Montana Editorial Roundup
Billings Gazette, Dec. 17, on passage of the Farm Bill:
Congress finally provided the measure of certainty that Americans need for food production and nutrition.
The belated five-year Farm Bill of 2018 will sustain nutrition programs that prevent hunger in America. The 800 pages of legislation includes renewal and some improvements to the agriculture safety net that blunts impacts of low commodity prices and natural disasters.
The major obstacle to agreement on this Farm Bill was the insistence of some House Republicans that adults receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits should have to comply with more stringent rules about working and proving they had met work requirements. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, voted for the House bill and defended the proposed new work rules in an August interview with The Gazette editorial board.
We are relieved that those unnecessary new rules didn’t stay in the final Farm Bill. That means the 60,000 Montana households that rely on SNAP to buy some of their groceries every month will keep the help they need and qualify for based on family income.
We are relieved also that the state of Montana won’t be forced to shoulder the additional administrative costs that the House bill would have foisted on states. Montana already requires adult SNAP recipients to work, but the House bill would have required much more frequent verification and documentation of compliance.
Montana advocates for low-income folks, particularly food banks and faith leaders, have been writing letters to the editor and penning op-eds for months — pleading for the Montana delegation to keep SNAP intact.
Shortly after the House-Senate conference committee released the final Farm Bill, Montana Food Bank Network CEO Gayle Carlson issued a statement saying: “The agreement ensures that SNAP will continue to help feed children and their parents, seniors, people with disabilities, working people with low pay and inconsistent hours, and anyone else who falls on hard times. SNAP is and will remain a lifeline for people in our state.”
The Farm Bill also continues funding for the Emergency Food Assistance Program, which provides food to many of Montana’s pantries and meal programs while supporting our nation’s producers.
The bill heading for President Trump’s desk is very similar to the Senate version, which didn’t include the House SNAP cut that was projected to take benefits away from 2 million people. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines voted for the Senate bill.
Nearly three months after the last Farm Bill expired, the new one passed the Senate and House this week with overwhelming support, including the votes of Gianforte, Daines and Tester.
Neither Daines nor Gianforte mentioned the bill’s nutrition title in their announcements of support for the final legislation.
Only Tester, the farmer, cited nutrition programs as an accomplishment: “It provides the kind of certainty producers can take to the bank, while protecting successful conservation tools and ensuring every hungry Montanan has access to quality food.”
Daines, the only member of the delegation who sits on an agriculture committee, worked to change the way crop losses are calculated so producers in large geographic counties (as in Montana) are treated fairly in decisions to declare disasters and calculate aid. Disaster status is determined by the percentage of cropland damaged countywide. The rule was rewritten to divide large counties when determining qualification for Agricultural Loss Coverage payments.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue commended Congress for “bringing the Farm Bill across the finish line” and encouraged Trump to sign it.
So, in the week before Christmas, with the White House and Congress still unable to agree on budgets for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 and the president’s threat of a partial government shutdown looming, there is one Capitol Hill action to cheer: Americans will have certainty on federal farm and nutrition policy through September 2023 — once the president signs the Farm Bill.
Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Dec. 16, on the state’s mental health needs:
Montana has the highest suicide rate in the nation.
In 2016 — the most recent year for which numbers are available — 26 of every 100,000 Montanans took their own lives. That’s five times the suicide rate in the District of Columbia (5.1) and more than three time rates in New Jersey (7.2) and New York (8.1).
One in 10 of Montanans is a veteran — one of the three highest per capita rates in the nation. And there’s a connection between these numbers. Nationally, 30 of every 100,000 veterans commit suicide each year — more than twice the general population rate of 14.
A group of local mental health advocates is urging state lawmakers to establish a statewide strategy for behavioral health services.
And those lawmakers need to listen.
Access to behavioral health services in this state has been very uneven geographically. Some larger cities offer more in the way of these services than others and much more than what’s available in rural areas. And Bozeman and Gallatin County have historically been lacking. The Gallatin County sheriff says his deputies spend 700 hours a year driving emotionally distressed individuals to the state hospital at Warm Springs, cutting them off from lifelines of friends and family.
Adding to the problem is that when legislators go looking for ways to cut spending, these services are among the first items on chopping block.
When budget cuts were triggered by revenue shortfalls last year, Gallatin County lost all six of its behavioral health case workers and the only facility in Livingston was forced to close its doors. Cuts like those meant that many who were suffering from depression and other emotional issues were left without care. And, as the numbers indicate, that can be deadly.
Legislators of every stripe should find the state of these services very troubling. Establishing a statewide strategy for making behavioral health services more accessible and funding more stable is a moral obligation they must not ignore. Spreading these services more evenly around the state and providing stable funding for them should be a minimum.
Victims of emotional distress often go wanting for strong advocacy. They can be wrongly regarded as weak and victims of their own poor judgment. That has to stop. The stigma of emotional distress must be lifted and services must be enhanced.
Otherwise the troubling numbers are only going to get worse.
Montana Standard, Dec. 16, on Montana senators needing to take the lead on asbestos ban:
Many people think the importation, use and sale of asbestos, one of the world’s most dangerous known substances, is illegal in this country.
That would be a reasonable assumption. After all, more than 60 countries worldwide have banned it.
Indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency tried to ban asbestos in the late 1980s, but industry legal action managed to thwart that effort.
Since then, several other attempts have all failed. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington sponsored and passed an asbestos-ban bill more than a decade ago, after the horrifying asbestos-related disease toll in and around Libby became known. But last-minute industry-backed wording changes in that legislation gutted it.
Then, as a new version of TSCA, the Toxic Substances Control Act, was passed in 2016, backers of a ban had new hope. Asbestos was placed on the list of the first 10 chemicals that EPA would evaluate for a potential ban.
But in 2016, we elected a president who has said that asbestos is “perfectly safe when correctly applied,” and refuses to believe or acknowledge its toxicity. After two years, EPA is slow-walking the evaluation of asbestos, while imports soar.
Russia and Brazil are the largest exporters of asbestos to the United States.
In one month of 2108, trade records indicate more than 250 metric tons of the substance was imported, mostly for use in the choralkali industry. And we are no closer to an asbestos ban than we were when TSCA was passed more than two years ago.
Meanwhile, asbestos-related disease continues to kill nearly 40,000 people a year in this country.
Right now, under EPA rulemaking, the location of the factories where all that imported asbestos is being used is considered “confidential business information.” So nobody knows for sure where the asbestos is going, what factories are using it, how waste is being disposed of, or anything else about a projected 500-plus metric tons being brought into the country each year.
Also now, an estimated 15 million houses nationwide — could be less, could be more —have Zonolite loose-fill insulation from Libby — highly contaminated with asbestos — in their attics and walls. And an unknown number of schools and public buildings also still have the deadly mineral in their innards.
Several things need to be done, and done quickly.
The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, an advocacy organization for victims of the deadly disease and their supporters, has worked on legislation to ban asbestos and recently petitioned the EPA to make public the information regarding imported asbestos. And that petition to EPA can and should be supported by all three members of the state’s congressional delegation. Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who visited both Butte and Libby recently, should certainly understand how important this effort is.
And although The Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act (named after a victim of mesothelioma, an asbestos-caused cancer) will not pass this session, it will be reintroduced in the next Congress.
Montana’s senators can and should play a key role.
Jon Tester and Steve Daines already have done much, particularly for affected Libby residents. Both Tester, a Democrat, and Daines, a Republican, have pushed hard for funding for Libby’s asbestos-related disease clinic.
Tester was a co-sponsor of the previous asbestos-ban bill.
In the next Congress, we believe it is important for both Tester and Daines to co-sponsor the asbestos-ban bill, and mount a bipartisan push for its passage.
That bill should include a mandated survey of existing buildings across the country for Zonolite and other asbestos contamination — a step the EPA was once close to taking, but backed off on.
Montana’s terrible asbestos legacy — nobody knows when incidence of asbestos-related disease, or mortality from it, will even peak in Libby, where more cases are being diagnosed every month — makes it a logical place for action against the substance to be centered.
Tester and Daines have the opportunity to take a giant step — not only for Montana, but for the nation — to repudiate a shadowy industry’s hold on Congress, and to change the paradigm at last to guard American industry and consumers.