Montana COVID-19 testing
Montana COVID-19 testing lab
Montana COVID-19 testing lab
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Boulder River Bridge view
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Combat Crochet
Montana Governor Steve Bullock at Innovate Montana 2019
Montana Governor Steve Bullock at Innovate Montana 2019
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Bikers and Hikers stranded at Mystic Lake Cabin
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Goat Fire fought in rugged terrain
Goat Fire fought in rugged terrain
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Griz management exceeds sustainable mortality rate

Montana school districts hit $1 million cap on tax credits for public school donations in mere minutes.

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A program offering a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for donations to Montana public schools reached its $1 million limit within minutes of launching Monday, with nine school districts claiming credits on behalf of 23 individual donors.

The tax credits were offered to individuals and businesses that donated to specific public school districts through the Innovative Education Program, a source of supplemental funding for a variety of district-based initiatives. The Montana Legislature passed a law last spring raising the per-donor limit on the credits from $150 to $200,000 and capping the total amount of the credits to $1 million for tax year 2022. The law, House Bill 279, applied the same increase and aggregate limit to donations made toward scholarships for private school students.

The Department of Revenue began accepting claims for both tax credits at 8 a.m. Monday. In an emailed response to questions, DOR Communications Director Jason Slead told Montana Free Press the $1 million limit for public school donations was reached at 8:05 a.m. Slead said the tax credits were claimed for a total of 23 donations to nine public school recipients: Big Sky School District, Bonner Elementary, Great Falls Elementary, Kalispell Elementary, Livingston Elementary, Shepard Elementary, Somers Elementary, Whitefish Elementary, and Montana City Elementary in Clancy.

With DOR’s tax credit portal operating on a first-come, first-served basis, some public school districts anticipated intense competition for the credits when the portal launched Jan. 3. Kalispell Public Schools added a page to its website dedicated to helping prospective donors seize the opportunity, noting that “time is critical” and “these tax credits will be gone in less than an hour.” Superintendent Micah Hill said Monday that the district had five staff entering claims on the portal simultaneously at 8 a.m. and was able to submit only four donations for a total of $80,000.

“It was over almost before it started,” Hill said, adding that his district had checks from 13 other donors that it will have to return as it was unable to submit the tax credit claims.

Karen Ogden, communications director for the Helena Public Schools, told MTFP her district reached out to potential donors individually ahead of the launch date and publicized information on its website. Staff attempted to submit a claim for one donation “right at the stroke of eight,” Ogden said, but the limit had already been reached.

“If they are still interested in donating without the tax advantage, we would certainly welcome that,” Ogden said. “However, they weren’t able to take advantage of that this morning.”

Craig VanNice, chief financial officer and district clerk for Billings Public Schools, said his district had been working closely throughout the fall with one donor who intended to contribute “north of $20,000.” The district had the check in hand, VanNice said, and attempted to submit the tax credit claim as soon as the portal went live, only to receive a notification that the available credits had been “completely exhausted.”

“It’s a disappointment for sure,” VanNice said. “Obviously the school district will be missing out on this one larger donation that we were aware of. But, you know, I think maybe some of the frustration stems from the fact that it really was who could get the clicks in the fastest.”

VanNice added that Billings Public Schools will be keeping the situation in mind when it prepares to submit tax credit claims next year, when the statewide limit increases to $2 million.

Denise Williams, executive director of the Montana Association of School Business Officials, was aware Monday that many of her organization’s members were poised and ready for this morning’s launch. And while only nine districts succeeded in submitting tax credit claims for donors, Williams said the speed at which the $1 million limit was reached indicates there’s “a lot of enthusiasm for supporting public schools.”

“I’m hoping that those who weren’t able to get in on the dollar-for-dollar tax credit may consider making donations to their school districts anyway,” she said, noting that such donations may still qualify as charitable contributions with tax benefits.


The Roxy Theater, The Myrna Loy, credit local support with survival

Jan 3, 2022
BY: DailyMontanan.com

 The Roxy Theater in Missoula has its best month following the pandemic shutdowns, as does the Myrna Loy in Helena. (Provided by the Roxy Theater.)


Moviegoers are back in Montana theaters, munching on salty, buttery popcorn, watching Meryl Streep strut her Donald Trump in “Don’t Look Up,” and giving at least a couple of arthouses their best months since coronavirus arrived in the Treasure State.

“Definitely, November and December were our two best months for film we’ve had since the pandemic,” said Benji Cosgrove, czar of operations at the Myrna Loy in Helena.

“It’s really that time of year,” said Mike Steinberg, head of the Roxy Theater in Missoula. “It’s called ‘Oscar bait,’ I suppose. It’s the kind of movies that do end up winning awards.”

In Missoula, the opening of Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” packed a full theater last month, and in Helena more recently, films such as “Licorice Pizza” are helping to fill seats by bringing in a younger crowd less hesitant to gather.

In a newsletter earlier this month, the Roxy noted November was “far and away” the best month the theater had experienced since the pandemic, and Steinberg and Cosgrove both said audiences have continued their steady return to cinema in December.

The theater directors generally attribute the comeback to the films released this time of year, such as Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” a western based on a Montana ranch, and “House of Gucci,” starring Adam Driver and Lady Gaga. But they attribute their survival through the pandemic especially to their local donors and members, who boosted their bottom lines along with federal coronavirus aid.

“The people of Helena supporting the Myrna Loy above and beyond what they have in the past is really what saved us, even more than the COVID relief funds,” Cosgrove said. “If it weren’t for our donors and our members, it would have been pretty devastating.”

“There was just an outpouring of support from our community, donations, other private foundations, who gave us money in the middle of all of this,” Steinberg said.

The high quality films that open during Oscar season make a difference, as does having movies released to theaters ahead of streaming, said Krys Holmes of the Myrna Loy in an email. 

“We still have a significant portion of our audience reluctant to come to movies in public because we can’t ask about vaccination status in Montana,” Holmes said. “Hopefully the situation will not get worse as the winter sets in!”

Theaters have been slowly reopening since the vaccine rollout started in the spring, and Steinberg said the reality is more and more people are getting comfortable with gathering. The Roxy spent a year without an operating budget, he said, but it held the Montana Film Festival this fall, and special programming is back, such as the showing of holiday classics like “Die Hard,” and he said cinema seems to be on an upward trajectory.

“I wouldn’t say it’s thriving, but it’s headed back in that direction at least,” Steinberg said.

To reach audiences earlier in the pandemic, theaters got creative in the ways they connected community to art. The Roxy held private movie parties, for example, and in the summer of 2020, it did some screenings at the ballpark, keeping groups of people socially distant at a time many felt hungry to get together. In partnership with the Missoula Paddleheads, they showed crowd-pleasers such as “Purple Rain.”

“People were literally dancing in the centerfield,” Steinberg said. “To me, that was a very dramatic version of, ‘God, we’ve needed this so much.”

Since vaccines have been available, many people are growing more comfortable with gathering indoors, he said, and theaters have shown it can be done safely. For example, he said the mask requirement in the Roxy lobby helps people feel more safe standing next to each other.

At the Myrna Loy, Cosgrove said the organization put in new heaters and air conditioning with filters that constantly pump new air into the theater. They limit capacity so people have a chance to sit away from others or even alone, and he said there’s a chance a couple on a date night might even have a private screening.

“It’s amazingly safe,” he said.

The contagious omicron variant is making its way around Montana, and some people have still been reluctant to go to the movies, but the new lineup of films is helping in Helena, Cosgrove said. That’s because some of the new films, such as “Licorice Pizza” and “Nightmare Alley,” are drawing a younger audience.

“At the beginning of November, we were sky high in cases, and I think some of our older audience members were still a little bit hesitant about coming out to the movies,” Cosgrove said. “But once we got some of those movies that skew a little younger, they were just huge hits for us.”

At the Roxy, Steinberg said he’s excited to be back in the theater himself, but he knows not everyone is. He said a couple of his friends wanted to see “The Power of the Dog,” but they didn’t want to gather, so they waited two weeks and watched it on Netflix instead.

He said he understands that people may not feel ready yet, but he joked with his friends: “I said, ‘You owe the Roxy twenty dollars.”


Fort Belknap Community opposes resuming mining, while other group says the impact statement is lacking

BY:  -
DECEMBER 30, 2021 
5:20 PM

 Landusky water treatment facility shown in 2004 (Courtesy Bureau of Land Managment).

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality will take public comment on possibly restarting mining at the Zortman Landusky site next week.

A small exploration project on private land near the former gold mining site has been outlined by property owner Luke Ployhar. It is not a permit that would restart large-scale mining operations, rather it would last just 10 days and remove rock to test for minerals. The open public meeting comment period will last through Jan. 11.

The DEQ staff has determined the overall exploration project will have little impact on the current environment.

A public meeting will be held on the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s environmental assessment of owner Luke Ployhar’s  exploration project.

To hear or make comments, a public meeting will take place:

When: Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022
Time: 4 p.m.
Access: The meeting will be held via Zoom, accessible online and by telephone.
Link: https://lukeployharexploration.eventbrite.com
Call: For more information, contact Moira Davin, Public Relations Specialist, 406-461-2504

However, environmental groups and the president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community are speaking out against the proposal.

The former gold mining site has been idle for more than 20 years after the mining company that owned it went bankrupt, leaving a toxic site that would take millions of dollars to clean.

Ployhar is proposing to excavate one trench, approximately 25 feet long by 10 feet wide by 25 feet deep, to extract a bulk sample of ore, approximately 125 tons, for metallurgic testing. After that, according to the DEQ overview, he would backfill with overburden and waste rock, when the rock is extracted. The trench would be backfilled and graded to match the existing topography.

The proposed permitting documents said that no blasting would be needed.

Ployhar’s project said the excavation will take place during the course of a 10-day process, lasting during the daylight hours, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. The excavation site is located approximately two miles Northwest of Zortman.

“The severity, duration, geographic extent and frequency of the occurrence of the impacts associated with the proposed exploration would be limited,” said Whitney Bausch, environmental science specialist with the DEQ who wrote the environmental assessment.

Reclamation of any part of the site would have to be completed within two years.

“DEQ does not believe that the proposed exploration activities by (Ployhar) have any growth-inducing or growth-inhibiting aspects or conflicts with any local, state or federal laws, requirements or formal plans,” said Bausch.

The decision to open discussions about mining at a site may include discussion of acid mine drainage, which is water that has been polluted by the minerals exposed by the mining process. Pollution occurs when that water seeps from the site and flows into water sources.

The decision to possibly restart mining has rankled environmental advocates and the Fort Belknap Indian Community, which is located just several miles from the site. Previously, the Bureau of Land Management had placed a moratorium on any mining activity, but the federal government let paperwork lapse, allowing Ployhar to submit the paperwork.

“The Montana Department of Environmental Quality proposes to authorize an exploration project and not actual mining, but it is likely that a full-blown mining proposal will follow should testing of the ore body suggest there is a profit to be made from more mining in the Zortman and Landusky area,” said Fort Belknap President Jeffrey Striffarm. “Acid mine drainage has despoiled the land, water, and sacred sites of the Fort Belknap Indian Community. The Community Council’s desire to continue protecting our land and water against further devastation from mining development in our beautiful ancestral homelands in the Little Rocky Mountains is what led to the community’s decision to oppose the exploratory mining proposal.”

Attorney Derf Johnson with the Montana Environmental Information Center called the assessment inadequate and said that it makes assumptions that may be scientifically unsound, and also fails to consider whether an archaeological assessment is also needed.

“We are alarmed that the DEQ is continuing to ignore our concerns,” Johnson said. “This is is just shocking that they’re considering mining on this incredibly managed and sensitive area.”

For more than 20 years, the former Zortman Landusky site has been the location of extensive an extensive environmental cleanup that officials have previously said will last forever to curtail acid mine drainage, toxic water that seeps from the site and is a hazard to wildlife and humans.

Johnson said that the DEQ has determined that exposed minerals and rocks have been oxidized, lessening the chances of acid mine drainage. However, he said the department doesn’t have the science to back that claim.

“Have they done the science to prove that’s true? What potential risks are they assuring us of at a site that has been declared a mini-Superfund site?” Johnson said. “If that’s the assumption, they need to do a full assessment, which would include geochemical testing.”

He said the MEIC is advocating that the DEQ deny the permits because the risk of harming the land again, undoing the massive clean-up that has run into the tens of millions of dollars is too great, and there’s questions about any archaeological surveys, too.

“They’ve never said no to a large hard-rock mining permit,” Johnson said.

He believes the department has the authority and responsibility under the state’s constitution to deny the permit.

“There’s such a long torrid history at this site that the risks are just too great,” Johnson said.


DECEMBER 28, 2021 

BY:  -    

 A sign reminds voters they need photo ID to vote at polling station at Hillsboro Presbyterian Church on Election Day, November 6, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

 As a chemist and immigrant from Vietnam, Linh Nguyen never thought she could have a role in U.S. politics. But then Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 and he “unknowingly inspired minority leaders, women of color like me, to be more actively engaged in politics,” she said.


GOP says more bills passed means more litigation

DECEMBER 27, 2021 7:53 AM

 The Montana State Capitol in Helena (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).


The Montana Department of Justice has spent just more than $100,000 and nearly 2,000 hours defending the state from legal challenges against laws passed during the 2021 legislative session, according to a legislative memo.

For the first time since 2003, Republicans controlled the Legislature and the Governor’s office. After 16 years of stalled conservative efforts, the GOP moved quickly to pass 707 bills during the 2021 legislative session, which a legislative GOP spokesman said is 100 more bills than the average of 592 per session from 2003 to 2019.

And the result of those efforts has been a flurry of lawsuits. As of November, the state has spent an estimated 1,803 hours and $102,199 defending 14 cases challenging 18 different laws ranging from reproductive healthcare to how judicial vacancies are filled, according to a memo from Montana Legislative Audit Division.

Kyle Schmauch, legislative GOP spokesperson, said in an email with more bills passed, an increase in litigation is to be expected, and he pointed out that 97.5 percent of bills passed in the 2021 session are going unchallenged.

“That includes Republican lawmakers’ top economic priorities affecting Montanans’ lives on a day-to-day basis, including tax reform, tax relief, regulatory reform, health care reform, and education reform. None of those top priorities are being litigated. Republican lawmakers are proud that the 2021 session was a historic success for Montanans,” he said.

Six of the 18 laws being challenged in court were attached with a legal review note by the legislative attorneys warning they may be subject to scrutiny under the law. However, Schmauch said legal notes are simply meant to inform lawmakers of potential legal questions a bill might raise and are not legal opinions or rulings.

House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, recognized that legal challenges are common after a legislative session.

“In general, there is always the necessity for the interpretation of laws that’s part of our process. I think what’s different this session was there were so many things were signed into law that undermined and undercut the rights of Montanans,” she said.

Throughout the session, Democrats warned of possible legal challenges.

“We were pretty sure that the court would have to decide whether these things were constitutional or not. This is part of the process,” Abbott said. “I think these lawsuits are asking the courts to protect the rights of Montanans.”

The time and cost analysis of legal challenges was requested by Rep. Jessica Karjala, D-Billings and conducted by the Legislative Audit Division.

To estimate the legal costs, the division used attorney hourly rates multiplied by the hours attributed to certain cases, according to a memo from the division. The memo said most DOJ attorneys are paid an hourly rate of $57 per hour, with one exception of $47 an hour — the department typically assigns three or four attorneys to each case.

The number one time and money guzzler for the DOJ has been the Montana Board of Regents challenge to House Bill 102, which revises gun law to allow concealed carry on college campuses. The state has spent $17,517 and 307 hours on the case. A Lewis and Clark County District Judge struck down portions of the law that undermined the regents’ constitutional authority on  Dec.1, but the ruling has since been appealed to the Montana Supreme Court.

In August, Planned Parenthood of Montana challenged the constitutionality of  four bills that it says unconstitutionally restrict Montanans’ access to abortion. Since filing the suit, the state has spent $17,278 and 303 hours defending the law. The case is still pending.

The legislature passed a series of bills that are being challenged by plaintiffs who argue unconstitutionally and harmfully targeted Montana’s transgender community.

One bill, in particular, Senate Bill 280, which makes it harder for transgender Montanans to amend their birth certificates, has cost the state 265 hours and $15,120 in legal fees. The state has also spent 125 hours and $7,088 on another legal challenge to laws passed limiting transgender youths’ ability to participate in sports and limiting the type of healthcare they can receive.

Another GOP priority during the legislative session was addressing alleged liberal bias in the judiciary. One outcome of the effort was Senate Bill 140, which eliminated the Judicial Nominating Commission and awarded the power to fill judicial vacancies to the Governor.

After a long and contentious legal battle that cost the state $10,345 in legal fees and 182 hours, the state’s highest court upheld the law.

In defense of the fees and work hours, Schmauch said in an email, “it’s important for the state to defend laws that were enacted by Legislature, which represents the people of Montana and is the closest branch of government to the people.”

Additionally, he said “the same small group of liberal partisans” challenging the bills are responsible for costing the state money with “politically-motivated lawsuits.”