue was studied by the State-Tribal Relations Interim Committee, resulting in a report about the need to improve communication between state and tribal governments about ICWA cases. Since then, she said, the state’s attention has drifted. 

“The conversation is not going away. It's something that all states, including Montana, need to really focus on and continue to work and address.”

Nikki Grossberg, director, Child and Family Services Division of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services

Since Evers’ retirement last year, the health department has decided to merge the position of tribal relations manager with that of the director of American Indian health. Last summer, another department employee left a position responsible for managing the state’s compliance with ICWA. Grossberg said the agency does not plan to rehire for that position, but intends to fold its responsibilities into a new position regarding tribal relations and child welfare issues. The department said it plans to post that position in March. 

Evers acknowledged the complex challenge of changing the racial makeup of foster care in Montana. But the longer an uneven pattern of family separations continues, Evers said, the harder it is to create trusting and collaborative relationships between Native communities and the state child protection system. If the status quo doesn’t change, generations of family members will keep growing up apart from one another, a profound loss that ripples across communities and is difficult to convey with data. Responding to that problem should trigger more engagement from all parties, including the state, Evers said, not less.    

“Any issue can be resolved if you start breaking it down into doable pieces,” she said. “It requires commitment and acknowledgment that there is an issue.”

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Citing an ‘insurmountable’ lack of snow, Montana ski area closes for the season

A small, locally owned ski area west of the Rocky Mountain Front community of Choteau announced Thursday that it’s closing for the remainder of the 2023-2024 season, citing dismal snowfall, warm temperatures and the financial repercussions of holding out for more wintery weather.

In a six-page letter posted to the Teton Pass Ski Area Instagram account, area owner Charles Hlavac said the ski area has been running in the red to cover early season payroll, insurance premiums, property tax and start-up costs such as food, fuel and explosives for avalanche mitigation. Continuing to do so, the letter continued, could jeopardize the ski area’s ability to operate in the future.

“The financial hole we have dug is large, and we don’t think we could operate our way out of it even if the snow showed up,” Hlavac wrote. “The correct decision from a truly non-emotional business perspective is to ‘cut off the limb to save the life,’ or in other words end this season now, so we can ensure more seasons in the future.”

Hlavac wrote that the decision was not made lightly but the one he felt compelled to make when considering variables under his control.

“If the issue was simply a matter of needing to put in the time and the hard work, my crew and I would gladly do any amount of difficult work,” he wrote. “We hope that we have proven over time that we are not afraid of the incredibly hard work that goes into operating a uniquely challenging business in a sometimes-hostile environment. We don’t see ourselves as quitters, and we recognize that this decision might be viewed that way by some now, or in the future. This decision will linger, but we have weighed the alternatives.” 

Hlavac detailed weather trends in the post, noting that the 8 inches of snow that fell at the area last weekend failed to reverse the ski area’s fortunes since precipitation wrought by the storm started out as rain and fell on unfrozen ground — a bad combination for maintaining a base. He also noted that Teton Pass happens to be located in a region of Montana hurting for snow.

The Sun-Teton-Marias basin, which is located just east of the Continental Divide, currently has 42% of the typical snowpack for this time of year, a record low. Teton Pass was able to operate just four days this season, according to Hlavac’s letter.

Tom Frownfelder, a former Choteau Chamber of Commerce board member and current finance officer for the city, said the ski area provides a winter boost to the area economy during a time of year when traffic from other recreational draws like hunting and wildlife watching tend to fall off.

“It does hinder our winter push,” Frownfelder said, adding that the dismal snowpack also has repercussions for agricultural producers and other businesses reliant on the Teton River. 

Hlavac wrote that Teton Pass “absolutely [intends] to take care of” its skiers. Customers who purchased a season pass or lift ticket voucher will be able to carry those over to the 2024-2025 season, he wrote.

Teton Pass normally receives 300 inches of snow annually, and the uppermost of its three lifts tops out at about 7,200 feet. Hlavac wrote that this is the ski area’s worst season for precipitation totals based on 55 years of records.

Turner Mountain, another small northern Montana ski area, is currently closed while it waits for more snow. According to On the Snow, which compiles information about ski area conditions around the state, base depths for open ski areas in Montana range from a minimum of 6 inches at Great Divide to 67 inches at Whitefish Mountain Resort.

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Misplaced Trust

Montana Files Intent to Sue Over Listing Wolverines Under ESA

” width=”224″ height=”168″ align=”right” hspace=”10″ alt=”Wolverines were listed as “threatened” last November. Now, Montana plans to sue.” title=”Wolverines were listed as “threatened” last November. Now, Montana plans to sue.” />The 15-page letter of intent to sue US Fish
and Wildlife Service comes on heels of November 2023 decision to list wolverines
as ‘threatened.’

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Study finds Montanans are increasingly OK with wolves

North American Grey Wolf

This story is excerpted from the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest containing original reporting and analysis published every Friday.

Montanans are increasingly tolerant of wolves, according to newly released research from the University of Montana’s Human Dimensions Lab and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The study, first conducted in 2012 and repeated in 2017 and 2023, was designed to gauge Montana residents’ attitudes toward wolves and various aspects of wolf management. To conduct it, researchers sent a survey to 10,000 Montana residents who were separated into four categories: the general population, landowners with more than 160 acres of land, wolf hunting license holders, and deer and elk license holders.

A few takeaways from the 2023 survey:

  • In 2023, 74% of the general population said they were “tolerant” or “very tolerant” of wolves, up from 50% in 2017 and 41% in 2012.
  • A vast majority of deer and elk hunters (82%), landowners (86%) and wolf hunters and trappers (100%) report being “tolerant” or “very tolerant” of wolf hunting. That figure for the general population is 50%, down from 71% in 2012.
  • More than two-thirds of landowners and hunters report being “very tolerant” or “tolerant” of trapping. Among the general population, that figure is 36%, a decline from 2017.

In a release about the study, FWP Chief of Conservation Policy Quentin Kujala referenced the “complicated views and values” people have toward wolves. 

“It’s important for us and our partners at the University to continue research like this because how stakeholders feel about wildlife and its management is a critical awareness for FWP to have,” Kujala said.

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Constitutional abortion backers file lawsuit to get on November’s ballot

Montana Supreme Court Department of Justice

Backers of a constitutional initiative to legally protect abortion access have petitioned the Montana Supreme Court to allow their proposal on the 2024 ballot after Montana’s attorney general labeled the measure “legally insufficient.” 

Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights, the political committee supporting the constitutional abortion amendment drafted by Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana, filed its legal challenge Friday, 10 days after Attorney General Austin Knudsen shot down the measure in his required legal sufficiency review

In the lawsuit, attorneys for the group refuted Knudsen’s findings that their proposal “logrolls multiple distinct political choices into a single initiative” and “limits the ability of the state to provide for public health and safety.” Rather, attorneys for the amendment argued, Constitutional Initiative 14, or CI-14, “plainly affects one topic and does so in a single, comprehensive way: establishing and outlining the right, then securing it from government interference.”

“It is no secret that CI-14 is, in part, a response to the sustained attack on abortion rights in Montana by the government, under laws that purport to do exactly what Subsection (3) prohibits: penalize, prosecute, and adversely affect those who exercise their rights or those, like healthcare providers, who assist,” the lawsuit states.

If approved by voters in November, the language of the constitutional initiative would add the express right in the Montana Constitution to “make and carry out decisions about one’s own pregnancy, including the right to abortion.” The amendment would allow the government to regulate abortion after the point of fetal viability unless a treating medical provider determines that terminating a pregnancy “​​is medically indicated to protect the life or health of the pregnant patient.” 

The proposal would also prohibit the government from penalizing or prosecuting a person for the outcome of their pregnancy, and similarly protect any person from adverse government action “for aiding or assisting another person in exercising their right to make and carry out decisions about their pregnancy with their voluntary consent.”

In the Jan. 16 finding, authored by Deputy Solicitor General Brent Mead, the attorney general’s office said that the ballot proposal distills many complexities of abortion policy, effectively creating “an express right to abortion but [denying] voters the ability to express their views on the nuance of the right.”

The lawsuit on Friday says that reasoning “stretches the bounds of credulity,” and, if allowed to stand by the state Supreme Court, could allow the attorney general to “adopt a new, lawless standard that permits the A.G. to block virtually any constitutional amendment that, in his own subjective determination, could benefit from more ‘nuance.’”

In the legal review, the attorney general’s office also pointed out that the proposed ballot language doesn’t match the parameters of Montana’s longstanding legal precedence allowing people to seek an abortion under the existing constitutional right to privacy. That 1999 court decision in Armstrong v. State, Knudsen’s office said, allows regulations of abortion when they serve “a compelling state interest and are narrowly tailored.” But by giving deference to a medical provider’s determination of what is “medically necessary,” the attorney general continued, those reasonable regulations cannot survive. 

Attorneys for Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights asked the court Friday to bypass considering “unripe theories” about how the proposed amendment does or does not square with the Armstrong ruling.

“The A.G.’s arguments on this score are not a basis to keep CI-14 from Montana voters, and the court should decline the A.G.’s implicit invitation to weigh in on whether and how CI-14 would interact with the Armstrong decision or the pending cases in Montana that rely on it,” the lawsuit states.

The legal filing also challenged Knudsen’s comments attached to a $0 fiscal note prepared by the governor’s Office of Budget and Program Planning. While the attorney general concluded that the ballot proposal’s resulting cost to the state cannot be determined, he also opined on possible future costs to Montana’s state health care plan, Montana Medicaid and costs from increased future litigation if the constitution was amended.

Attorneys for the constitutional initiative asked the Supreme Court to strike those arguments entirely, saying the attorney general’s comments amounted to “advocacy” and exceeded his authority. 

If the court rules in its favor, ballot issue supporters asked the court to direct the attorney general to send the proposed ballot statements to the Montana secretary of state within five business days. If allowed to advance to the next stage, the ballot committee must collect signatures of at least 10% of the qualified electors in the state, based on the last general election, in order to qualify for the November ballot.

In another recent case over a constitutional amendment to change the state’s political primary process, Knudsen’s office also accused drafters of logrolling multiple provisions into one proposal. The Montana Supreme Court ultimately ruled against that interpretation, allowing backers of the top-four primary measure to gather signatures to put the issue before voters. 

The attorney general’s office has not yet filed a legal response to Friday’s lawsuit.

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