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Montana Editorial Roundup

September 19, 2018

Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Sept. 18, on the referendum for a 6-mill levy to fund the university system:

Montana families enjoy access to some of the most affordable, quality higher education in the nation. And let’s keep it that way by renewing the 6-mill for the state University System.

Since 1948, voters have been asked every 10 years to renew 6 mills of property tax to help fund state public colleges and universities. And they have never turned it down. The levy provides about $21 million for the institutions, some 10 percent of the total budget. And a homeowner pays just $6 a year for every $100,000 of a home’s taxable value.

Some things to keep in mind: The 6-mill levy is not a new tax and it’s not a tax increase. It is a continuation of a tax that Montanans have been paying for 70 years. State support for these schools has been shrinking. Where once the state paid for more than half of Montana State University’s funding, now it pays less than 30 percent. Much of the rest of the costs must be borne by students and their families in the form of higher tuition.

The 6-mill levy helps soften the effects of lower state funding and keeps tuition low. And we all benefit from that.

The University System is one of Montana’s greatest assets. It has been an engine of economic growth. Nowhere is that more apparent than here is Southwest Montana where MSU has spawned high-tech startups that have created high-quality, clean-industry jobs. MSU spends more than $100 million annually on world-class research. And much of that money is spent right here in the Bozeman area.

Montana higher education is more affordable compared to most other states. But this year a Montana family that sends a student to MSU will spend more $7,000 in tuition and fees, with room and board and books piled on top of that. That’s nothing to sneeze at. It’s all many families can afford and more than many other families can. Students are forced to borrow more and more money and are burdened with onerous debt they must pay off after graduation before they can think about buying a home or starting a family.

Renewing the levy the least we can do to keep our colleges and universities affordable and thriving.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2MLE8F6

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Billings Gazette, Sept. 18, on funding preschool programs:

Average Montana student scores on standardized tests changed little from 2017 to 2018. Individually, among the 9,644 high school juniors who took the ACT, 3,207 had scores that make them eligible for admission to the Montana University System, according to the Office of Public Instruction website.

For public school students in grades 3-8, Montana requires the Smarter Balanced test. The average reading score statewide increased last year over the 2016-2017 school year. The most recent test showed 51 percent of students tested “proficient” in reading for their grade level.

Standardized tests are only one measure of how our schools are performing, and there are many limitations to this type of testing, which also takes significant time away from instruction. However, by any measure, more than a third of high school grads should be prepared for post-secondary study. More than 51 percent of third- through eighth-grade students should be proficient in reading.

Those broad conclusions argue for the continuous educational quality improvement for which our schools strive. In Billings, the test results released last week by the state Office of Public Instruction show considerable variation between elementary schools, between middle schools and between high schools. West High, for example, posted an average ACT composite score of 20, compared with 18.8 for Senior and 19.2 for Skyview. Overall, schools with more low-income students tended to have lower standardized test scores.

Poverty is a factor in test scores, academic achievement and graduation rates throughout Montana and this nation. The state of Montana provides no significant per student funding to schools that educate larger numbers of economically disadvantaged students. Montana’s school funding system partially compensates districts whose tax base per student is lower than the state average. Montana schools receive limited Title I federal funds that help fill some needs for low-income students, such as tutoring and catch-up programs for students who have been out of school and are below grade level in math or reading.

As Matt Hoffman reported in Sunday’s Gazette, Billings Public Schools is working on improving educational results, with Professional Learning Communities for teacher collaboration being one important new strategy. Superintendent Greg Upham pointed out that the district should consider expanding its summer classes, which generally have been limited to students who qualify for special education.

On Monday, Hoffman reported on state plans to seek renewal of a four-year $40 million federal grant for preschool. There’s an important connection between attending preschool and later academic success. The present grant funds 750 preschool slots in a variety of programs, including urban, rural, in public schools and in private organizations.

Gov. Steve Bullock has championed preschool. Early in his first administration, he sought to make that early learning opportunity available to all Montana youngsters with the state picking up the costs. That idea didn’t fly in the Montana Legislature. However, the 2017 Legislature appropriated $6 million for a pilot program over the biennium.

Bullock should keep budgeting for preschool and educating lawmakers; many at the Capitol in January will not be well-versed in the value of early learning. The biggest bang for the preschool buck comes from getting tots from low-income families into classes that prepare them for kindergarten and beyond. The majority of Montana parents have chosen preschool for their children — if they can afford it. Families with the least financial means are the least likely to have the opportunity to attend the high-quality preschool that will boost their children’s ability to succeed in kindergarten, first grade and beyond.

Montana research shows significant growth in academic and social skills for preschoolers who are evaluated at the beginning and end of the school year.

Montanans concerned that our children graduate high school ready for college and careers must be concerned that they get a good start. Student success begins in high-quality preschool.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2MCZ2pP

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Missoulian, Sept. 16, on an initiative to raise Montana’s tobacco tax:

Initiative 185 isn’t really that complicated.

I-185, the Extend Medicaid Expansion and Increase Tobacco Taxes Initiative, would raise the tax on cigarettes by $2 per pack, and extend the tax to vaping products for the first time. The money raised — calculated at more than $74 million a year by 2023 — will go to fund Medicaid Expansion, smoking prevention and tobacco cessation programs, veterans’ services and community-based Medicaid waiver services.

Its opponents would like voters to think that it’s not as simple as that. They are on the side of the tobacco companies paying for an advertising blitz that’s trying to poke holes in I-185′s airtight reasoning. The group Montanans Against Tax Hikes has already spent millions trying to convince voters that the initiative is unfair, unsustainable — possibly even unconstitutional.

On the other hand, a long list of health advocacy organizations and hospitals are urging voters to support I-185 to relieve taxpayers of the expense of treating tobacco-related illnesses and return more of that burden to those who use tobacco products. Research shows this tough-love move will be beneficial for tobacco users in Montana — and has broader benefits for Montanans as well, both immediately and over the long term.

First, it’s important to note that Montana’s Medicaid expansion program, the Health and Economic Livelihood Partnership (HELP) program, is scheduled to sunset in June 2019. It will be up to the 2019 Legislature to decide whether to extend the program, and if so, what changes to make to it first. Several Republican legislators have already stated that they would like to see more restrictions on Medicaid eligibility, such as minimum work hours or community service requirements.

With I-185, voters can send a strong message to legislators that Medicaid Expansion should indeed be continued, and further, provides a funding source for doing so: up to $26 million per fiscal year. While leaving legislators free to debate the particulars of how the program should work and who should qualify, the initiative’s passage would provide them with a clear directive to support this important program.

In Montana, more than 18 percent of adults are smokers. More than 16 percent of pregnant women are smokers. Another 12 percent of Montana high-school students smoke — and nearly twice as many use e-cigarettes.

The rising use of e-cigarettes among youth pushed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week to order five of the largest companies that sell vaping materials to come up with a plan to prevent teens from using them within 60 days, or see their candy-flavored products pulled from store shelves. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2017, more than 2 million middle- and high-school students said they used e-cigarettes.

While advocates of vaping are quick to relay anecdotal stories about adult smokers who successfully quit thanks to vaping, the FDA has not approved e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation device. There are several other tried-and-true cessation methods smokers are strongly urged to try first.

There is little doubt that vaping creates new tobacco addicts. The amount of nicotine, as well as other harmful chemicals, can vary wildly from product to product, and teens drawn to flavors such as gummy-flavored vapors are especially likely to be hooked.

Fortunately, they are also the population that is most likely to be deterred by an increase in price. And I-185 contains a significant boost for prevention and cessation programs to help tobacco users quit, directing up to $3 million toward such programs each year.

Some 1,600 Montanans die each year due to their own tobacco use, according to the Montana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The estimated health-care costs directly attributed to smoking amount to a whopping $440 million a year.

The Medicaid program alone covers more than $81 million of these smoking-related costs. It seems only fair to ask tobacco users to pay a larger portion of these costs. Of course, if they quit buying tobacco, they also quit paying.

Right now, all Montanans are picking up the tab for their habit, not to mention the indirect harm caused by secondhand smoke or fires caused by cigarettes. The average Montana household is already paying $779 in taxes to offset tobacco-related costs, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Federal support for Medicaid Expansion currently covers about 95 percent of the costs, and this is expected to drop to 90 percent by 2020. I-185 is a smart way to plan ahead and make up the difference, as well as lead to lower costs over the long term.

The heads of Missoula’s two major hospitals — Dr. Dean French, CEO of Community Medical Center, and Joyce Dombrouski, chief executive of Providence Health and Services Montana — sat down with the Missoulian’s editorial board last week to say that Medicaid expansion is working. After an anticipated initial bump in enrollees and costs as patients finally sought treatment for long-deferred health problems, prevention and screenings are trending up. As more patients catch and treat more problems earlier on, instead of relying on “expensive, chaotic” emergency treatment, they are having their health needs met in a way that is lending much-needed stability to the health care market.

Most importantly, I-185 will save lives. It will encourage more tobacco users to quit, prevent more young people from starting in the first place, and fund important health care for those whose tobacco use is wrecking their health.

One final point: Montanans passed a previous tax on tobacco by initiative in 2004. The Montana Tobacco Sales Tax Initiative, I-149, increased tobacco taxes by 140 percent, to $1.70 per pack of cigarettes. The money raised by this tax was allocated in much the same way as the current initiative proposes: to health services, veterans’ care and the general fund. And it was passed by more than 64 percent of voters. It wasn’t unconstitutional then, and it isn’t unconstitutional now.

Vote “for” I-185, the Extend Medicaid Expansion and Increase Tobacco Taxes Initiative.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2QJyUgc

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