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Montana Editorial Roundup

August 1, 2018

Billings Gazette, Aug. 1, on Gov. Steve Bullock’s deal with CoreCivic on the Shelby prison:

The 2017 Montana Legislature passed a package of justice system reforms intended to reduce the number of inmates in the state’s overflowing prisons.

The state has slightly reduced the number of inmates at Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby, a private prison owned and operated by CoreCivic. At the end of June, there were 547 state inmates there compared with 598 in June 2016, according to information provided by the governor’s office.

The Gazette sought information on the CoreCivic prison after the governor’s office announced that it had negotiated a two-year extension of the contract that otherwise was expiring on June 30, 2019.

That announcement drew immediate criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union, which cited frequent complaints that inmates are mistreated at the private prison.

“The ACLU of Montana continues to receive complaints about the facility on a weekly basis,” S.K. Rossi, ACLU advocacy director said in a news release.

State Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, told the Helena Independent Record that the governor should have extended the contract six to eight months ago. During the special legislative session in November, Republican lawmakers pushed a contract deal in which the state would have received $34 million in cash for extending the contract 10 years and increasing the daily per inmate rate it pays CoreCivic. Republicans said the $34 million would have prevented other budget cuts. Gov. Steve Bullock refused to be pressured into that quick deal and insisted the state could do better.

The new agreement will have zero net rate increase for the state, according to budget director Dan Villa. There is no requirement for the state to keep a minimum number of inmates at the private prison. CoreCivic also will fund three new staff positions for addiction treatment, vocational training, re-entry counseling or whatever services the Montana Department of Corrections determines are most needed. Crossroads has very limited rehab services now, so three workers is a minimal increase. CoreCivic agreed to provide human rights training twice a year for staff and inmates.

The deal also includes CoreCivic paying the state $34 million to cash out the user fees it has paid since the original contract started in 1999. Villa said CoreCivic agreed to pay $30 million as soon as the contract amendment is finalized by attorneys, and $4 million next June 30.

Under a law enacted through the special legislative session, the first $15 million of any user fees refunded by CoreCivic must go to the state’s fire fund. Villa said the governor won’t commit the rest of the user fee refund to other spending until he knows how much the 2018 fire season will cost Montana.

The agreement Villa described looks like a better deal than what some GOP lawmakers were peddling in November. The state’s ongoing costs will be lower than proposed in November, and it still recoups the user fees.

The CoreCivic contract extension, as described by Villa, won’t make any more money available to backfill budget cuts made over the past year — at least not till after snow falls again. However, the DOC budget won’t be busted by this extension, and it could put an additional $19 million into the general fund by the fiscal year end next summer. This is a better long-term deal than what was pitched in the November special session. Meanwhile, the state should be actively working to cut its overall inmate population by improving rehabilitation and reducing recidivism.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2v9facJ

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Missoulian, July 29, on dark money:

Last week, the Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Treasury Department decided to exempt certain nonprofits from having to disclose their major donors, making it even easier for these organizations to hide the “dark money” they spend to influence elections.

Gov. Steve Bullock and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester moved swiftly to counter this assault on campaign transparency, with Montana’s governor filing a federal lawsuit while Montana’s senior senator introduced legislation to overturn the new rule. Thus this battle is now being fought on two fronts — in the judicial and legislative arenas.

Montanans must rally to join the fight. It’s essential that we voice united support for these efforts from the state’s two leading Democrats, and urge reinforcements from the Republican members of Montana’s congressional delegation. After all, campaign transparency is a fundamental component of election integrity. It shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

Promisingly, Democrats and Republicans alike, including all three of Montana’s congressional delegates, have been on the same page with respect to the genuine threats working to undermine the integrity of the nation’s electoral process. In spite of President Trump’s skepticism, U.S. intelligence leaders are unanimous in their confidence that Russia did in fact interfere in the 2016 elections in an attempt to influence the vote in favor of Donald Trump. Russian operatives hacked servers, leaked emails and promoted fake news on social media.

Regardless of its intent or its source, fake news is best countered with truth and facts. That’s why campaign finance transparency is so important: the public must have ready access to reliable, relevant information before casting their votes in any election.

Ideally, the source of every penny donated to every candidate would be immediately accessible to the public, with the amount of the donation, the name and address of the donor, and the date of the donation readily available. Unfortunately, we are far from this ideal, and appear to be moving further away from it despite Montana’s best efforts.

For more than a century, state law prohibited political contributions from corporations, but the 2010 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Citizens United case opened the door for corporations to donate directly to parties and candidates. In 2012, the Supreme Court again delivered a blow to Montana’s valiant attempt to hold the line, striking down its ban on corporate contributions. In 2015, Montana struck back, with Democrats and Republicans joining to pass the DISCLOSE Act and force dark money groups to report their spending in the state.

The primary problem with allowing contributions from corporations — or any other group, be they unions or nonprofits — is that it enables individual donors to hide their names behind a larger organization. Is your representative doing favors for campaign donors with deep pockets? If those donors are free to finance their favorite politicians anonymously, you’ll never know.

Bullock’s lawsuit seeks to block the IRS from tossing out the rules, put in place more than 50 years ago, that require a variety of 501(c) nonprofits to provide the names and addresses of their major donors. These include powerful tax-exempt advocacy groups such as the National Rifle Association and Planned Parenthood, which are still required to disclose their donor information to the IRS.

But without a disclosure requirement, it’s much, much easier for those seeking to influence an election to skirt federal laws by forming an exempt nonprofit months before an election, accepting excessive contributions or contributions from foreign sources, and then dissolving before the IRS can investigate — but well after Election Day. Transparency is the only way to hold donors accountable for following the laws.

The Spotlight Act introduced by Tester last week would make this requirement explicit. It would nullify the decision from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin by requiring three classes of nonprofits — 501(c)(4), 501(c)(5), and 501(c)(6) — to disclose to the IRS the names of any donors who contribute more than $5,000, a generous threshold. In a press release announcing the legislation, Tester explained that such disclosures are needed “because it tells the public whether it’s just one donor or thousands of donors who are bank rolling these political organizations.”

The bill continues a trend from Tester of pushing for greater transparency in elections. He has, for instance, sponsored or co-sponsored bills aimed at reversing the Citizens United ruling.

It’s no secret that more money is pouring into political campaigns with each election cycle. The 2018 midterm elections are no exception, with the U.S. Senate race on track to be the most expensive in Montana this election cycle.

Tester, who is running for a third term, has already raised more than $3 million, according to the latest Federal Election Commission reports. His Republican challenger, State Auditor Matt Rosendale, has raised more than $1 million following an expensive primary. Both Tester and Rosendale are benefiting from heavy spending by outside groups. Both campaigns present a challenge when it comes to combing through lengthy campaign finance reports.

Most recently, Rosendale’s campaign raised some eyebrows when the Daily Beast reported that he had seemingly found a legal but ethically questionable way to get around individual campaign contribution limits. Apparently, donors who had already maxed out the contribution limit for the 2018 election gave additional money to help Rosendale pay off the debt from his 2014 House race.

Voters can decide for themselves whether they find this practice objectionable. The important thing is that they are aware of it, thanks to campaign disclosure requirements.

Transparency in campaign finance is near and dear to the hearts of Montanans because we’ve seen what happens when a wealthy individual or rich company exerts control of the political process. The Treasure State threw off its “copper collar” long ago, but we must fight at every opportunity to make sure it never comes back.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2mSLT1l

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Bozeman Daily Chronicle, July 29, on Montana State University’s president:

In a comparison of the salaries paid public university presidents around the region reported in the July 22 Chronicle, Montana State University President Waded Cruzado’s compensation looks pretty meager.

But, unfortunately, the same could be said for most Montanans. The difference between what we earn here and what we could earn in the same job in, say, New Jersey is considerable. Some wag long ago dubbed that difference “the wilderness tax,” the price people are willing to pay to live in the wide open spaces. And that creates a labor market that keeps salaries low.

All that being said, though, Cruzado has certainly earned her paycheck and then some. In the eight and a half years she has been at the MSU helm, she has made some remarkable achievements, including:

. An impressive enrollment increase of some 4,000 students.

. Increases in student retention and graduation rates.

. $280 million worth of new construction and renovations (much of which was paid for through skillful fundraising and not taxpayer money or student fees).

. National recognition for programs aimed at leading war veterans, Native Americans and all students to academic and professional success.

. A continued record of students winning prestigious scholarships.

And there are many more. Given that record of success, one could argue, Cruzado deserves whatever the University System can rustle up. But unfortunately, given the median household income in this state, her pay may be at the max.

And, in fairness, some of the comparisons to other institutions were a bit of stretch. Cruzado’s $322,988 annual pay is half or less than what the presidents earn at the University of Washington ($712,498), Colorado State ($700,000) and Washington State ($635,000). But it must be said that those are larger and better endowed schools that can afford to pay their presidents more.

On the other hand, Cruzado lags behind the presidents of other Big Sky Conference schools and universities in the Dakotas. Those discrepancies are harder to justify. But it also must be considered that maintaining parity among other chief executives of Montana’s relatively many four-year campuses creates another challenge - something other sparsely populated states don’t have to deal with.

That Cruzado earns less in total compensation than the MSU head football coach might raise a few eyebrows. But that’s true in many institutions, and about half of that compensation comes from product endorsements and TV and radio appearances.

To be sure, Cruzado is to be commended for her performance as MSU president to date. And the Montana University System Board of Regents should seek ways to keep her compensation as competitive as possible with comparable institutions.

But fiscal realities dictate that university presidents in Montana may never quite catch up to their peers around the region and nation.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2OBA38w

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