28,10,0,50,1
600,600,60,1,3000,5000,25,800
90,150,1,50,12,30,50,1,70,12,1,50,1,1,1,5000
0,1,0,0,0,40,10,5,0,1,0,15,0,1
Montana COVID-19 testing
Montana COVID-19 testing lab
Montana COVID-19 testing lab
Boulder River Bridge view
Boulder River Bridge view
Combat Crochet
Combat Crochet
Montana Governor Steve Bullock at Innovate Montana 2019
Montana Governor Steve Bullock at Innovate Montana 2019
Bikers and Hikers stranded at Mystic Lake Cabin
Bikers and Hikers stranded at Mystic Lake Cabin
Goat Fire mapped at 300 acres
Goat Fire fought in rugged terrain
Goat Fire fought in rugged terrain
Griz management exceeds sustainable mortality rate
Griz management exceeds sustainable mortality rate

The department’s attorneys are the lowest paid in the state
MainStreetMontana.com
July 16, 202

BY:  - SEPTEMBER 15, 2021 6:16 PM

DailyMontanan.com

 Construction being done on the landscaping of the Montana Capitol during Spring 2021 (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan).

 

Two days after being held in contempt of court in Yellowstone County, the Montana Office of Public Defenders appeared before a legislative budget subcommittee dedicated to public safety on Wednesday to explain how they plan to navigate heavy caseloads with finite resources.

The most daunting problem facing the department is money. OPD pays attorneys just $56 an hour to contract attorneys — a third of the federal contract rate for public defenders. The department also faces high turnover as its attorneys are paid $13,000 less per year than other state Department of Administration lawyers.

“I can’t let this go without saying: Our attorneys are the lowest paid in state government, and that was in the audit done in 2020,” said OPD Director Rhonda Lindquist at Wednesday’s meeting. “As we try to comply with that, we continue to have that conversation about our attorneys and being fairly compensated.”

Lindquist was ordered by Yellowstone County District Court Judge Donald Harris on August 17 to appear before the court after learning of 663 unassigned cases in the 13th judicial district, which covers 16 courts throughout Yellowstone, Big Horn, Carbon, and Stillwater counties. As of Wednesday, the office had 691 unassigned cases across the state, with about 40 percent of cases existing in Billings alone.

The Billings office currently has 31.5 full-time lawyers, but to adequately service the caseload, the department would need 43 full-time lawyers, said OPD’s lawyer, Peter Habein ,with the Crowley Fleck Law Firm in Billings, according to the Billings Gazette.

As a result of Monday’s hearing, the department was fined around $500 for every unassigned case in the judge’s department, which could be around $5,000 to $10,000 to be paid to the county. The judge also ordered that any case coming to his courtroom must have a lawyer signed within two to three days as set forth by OPD policy.

“Our immediate response to this issue in Billings is to assign one attorney per judge, and it is unworkable. That is essentially almost 400 cases for one attorney,” said Brian Smith, OPD’s public defender administrator. “But we need someone assigned when we’re trying to comply with the judge’s order, but at the same time, maintain an ethical standard.”

An emergency rule issued Aug. 31 by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services has intensified debate over face mask requirements for public school students in recent weeks, generating contradictory claims about the science regarding mask wearing.

DPHHS’ rule states that the scientific literature on the effectiveness of masks in reducing the spread of viral infections is “not conclusive,” citing a number of sources including a New York magazine opinion article and an as-yet-not-peer-reviewed study. The Montana Nurses Association responded last week with a memo denouncing the rule as promoting “junk science.”

Several of the sources cited by DPHHS were also quoted in a 13-page research report prepared by Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office and released to the press the same day Gianforte announced the emergency rule. The report was titled “How can you ‘follow the science’ when there is ‘no science behind mask mandates for children’?”, and claims the Centers for Disease Control’s universal masking recommendation for schools “ignores research.” 

The report draws heavily from the same New York magazine piece cited by DPHHS, as well as from tweets, media statements and a Wall Street Journal opinion article penned by half a dozen American doctors questioning evidence that masking children prevents the spread of COVID-19. It also quotes a section of a CDC report noting that transmission reduction in Georgia elementary schools with mask mandates late last year was “not statistically significant” compared to schools where masking was optional. That report subsequently stated that “universal and correct mask use is an important COVID-19 prevention strategy in schools as part of a multicomponent approach,” a conclusion not included in the governor’s office report.

As the governor’s research report indicates, some members of the medical community nationally have expressed skepticism about mandating face masks for students. The reasons underpinning those arguments vary, from potential adverse effects of long-term mask wearing to assertions of psychological and emotional impacts on school-age children. Such anti-mask positions, amplified by Gianforte and DPHHS, may support public skepticism about the efficacy of masking. But many medical experts in Montana say the appearance of debate is misleading.

“There’s no question among the medical community and major medical and public health organizations that mask wearing is one effective way of reducing the spread of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2,” said Lauren Wilson, pediatric hospitalist and vice president of the Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

 

 

The groups say the laws unconstitutionally restrict voting access for Montana’s youth

MainStreetMontana.com
Sept 13, 2021

BY:  - SEPTEMBER 12, 2021 9:44 AM
DailyMontanan.com

 A voting sign in California (Photo by Tom Arthur/Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 2.0)

 

Three youth groups filed a lawsuit on Thursday challenging three recently passed laws they say restrict young Montanans’ access to voting by infringing on voting rights and equal protections guaranteed in the state constitution.

The lawsuit, filed in Yellowstone County District Court, calls Senate Bill 169, House Bill 506 and House Bill 176 a “cocktail of voter suppression measures that land heavily on the young.”

The bills narrow voter identification requirements, respectively to require another form of identification when using a student ID to vote in person, end same-day voter registration and bar ballots from being mailed to voters before their 18th birthday, among a slew of other restrictions.

Forward Montana Foundation, Montana Public Interest Research Group and Montana Youth Action are listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit — all three are youth civic engagement groups. Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen is the only listed defendant on the lawsuit.

“Each of these laws unconstitutionally burdens Montanans’ fundamental right to vote, both subverting the will of Montana voters and upending norms that Montana voters have come to rely on — for no reason, let alone a compelling one,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit says the laws were passed for “no reason other than the professed bogeyman of voter fraud, for which legislators did not and could not produce evidence.”

Republican lawmakers and supporters of the bills argued they are necessary to increase election integrity in the state. Pushing back on that point, the groups point to a 2020 lawsuit against the state by former President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign. In that case, the judge said, “there is no record of election fraud in Montana’s recent history.”

In response to comment on existing lawsuits over the same election laws, Jacbosen’s office said, “The voters of Montana spoke when they elected a Secretary of State that promised improved election integrity with voter ID and voter-registration deadlines, and we will work hard to defend those measures.”

Additionally, the lawsuit says the new legislation disproportionately targets young voters that do not have well-developed voting habits or experience and will create confusion leading to a decrease in voter turnout. The lawsuit points out that from 2014 to 2020, the percent of 18-29 year-olds who voted rose from 18 percent to 56 percent.

“Young Montanans are engaged and eager to participate in civic life. But when restrictions are placed on youth, the hurdles imposed make it incredibly difficult for us to make our voices heard,” said Scout McMahon, initiatives chair of Montana Youth Action.

Thursday’s lawsuit is one of three filed in Yellowstone County District Court challenging a handful of recently passed election laws. SB169 and HB176, along with House Bill 530, which bars people from collecting and submitting other people’s ballots if they are being paid to do so, are the subjects of a lawsuit from the state’s Democratic party alleging they unfairly disenfranchise young voters, the elderly, Native Americans and the disabled. A collection of Montana tribes and nonprofits are also challenging the constitutionally of HB176 and 530.


Sept 10, 2021
MainStreetMontana.com

The Biden administration announced the new mandates on Thursday

BY:  - SEPTEMBER 9, 2021 6:40 PM
DailyMontana.com

 President-elect Joe Biden receives the second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccination from Chief Nurse Executive Ric Cuming at ChristianaCare Christiana Hospital on January 11, 2021 in Newark, Delaware. Biden received the second dose of the coronavirus vaccine three weeks after his first dose, received a few days before Christmas. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

 

Montana’s more than 25,000 healthcare workers could be required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 following the Thursday announcement of a new national mandate from the Biden administration requiring all workers at hospitals that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid funds to be fully vaccinated.

Nationally, about 73 percent of staff in healthcare facilities are vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a recent COVID States Project study by Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers.

Before the announcement, Montanan hospitals were subject to House Bill 702, which prohibits discrimination based on vaccination status, meaning employers cannot issue vaccine requirements for workers. Montana is the only state in the country with such a law.

Members of Montana’s medical community have been staunch critics of the law, saying it makes for an unsafe working environment for patients and employees alike. While enacted during the throes of COVID-19, the law is inclusive of all vaccinations, not just COVID-19 vaccinations.

But the national mandate requiring workers at health facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid funds to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 could create problems for healthcare facilities as they try to navigate both laws. Biden also issued mandates that would require vaccination or weekly testing for workers of companies with 100 or more employees, as well as all federal workers and millions of contractors that work with the federal government.

“We will be asking our legal counsel to review the new guidance, particularly in light of HB702,” said Montana Hospital Association Spokesperson Katie Peterson. “It appears to present some conflict between state and federal laws.” The Montana Hospital Association said it had not received formal guidance on implementing the new requirements from D.C.

There are 65 non-governmental hospitals in Montana that receive Medicaid or Medicare dollars, Peterson said. Those hospitals employed 25,297 workers in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationally, the Biden administration said the new mandate would impact around 17 million healthcare workers.

“I think it’s very clear if it can go into effect, it will make things safer,” said Dr. Pam Cutler, president of the Montana Medical Association. “It will make life more complicated in Montana, where this is a controversial topic, but it will make things safer for patients and employees.”

 

Biden issued a similar requirement earlier this year requiring the full vaccination of all employees working at nursing homes or long-term care facilities that participate in Medicare or Medicaid. However, carved out in HB702 was an exemption for those workers.

“A licensed nursing home, long-term care facility, or assisted living facility is exempt from compliance with during any period of time that compliance with would result in a violation of regulations or guidance issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” the bill’s text reads. There is no such exemption for hospitals.

Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the mandate, but he did tweet about it, saying, “President Biden’s vaccination mandate is unlawful and un-American. We are committed to protecting Montanans’ freedoms and liberties against this gross federal overreach.”

Gianforte has been a soft supporter of the vaccine, saying he will not impose a vaccine mandate and encouraging Montanans to do what’s best for themselves in consultation with their medical providers. At the same time, he has called the vaccine the “light at the end of the tunnel” and the way out of the pandemic.

As of Thursday, Montana had administered 961,328 doses of the vaccine with 470,413, or 51 percent, of the state’s eligible population fully vaccinated. On Thursday, the state recorded 1,001 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the seven-day average to 559, the highest average since January 12.

Last week, Gianforte issued an emergency rule asking school boards to let parents opt their children out of mask mandates. The rule fell short of ordering schools to give parents the final say.

The professional medical community in the state quickly criticized the rule and the studies put forth by Gianforte the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. On Wednesday, the Montana Nurses Association, which bargains and lobbies for nurses in Montana, issued a formal response to the rule. In the memorandum, the group dismisses the studies put forth by the Gianforte administration as “junk science.”

In the letter, the group points out the first of the studies put forth by the administration was not peer-reviewed. The second study, according to the letter, “clearly supports masking,” which the association said added to the confusion. The letter points out the third study provided was a NY Magazine article and not a scientific journal. Lastly, it says the fourth study submitted by the Gianforte administration relates to influenza and not COVID-19.

Because the rule “contains no regulatory content,” the association said a legal challenge would be “futile because the rule does nothing.”

 
 
 

Sept 8, 2021

MainStreetMontana.com
BY:  - AUGUST 30, 2021 5:48 PM
DailyMontana.org

 Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge. (Provided by the Montana Department of Corrections.)

 

Contract negotiations between the Montana State Prison and the state are ongoing as of Monday afternoon, with both parties agreeing to meet in mid-to-late September, according to the Montana Federation of Public Employees. The two groups met Thursday for the first time since the employee union voted 60-0 to engage in concerted activity, bringing the group closer to a possible strike.

“Still lots of normal bargaining to go yet,” said MFPE President Amanda Curtis about the possibility of a strike.

Dangerous working conditions, staff shortages, and non-competitive wages are among the union’s top concerns as it negotiates its collective bargaining agreement for the 2022-2023 biennium with the state. In a press release announcing the 60-0 vote toward “concerted activity,” the union said some correctional officers work 16-hour shifts and collect up to 40 hours of overtime in a two-week period, and others are denied bathroom breaks for hours at a time.

Read more: Montana State Prison employees meet with state Thursday as possible strike looms in background

The prison has long had issues with staffing and recruitment, according to  Montana State Prison Warden Jim Salmonsen, who told a legislative committee in January that there were 15 vacancies at the facility.

“We have some serious issues that need to be fixed,” the statement read.

The Montana Department of Corrections said it was disappointed about the union’s vote and said it has a contingency plan to staff the prison if the union votes to strike. In an earlier statement, the DOC said staff safety is a top priority and hopes to “arrive at an agreement that meets the needs of all parties involved.”