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Montana Editorial Roundup

September 20, 2017

Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Sept. 19, on Montana needing to pursue Chinese beef market:

Montana Sen. Steve Daines is commended for using his influence to bring the Chinese ambassador to Montana to promote the marketing of Montana beef in China. That country recently lifted a 14-year ban on U.S. beef imports. The move presents great potential for Montana cattle producers. Daines brought the ambassador, Cui Tiankai, to a local ranch to discuss the possibilities.

In fact, both Montana U.S. senators have been working diligently to find openings in the Chinese market for Montana beef. Sen. Jon Tester lobbied the Trump administration heavily for making the lifting of the Chinese beef import ban a priority.

Due to cultural and economic differences, the Chinese do not consume nearly as much beef per capita as Americans. But with a population approaching 1.4 billion, even modest consumption creates a vast new market for Montana-grown beef.

But while the ambassador was impressed with Montana cattle operations, it will be difficult to brand Montana beef in China as worthy of special consideration. Because there are no large-scale feedlot and meat processing operations here, the packaged product will reach China labeled as a product of the Midwest where Montana cattle must be sent for processing.

Taken in total, agriculture is still the leading industry in this state. And pound for pound, beef is its most important product. Montana’s elected leaders, on both the state and federal level, should make an effort to attract a meat processing company to invest in a Montana operation. Having the beef processed and packaged here would not only make it possible to market beef as a superior quality product overseas. It would also provide stable, decent-paying employment.

It may take a while for the Chinese consumer to develop a preference for Montana beef. But a dramatic increase in tourism to our region from China indicates Montana has a certain attraction to that culture. It will be well worth the effort to promote the Montana brand in China aggressively.

Any portion of a 1.4 billion-person market will be a big boost to Montana agriculture.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/2fiVQ8a

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Missoulian, Sept. 18, on special session needed to reduce cuts, raise taxes:

Montana needs a new budget deal.

The agreement approved by state legislators and Gov. Steve Bullock at the very end of the most recent legislative session can no longer be considered a good solution to Montana’s current budget problems. In fact, it promises to do more harm than good.

This summer brought deeper-than-expected shortfalls in revenues and steeper-than-anticipated increases in spending to fight wildfires, squeezing the state budget on both sides and triggering painful cuts to crucial agency programs.

Not only are Montanans not happy with the current budget proposal, neither the governor nor legislative leadership appears satisfied with it either. That being the case, the obvious solution would be to convene a special legislative session focused on recalibrating spending cuts to lessen their harm while also adjusting tax rates to bring in additional revenue.

A special session would cost the state even more money, and should be called only if and when Montana’s leaders fully grasp the urgent need to negotiate a new deal. The frustrating thing is that neither Montana’s governor, a Democrat, nor Republican majority leaders have given any indication they are willing to shoulder such a responsibility and meet in the spirit of compromise. Until they do, Montanans must brace ourselves for some dramatic reductions in state services - reductions that will be painful enough in the short term, and even more excruciating over the long term.

As Montana’s executive, Bullock ought to take the leading role on this. He should immediately begin pulling the legislative leadership of both parties together for talks, asking them to develop realistic options that could be considered in a special session.

Remember, it was only a few merry months ago that the Legislature passed, and Gov. Bullock signed, legislation containing spending reduction blueprints. Senate Bill 261 led to a 5 percent round of budget cuts, while House Bill 2 will cut an additional 10 percent. The state is required by statute to maintain a certain ending fund balance — and also requires that no more than 10 percent be cut from each agency program.

This means that in order to make up for its $227 million shortfall, the state must cut nearly the full amount allowed by law from each program. The cuts in HB 2, along with other reductions in another fiscal revision bill, Senate Bill 261, add up to $218 million.

Each agency has submitted proposals for reducing their expenditures, and most were able to identify difficult but justifiable areas in which to trim some fat. In the case of the Department of Health and Human Services, however, the cuts hit bone.

DPHHS is by far the state’s largest agency, accounting for about 85 percent of the total budget. This is because so much of DPHHS’s state funding is tied to federal dollars. A required $105 million in cuts to the agency would mean the loss of an additional $135 million in federal funds, for a total loss of $240 million.

According to the Montana Budget and Policy Center, the proposed cuts to DPHHS would mean:

Eliminating health case management for foster children,

Ending payments to foster parents to help cover the cost of diapers,

Cutting services for 300 children with low vision or blindness,

Closing 19 offices of public assistance in rural Montana,

Reducing funding that supports teen moms by over $2 million,

Ending partnerships that evaluate child victims of violence, shifting this cost back onto local law enforcement agencies,

Trimming funds for domestic violence shelters,

Cutting $48 million from case management services for individuals with disabilities,

Eliminating $10 million from a program that helps development disabled and at-risk children from birth to age 3,

Ending prescription drug benefits for more than 10,000 Montana seniors,

Cutting home- and community-based services, hospice services and long-term care for seniors, and

Losing $1.6 million in chemical dependency treatment.

The list goes on. It’s not hard to see how the loss of these services will cost local communities more. Hospitals and health care providers, police and prisons, municipal and county agencies will all feel the impact, and have to make up for the reduction in state support. Meanwhile, communities and families will suffer.

Nearly 200 individuals spoke about how the proposed cuts to DPHHS would affect them at a legislative committee hearing last week, after which legislators voted for the second time to informally object to the department’s budget plans. Their actions delay the implementation of these particular cuts, but do nothing to solve the department’s — or the state’s — fiscal problems.

The state is also facing reductions in Montana State Prison personnel, the likelihood of closing the new crime lab in Billings and the further loss of funding to the Montana State Hospital - all of which could lead to the kinds of conditions that result in expensive lawsuits.

Republican legislators must realize that these cuts have very real costs. Funding cuts made to education at the state level must be made up in tax hikes at the local level. When the state’s most vulnerable cannot access the basic support they need at the onset, they end of requiring more extensive — and costlier — services down the line.

Just as Governor Bullock’s office must work to identify the least painful places to make agency cuts, legislators must work to identify the least painful ways to raise revenue.

We’re not convinced that the spending reductions proposed so far represent the best Montana can do. Anyone who’s ever looked at a balance sheet knows it’s easier to shuffle numbers around if one doesn’t consider the real-world impact of budget adjustments. Montanans must make sure our legislative and executive leadership is giving the utmost consideration to the effects of their budget dealing.

Far less important than how we got to this low point is what we are going to do to climb back out of it. Montanans must demand that those with the authority to do so re-think the heavy-handed cuts, explore potential sources of additional revenue - and demonstrate their willingness to compromise on a new budget for the good of Montana.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/2xqZDqL

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Billings Gazette, Sept. 18, on Montana secretary of state needing to answer for fraud:

If there’s one thing that we can agree with Secretary of State Corey Stapleton about, it’s that his office should be investigating fraud.

We don’t just mean that if there is evidence of fraud that his office should be leading the charge against it; Stapleton should be held responsible for perpetuating a political hoax at the expense of undermining Montana’s electoral process.

Some things that should be beyond partisan gamesmanship. Confidence in Montana’s election process should be one of those sacred, off-limits topics which should be agenda-free.

Stapleton has instead used his position as Montana’s chief elections officer to undermine Montana’s confidence in voting and then, when his own unsubstantiated views are debunked, he can do nothing more than blame the media for his own political shenanigans and petty games.

Let’s explain: Stapleton, following a popular conservative ploy nationwide, jumped on the “voter fraud” bandwagon. In testimony to an interim legislative committee he called into question why there were no cases of voter fraud in Montana, and then said that more than 300 ballots cast during the state’s Special Election for Congress were illegal.

When a reporter followed up on that number with Stapleton, he pegged the number of illegal (his word, not ours) ballots at 360, and also raised the question of whether they were counted.

And so that the reporting, done by The Associated Press, Lee Montana Newspapers and The Billings Gazette, remained part of the unchallenged record since the meeting on July 20.

On Thursday, nearly two months later, Stapleton was asked to appear again before the State Administration and Veterans Affairs Interim Committee to clarify and update those shocking numbers.

Instead of appearing in person, Stapleton decided to send his chief of staff. He didn’t have the courage or conviction of his apparently strongly held beliefs to explain to the committee that those numbers (as many as 360) were wildly misleading. We feel sorry for Stapleton’s chief of staff, who had to read a letter riddled with grammatical errors. He blamed the entire issue on the media and misreporting. He even went so far as to say that he had reached out to editors to correct the stories after they appeared. His chief of staff named The Billings Gazette specifically as one of the media organizations he reached out to.

Yet the editors at The Gazette have no record of being contacted. Furthermore, neither The Gazette nor The Associated Press ever printed a correction on the stories.

When Stapleton visited The Gazette editorial board on Aug. 18, almost a month after the stories appeared, he complained of inaccuracies in the stories, but failed to give one concrete example, saying that it wasn’t his job to correct a reporter’s story. When asked why he wouldn’t want citizens to have the correct information if there were indeed errors, he again asserted that his job isn’t to talk to reporters.

Throughout reporting on Stapleton and the issue of voter fraud in Montana, reporters with this organization and other media have called him for comment and explanation. We’ve done that because it’s not only sound journalistic practice, but also because Stapleton, in his elected position, should be the authority on the subject. Sadly, Stapleton has a long track record of not returning phone calls, and then complaining loudly when he doesn’t like something in the press. In fact, in an August editorial that was critical of how he was using the “voter fraud” issue for political points, The Gazette reached out for comment and clarification before drafting an editorial. Those calls, which we made sure were received because we talked to an assistant to assure that he got the message, went unanswered.

In short, we have continuously given Stapleton the opportunity to comment, clarify and correct. He simply refuses.

That leads us to believe Stapleton has used this issue of voter fraud to undermine confidence to score political points. When he was unable to justify his numbers or rhetoric, he blames an easy scapegoat, the media, which plays well to the same group that also yearns to believe in voter fraud.

We’d point out the three cases that his chief of staff cited as “fraud” at Thursday’s committee meeting have not been substantiated. In fact, Committee Chairwoman Sen. Sue Malek reported that investigation of the alleged fraud case in Missoula yielded no evidence of crime, according to the Missoula County attorney. Fraud requires proving the intent to deceive. Ballots weren’t counted because they were turned in late, had no signatures or signatures that didn’t match the voter’s signature on file at the county elections office. Maybe evidence of sloppiness, but certainly not fraud.

Stapleton by his actions has undermined the system he was elected to protect. He seems proud to disseminate misinformation and then refuses to correct it. Finally, he makes accusations against the media that are unsubstantiated.

There is fraud, Mr. Stapleton, and it’s been perpetuated by you on the citizens of Montana when you’ve given them a reason not to trust the results of a free and open election. This is nothing more than a farce, designed to incense lawmakers who will then take steps to make voting unnecessarily difficult which would have the effect of disenfranchising entire blocs of voters.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/2xQDZNI

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