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Big Sky Country in Montana. (Image: Scott Smithson via Flickr)

Montana Editorial Roundup

The Independent Record, March 27

On the closure of a state facility for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled:

Whether you agree with it or not, the Legislature’s decision to close the Montana Developmental Center in Boulder is now state law. And members of the committee enlisted to help ease the transition now have a responsibility to follow through with their job.

The 2015 Legislature overwhelmingly approved the bill to shutter the 24-hour care facility for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled following reports that its residents had been abused and assaulted, including sexually. The final version of the bill signed by Gov. Steve Bullock passed on votes of 44-6 in the Senate and 60-40 in the House.

The bill required the state to create the Montana Developmental Center Transition Planning Advisory Council to oversee the center’s phase-out. However, six of the 15 appointees to that committee recently signed a letter to the Independent Record suggesting they aren’t on board with that mission.

The letter from the six appointees argues the Legislature made a bad decision on the MDC’s closure and urges state lawmakers to reconsider.

We certainly respect that opinion, which is shared by a lot of Montanans, but it’s not the committee’s job to re-evaluate whether the Legislature made the right call. The committee’s job is to work to maximize the advantages and minimize the damages caused by the Legislature’s decision regardless of whether individual members agree with it, unless or until the current law is repealed.

The law requires the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services to transition most of the residents out of the facility and into community services by the end of this calendar year. While members of the closure committee have no control over that, they do have an opportunity and a duty to make a positive difference amid what could turn out to be an unfortunate situation for a lot of people.

Instead of continuing to debate a decision that has already been made, we encourage the committee members to do everything they can to find suitable community-based settings for the people who live at the center, to find meaningful work for the facility’s employees who are likely to lose their jobs, and to find a way to ensure the MDC property continues to be used in a way that meets the needs of the Boulder-area community. If they don’t, the facility will probably close anyway, but without anyone looking out for the people who will be negatively affected.

The bottom line is this committee was formed to fulfill a specific and important role. And any of its members who are not able to follow through with that shouldn’t be on the committee anymore.

As a side note, we do have concerns about some of the ethics questions raised by opponents of MDC’s impending closure.

As a result of the law that will close the MDC, the governor has announced plans to move some of the facility’s patients to group homes around the state run by the nonprofit Aware Inc.

Aware Inc. is the sole source of salary and retirement benefits for Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, who sponsored the bill to shutter the MDC. The nonprofit also employed the husband of Dana Toole of the Montana Department of Justice, who supervised the two investigators assigned to the MDC and was charged with vetting reports of abuse, neglect and mistreatment at the center prior to the Legislature’s vote.

Both women clearly had a personal financial interest in the success of an organization expected to benefit from MDC’s closure, so we are not comfortable with the large roles they played in making that happen.

But it does appear that legislators were told about these possible conflicts of interest during the session and voted to close the facility anyway, which they had every right to do.

Click here to read the editorial.

The Great Falls Tribune, March 29

On fighting the drug problem in Montana:

Mexican government officials believe vicious drug cartels in that country would be far less of a problem were it not for a huge demand for illicit drugs inside the United States.

It is easy to decry butchery south of the border, yet it’s more difficult to defend those Americans who can’t wait for the latest shipment of methamphetamine, opioids or the latest illegal drug of the moment.

Tribune reporter Andrea Fisher last week detailed arrests made 18 months ago in one of the region’s largest meth trafficking operations. Twenty law officers through the Russell Country Drug Task Force arrested the “kingpin” of the drug operation in a Great Falls hotel room in September 2014. That was just one of several arrests made in the wide-ranging drug bust, involving meth worth an estimated $17,000 to $20,000 per pound. The kingpin, later sentenced to 22 years in federal prison, paid about $3,000 per pound for the drug in California, authorities said.

The drug-dealing network was motivated by “pure greed,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Betley.

“I hope this wiped out a significant source,” U.S. District Judge Brian Morris said at the hearing. “I hope this provides more than temporary relief.”

“We live in the ‘Last Best Place,'” Cascade County Sheriff Bob Edwards told Fisher. “I think people here are good people, but the drugs are coming in.”

We applaud efforts by the undercover drug agents to battle the meth onslaught.

“The biggest drug we’re dealing with in Montana is meth. It’s almost omnipresent,” said Scott Schlueter, Montana State Crime Lab forensic toxicologist. “It’s not slowing down.

There are some positive aspects to the drug battle.

In one example, state legislation restricted the purchase of ingredients needed to “cook” meth, and it has made homegrown meth labs virtually nonexistent in Montana, according to Bryan Lockerby, administrator of the Division of Criminal Investigation in the Montana Department of Justice. That was a wise move, but in place of homemade meth came pure meth from Mexico and other locations. Instead of making it at home, users buy it from drug dealers.

Law enforcement has worked hard to fight the meth epidemic, but it must be discouraging to make one big bust and then see others take the place of those who go to prison.

Officials emphasize arrests alone won’t cure the drug problem.

“Our officers statewide are doing a great job,” Lockerby said, adding later, “There has to be more than the enforcement side.”

What needs to happen is reducing the demand for illegal drugs in the United States.

President Barack Obama announced new measures Tuesday to try to reduce demand for drugs such as opioids and heroin by expanding benefits for substance abuse treatment and mental health treatment. Drug overdoses from painkillers and heroin kill more than 28,000 Americans per year, and it’s no secret U.S. prisons contain many inmates sent away for drug offenses. Even giving away illicit drugs for free hasn’t worked well in Europe.

It’s a sad situation when millions of Americans will take meth, a drug that can end up making the user appear like a zombie, or other drugs that devastate the human body and fracture our society. Law officers note drug dealers are attracted to easy money and big profits, despite risks of getting caught, while users get hooked and can’t give it up.

We should be concerned about a country that has so many people who are looking for a thrill, depressed or so down and out that they don’t even care what happens to them. Addiction remains a huge challenge for Montana and the country, from dependence on alcohol and tobacco to taking painkillers and those with sexual addictions.

Unfortunately, until more effective ways are found to treat the root causes of addictions, our community and communities nationwide will continue to suffer the consequences of addictive behaviors.

Click here to read the editorial.

Billings Gazette, March 2

On planning for the next legislative session:

The 2017 Montana Legislature won’t convene for another nine months, but wise planners know that now’s the time to figure out strategy to get what they need in legislative action.

That fact drew the largest turnout yet to a meeting of Eastern Montana Energy Partners last week in Miles City. The half-day session involved 46 people from Billings and Eastern Montana, including economic development specialists, city and county officials, utility lobbyists, Chamber of Commerce leaders and several legislators: Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip; Sen. Mary McNally, D-Billings; Sen. Eric Moore, R-Miles City; Rep. Geraldine Custer, R-Forsyth; Rep. Kelly McCarthy, D-Billings; Rep. Tom Richmond, R-Billings; Rep. Kenneth Holmlund, R-Miles City; and Rep. Scott Staffanson, R-Sidney. Also attending were representatives of Gov. Steve Bullock, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke.

Coal-fired legislation

Coal and infrastructure topped the agenda. Ankney summarized this year’s legislative action in Washington state and Oregon that may affect the coal-fired generating plants at Colstrip. The legislation passed in those two states was designed to encourage utilities to reduce use of coal power, but the final bills probably would not force changes before 2022.

Although Ankney and a large majority of the meeting attendees oppose the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, the Colstrip senator said Montana ought to have its own plan for the plan — in case the multi-state lawsuit doesn’t block the new pollution rules.

Right after the U.S. Supreme Court put a temporary stay on the rules, Bullock suspended the 27-member Clean Power Plan advisory committee that he had created. Montana legislators also dissolved a committee they had formed to deal with the Clean Power Plan.

“I think that was a mistake” to disband the Clean Power Committee, Ankney said. “Instead of reacting, we’d have a plan. That’s all we’ve been doing is reacting.’

Tom Ebzery, a Billings attorney, who represents some of the large utilities that own shares of Colstrip, echoed Ankney’s advice. “Keep going and have a plan in play.”

Local tax options

The Billings Chamber of Commerce has long been among the advocates for allowing local voters to decide whether they want a sales tax to help fund local government. In 2015, no state lawmaker even introduced such a local-control proposal. Bruce MacIntyre of the Billings Chamber said local option proponents plan to wait until the 2019 Legislature to try again.

Cities could get some revenue assistance from an increase in the state gasoline tax, according to McCarthy. Lawmakers are talking about possibly raising the state tax by as much as 10 cents per gallon and distributing 2 cents worth of the tax to the cities where it was collected.

Montana uses its fuel tax revenues to fund road projects. The state contributes just 13 cents per dollar it spends on Montana roads. The other 87 cents comes from the federal highway trust fund, which is more generous to Montana than to any other state.

However, the state fuel tax won’t raise enough revenue to match all the federal money Montana is eligible to receive under the federal law enacted last year. The 2017 Legislature must decide whether to raise the tax or do less road construction and repair.

“To me, it’s a no-brainer,” Custer said, “Our roads are in bad shape.”

Moore said he thinks a gas tax increase will be part of the 2017 budget discussion. He also said that lawmakers might be more willing to approve an infrastructure bill that includes borrowing because the state’s predicted July 2017 ending fund balance is shrinking. In the last revenue committee report, the projected balance was $360 million.

It’s not easy to reach consensus in a group as large as the partners that met Thursday in Miles City, but it’s important that they recognize common interests and strength in numbers at the Legislature. The economies of rural counties and the urban center in Billings are interdependent. Their needs may be different, but the benefits of thriving communities throughout this region are mutual and vital.

Click here to read the editorial.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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