Montana Editorial Roundup
Independent Record, May 19, on Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announcing his bid for the Democratic nomination for president:
As Montana’s two-term Gov. Steve Bullock launches his campaign for the highest office in the land, we hope he will not lose sight of what got him here in the first place.
In a video announcing his presidential campaign and multiple interviews with Montana and national media, Bullock has hammered on the point that he was the only Democratic governor to be reelected in a state Republican President Donald Trump won in 2016. Bullock is emphasizing his strong record of working with both Democrats and Republicans and says his ability to reach across the aisle is what sets him apart in a crowded field of about two dozen notable candidates hoping to win the Democratic nomination.
Meanwhile, Democrats are shifting farther to the left nationwide. A Pew Research poll found that the share of Democratic voters who describe themselves as liberal has been steadily increasing over the years, from only 28% in 2000 to 46% in 2018.
For Bullock to qualify for the first Democratic debates, he must have at least 1% support in three separate polls approved by the Democratic National Committee, or garner 65,000 unique campaign donors with at least 200 donors in 20 different states.
That means he will have to find ways to appeal to an increasingly liberal party base — and we hope he doesn’t ostracize Montana in the process.
We’ve already seen some evidence of Bullock’s views shifting more to the left since he started exploring a run for president, specifically on the issue of guns. While he opposed universal background checks for firearms during his 2016 campaign for governor, he has since come to support them and has also called for a ban on assault rifles.
We aren’t necessarily labeling his change of heart as bad or good, because it is important for our leaders to be able to adapt to our changing world. But we hope this is not a sign that he will become someone Montanans no longer recognize as he works to win over a different political base.
As Bullock has wisely said, we must behave like our children are watching — because they are.
So is the rest of Montana.
And we believe our governor has much to offer our fractured country, as long as he sticks to his Montana values of cooperation and bipartisanship.
Montana Standard, May 22, on deferred maintenance at Yellowstone National Park:
Between next weekend and the end of September, about 4 million visitors will pass through Yellowstone National Park. Most of them will stick close to the 400 miles of paved roads that loop through the 2.2 million acre wonderland of geysers and grizzlies.
Is the 137-year-old park ready for this crowd?
Not as ready as it should be.
Park visitation has grown much faster than park staff to ensure safe, enjoyable visitor experiences while protecting Yellowstone’s incomparable landscapes and wildlife. Yellowstone’s popularity soared even as the federal budget “sequestration” forced across the board cuts during the Obama administration and in past two years as the Trump administration slashed Interior Department spending on parks.
Funding for Yellowstone and the other units of the National Park Service has been lagging behind operational and maintenance needs for decades. As a result, there’s now an estimated $12.9 billion in deferred maintenance throughout the system. Together, Yellowstone and neighboring Grand Teton National Park have nearly $1 billion in deferred maintenance needs, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly told a Cody, Wyoming, group last week.
Seventy percent of the NPS maintenance backlog involves structures that are more than 60 years old, according to a report published last month by Pew Charitable Trusts. Yellowstone and Teton have many beautiful, historic structures dating to the turn of the 20th century. But they also have urgent needs for updating the sewer and water systems, roads, bridges, campgrounds and trails that serve millions of visitors who drive the regional economy.
An extensive visitor survey conducted in the summer of 2016 found that visitors hailed from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and 25 foreign countries. About 13% of those completing the survey were international travelers with about half coming from Europe and 34 percent from China.
Yellowstone Park needs more staff who can speak the languages of these visitors. The park needs more rangers to educate visitors about wildlife, forests, history and geology. It needs more staff to direct traffic.
All these needs are obvious to visitors. In the 2016 survey, lack of parking was the problem visitors cited most frequently, followed by too many people in the park, other visitors acting unsafe around wildlife, traffic congestion on park roads, traffic congestion at park entrances, not enough overnight accommodations and visitors acting unsafe around thermal features.
Working in the park requires sacrifices. Park and concessionaire employees often have substandard housing in moldy trailers. NPS is considering proposals from concessionaires to add housing units at Canyon and West Yellowstone as one step toward remedying the housing crunch.
“Improving the working and living conditions of the Yellowstone team” is the first strategic priority Sholly listed in an announcement last week.
This strategy includes a five-year plan to “substantially improved employee housing” and to “explore new housing partnership opportunities with gateway communities and partners.”
Building coalitions and partnerships may be Yellowstone’s most important future priority. Yellowstone already relies on nonprofit and corporate partners for significant support. For example, the Old Faithful Visitors Center was built several years ago with assistance from the Yellowstone Foundation, a forerunner of Yellowstone Forever, the private, nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the park. The renovation of the Roosevelt Arch, rerouting of north entrance traffic and creation of a pedestrian friendly park was a project of federal, state, local and private collaboration.
NPS says Yellowstone’s partnership strategy aims to:
—Make the NPS a better partner
—Ensure alignment with Yellowstone Forever philanthropic goals
—Build trust with gateway communities
—Honor tribal legacies and heritage
—Cultivate relationships with elected officials
—Strengthen conservation, environmental, economic, and recreation partnerships
—Build global partnerships
Those are big goals.
The federal government hasn’t demonstrated the will to fund the park at levels that will sustain services, preserve natural resources and meet growing visitor demands. Those of us who love Yellowstone must step up. Those of us whose livelihoods depend on Yellowstone’s attraction must invest in this place.
Montana and Wyoming citizens must keep advocating for Yellowstone with our congressional delegations. The protection of the Yellowstone Gateway in a new law this year shows that grass roots appeals can work. But we don’t expect that citizens will get a major, ongoing boost in federal funding to do all that the park needs.
Yellowstone visitation pumped $629 million into neighboring communities in 2017, according to NPS. To keep money flowing from the park, local partners will need to put some money back in.
Missoulian, May 19, on Missoula’s new housing policy:
With the long-awaited release last week of a document from the Office of Housing and Community Development, Missoula now holds a comprehensive housing policy in its collective hands. Next, city leaders must muster the will to make some hard decisions and begin working through the 95-page policy’s list of recommended actions.
Missoula’s City Councilors have already taken the first steps in this painstaking process, having steeped themselves in seas of detailed information about the city’s current needs, projected growth, development trends and planning policy over untold hours of meetings with private developers, city planners and local housing experts.
They should be fully prepared now to lead a community conversation on the future of Missoula housing. This important conversation, while ongoing, must result in prompt, meaningful action. The city must follow up with regular public progress reports — which is also recommended in the policy, titled “A place to call home: Meeting Missoula’s housing needs.” Most urgently, Missoula must come together to agree on a plan that will ensure the homeless are not left out in the cold this next winter.
That’s exactly what happened last winter when the Union Gospel Mission, which had provided shelter for up to 40 homeless individuals on nights when the Poverello Center reached capacity, was informed by the Missoula Fire Department that it was in violation of a city ordinance mandating 350 feet of distance between homeless shelters and residences. Apparently caught flat-footed by their own policy, councilors approved an emergency ordinance allowing the Salvation Army to waive city requirements and open a temporary warming center.
However, the Salvation Army first needed to raise $50,000, and Missoula’s Office of Housing and Community Development was not in a position to contribute. Fortunately, generous Missoulians stepped up to meet the financial need, and the secondary shelter successfully kept dozens of homeless people safe during the coldest nights of the year.
The emergency ordinance thoughtfully directs the city to look into shelter options for future winters. That likely will mean reviewing municipal ordinances to remove any undue obstacles for those organizations willing to provide this essential community service, and it may mean formalizing — and funding — a temporary shelter at the Salvation Army or elsewhere. In any case, this discussion cannot be kicked down the calendar into next winter; a firm plan needs to be in place well before the next cold snap.
Too much mere lip service has been paid to Missoula’s housing affordability hurdles for too long. Over the past 10 years housing prices have increased by nearly 40%, far outpacing residential development and wage growth. Nearly half the people who live in Missoula rent their homes, and nearly half of these renters are spending more than 30% of their take-home pay on housing. Too many Missoula residents lack secure, affordable housing, putting them at risk of homelessness, and the problem is only getting worse.
Three years ago, Missoula created the Office of Housing and Community Development. In 2017, the city undertook an important housing market analysis examining gaps and needs. In 2018, Mayor John Engen appointed a Housing Policy Steering Committee, which released its final recommendations later that same year. Five Technical Working Groups then took up those recommendations, working over the course of several months to develop them into policy proposals.
With those proposals finally in hand, it’s time for city leaders to make some real decisions, followed by real action. The recommendations in the new housing policy provide a clear path forward, complete with a draft ordinance to establish an affordable housing trust fund. Missoulians should take the time to scrutinize these options and be ready to weigh in with their support. The policy can be found on the City of Missoula’s website or attached to this editorial online at Missoulian.com.
Some of these recommendations ask Missoula to put its money where its mouth is. The policy offers several different ways for the public to provide financial support for housing services, such as tapping into the general fund, raising mill levies, creating a special district devoted to housing needs, or asking voters to approve a general obligation bond.
A little public investment can go a long way. Earlier this month, for example, a City Council committee gave initial approval to about $633,000 in federal grants and loans for six affordable housing projects that would create 200 homes for low-income families. A portion of the money would also be used to provide emergency shelter for homeless families, help an estimated 1,300 individuals in the local coordinated entry system secure stable housing, and provide housing education and counseling to another 1,000 people.
These projects, while significant and sorely needed, are still only a drop in the bucket compared to Missoula’s projected housing growth. Last week, the City Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee was presented with a document called “Our Missoula Development Guide: Looking Forward” that estimates Missoula County add 6,500 new residential units over the next 10 years. Currently, only about 4,300 lots are considered “highly suitable” for development.
Fortunately, the city is studying the development potential of different neighborhoods, particularly those on the outskirts of town. The new housing policy recommends a zoning audit to determine “how affordability is distributed geographically with the goal of increasing the amount and geographic distribution of land appropriately zoned to support affordable housing development.”
As more housing is developed, the city will get a boost to its revenues that should result in some tax relief for property owners. But all Missoulians, no matter their housing status, have a stake in where and how these homes are built. And all Missoulians have a voice in setting the city’s new housing policy.