- Category: Montana News
Voters will not be able to register on Election Day, use only student ID to vote
The Great Seal of the State of Montana in the Supreme Court (Photo by Eric Seidle/ For the Daily Montanan).
The Montana Supreme Court on Tuesday voted to stay a lower court order blocking implementation of a series of GOP-backed voting restrictions, ensuring that provisions of two bills passed in 2021 will be in effect for the June 7 primary despite an ongoing legal challenge.
The court’s ruling restores, for now, sections of House Bill 176 and Senate Bill 169 that end Election Day voter registration in Montana and remove student identification cards from the statutory list of primary voter ID — in other words, voters who choose to use student IDs to vote will now need to provide additional documentation to access a ballot. Voter registration now ends noon the day before the election.
In April, a Yellowstone County district court judge preliminarily blocked implementation of both restrictions pending resolution of a constitutional challenge to the bills brought by the Montana Democratic Party and student and indigenous groups, who argued the bills unconstitutionally limit access to the franchise. Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen appealed the injunction order the Supreme Court, arguing that some local elections last year had already been conducted under the new laws, and that reversing the restrictions would cause voter confusion and “upend” the office’s voter education efforts.
The high court agreed — with the exception of Chief Justice Mike McGrath, who noted he would deny Jacobsen’s motion. The purpose of a preliminary injunction, the court’s May 17 order says, is to preserve the status quo and minimize harm to all parties pending resolution of the case. And because certain elections had already taken place by the time the plaintiffs sought to enjoin the bills, preserving the status quo would mean maintaining the restrictions in the two bills.
“In this case the status quo for the electorate—’the last actual, peaceable, noncontested condition which preceded the pending controversy’—leaves SB 169 and HB 176 in effect,” the court order reads. “Plaintiffs have not contradicted Jacobsen’s assertion that 337,000 Montanans voted under the current statutory provisions in 2021, and Plaintiffs did not move to enjoin the enactments prior to the occurrence of those elections.”
Both parties have argued that either removing or restoring the restrictions this close to the election would cause voter confusion, with plaintiff Montana Youth Action stating in one filing that staying the injunction would constitute the third time these laws have changed before the primary.
The Supreme Court responded that “some voter confusion and disruption of election administration appears inevitable,” but that it places the greatest weight on the fact that “elections have actually been conducted under the statutes as enacted by SB 169 and HB 176—elections that a large portion of Montana voters participated in.”
A spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office confirmed that the student ID and Election Day registration restrictions will be in place by the next election. Jacobsen, in a statement, said she was glad “the Supreme Court recognized the importance of orderly, safe, and secure elections.”
Montana Democratic Party executive director Sheila Hogan said in a statement of her own that the party strongly encourages “Montanans to register and vote early for this primary election.”
- Category: Montana News
A legislative interim committee also began drafting legislation to address the hospital’s problems
Montana State Hospital at Warm Springs (Photo via Wikimedia Commons | CC-BY-SA 3.0).
When Missoula Rep. Danny Tenenbaum toured the Montana State Hospital on Wednesday, he was dismayed by how patients at the state’s psychiatric facility were housed and the lack of rehabilitative services offered to patients — and on Friday, Tenenbaum and other lawmakers pressed the state health department for answers about what is being done to help the struggling hospital.
“I just want Montanans who live with dementia to not have to fear ending up in that place. And I would really like a commitment that reflects the urgency of the situation,” Tenenbaum told Department of Public Health and Human Services Director Adam Meier on Friday. “You’re in the position to do better; you are in the position to make the decisions and to spend the money in order to provide better care for these people.”
A recent federal investigation found that the Montana State Hospital failed to protect patients against deadly falls and COVID-19 outbreaks, resulting in the hospital’s loss of federal funding. On Friday, Meier appeared before the Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee and stood behind his administration’s systematic approach to fixing the problems at the Warm Springs hospital.
“Step one is understanding how to fix the problem, and we have to still work within our budget,” Meier told the committee. “And we have to understand that this is a multifaceted issue, that there is no easy or quick solution.”
Part of the DPHHS plan to fix problems at the hospital is the hiring of New York based consulting firm Alvarez and Marsal, who recently signed a $2.2 million contract with the state to assess ongoing problems at the hospital and provide recommendations to the state. Meier also said the department is extending its contract with Mountain Pacific Quality Health, which is tasked with looking at specific issues found during the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid investigation of the hospital earlier this year.
Meier said Alvarez and Marsal began its work on April 18 and has met with a handful of stakeholders in the state and at the hospital, including staff, union representatives and disability rights advocacy groups. He also noted the removal the hospital’s administrator Kyle Fouts, perhaps the most concrete move by DPHHS so far.
Fouts was facing a slew of allegations by employees, including creating a hostile work environment, but has never publicly addressed the complaints.
The interim legislative committee also discussed Friday two pieces of draft legislation aiming to address the chronic problems at the Montana State Hospital. One would add additional oversight to the hospital by requiring it to submit complaints to the state as well as Disability Rights Montana, a nonprofit advocacy group in the state.
The second would begin the process of building out other care options for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients and eventually end the practice of involuntarily committing those patients to the hospital. But Matt Kuntz, executive director of the Montana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, warned lawmakers that moving too quickly may backfire.
“Please give us the beds before you change where you are going to send people. It does not work to change the commitment process first,” he told lawmakers on Friday. “We are fully in support of trying to get people with Alzheimer’s and dementia out of MSH, but please build the resources first.“
Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, who has taken the lead in drafting the bill with Tenenbaum, a Democrat, proposed a three-year timeline for the legislation. “The first part of the bill is that by 2023 we have policy in place to find places for the people that are there, and by 2025 is when we stop admissions,” she said Friday.
The committee has until August to vote on the draft legislation.
In the meantime, Tenenbaum said he would like the hospital to disperse Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, who are housed in the hospital’s Spratt unit, to other areas of the hospital to prevent the overcrowding he said he witnessed during his tour.
“If we return for a tour of the state hospital before our next meeting, which is June 27, are we going to see that same four people in a room?” Tenenbaum said. “I’m talking about finding a setup so that you don’t have four people with dementia living in one bedroom.”
Jack Griswold, employee union president at the hospital, told the Daily Montanan on Friday that while there has been reduced admissions to other wings of the hospital, those wings are not designed to provide the level of care patients housed in the Spratt unit require.
“The logistics don’t work out; we would have to basically entirely revamp those units,” he said.
The committee will meet again in June.
- Category: Montana News
BriAnne Moline runs a child care provider business, but she competes with fast food companies that can pay $13. She runs into red tape as well. She and other child care workers across the country demonstrated Monday for equity and better pay. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)
BriAnne Moline is a child care provider, and even though her Wild Wonders Early Learning Program is rated a four STAR operation, she competes with fast food restaurants for staff.
She counts three employees and has expanded her business despite red tape, but Moline said she still turns away more than four families a week who need help with child care in Missoula, and she herself qualifies for Medicaid.
“We must build a better child care system,” Moline said.
Medical receptionist Chelsea Nichols helps people make appointments for work, and she sees herself as a connecting block between the community and Frenchtown clinic where she works. She’s also a parent who pays for care for her 3-year-old, Sterling.
“If I didn’t have child care, I wouldn’t be able to work,” Nichols said.
Yet the cost of child care is substantial, an estimated one third of the income of most Montanans and roughly twice her own rent, Nichols said. And spots are limited, with Montana meeting just half of the demand from parents at most, according to the most recent KIDS COUNT report.
“If we don’t have child care, then they can’t contribute to our community and to our economy,” Nichols said.
Monday, some 25 people gathered at the Missoula County Courthouse lawn for the Day Without Child Care Strike, joining child care workers and supporters at Kalispell’s Depot Park and across the country to call for living wages for providers, affordable care for all families, and an equitable child care system “built on racial justice.” People demonstrated in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Missouri, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere in a showing Missoula’s Grace Decker said is unusual by its nature.
Decker, with Missoula County Zero to Five, said industry workers have been “rocked by even the suggestion of a strike” because they have an ethic of care and don’t want to make life harder for parents. They are the least secure workers often earning $9 to $11 an hour, she said, but they are also essential.
“If every child care provider everywhere went on strike, the economy would be on its knees within a day,” said Decker, in advance of the event.
The KIDS COUNT analysis estimated that inadequate child care causes Montana businesses to lose $55 million and parents to miss out on $145 million in wages.
At the demonstration, Decker noted workers love caring for children, but society shouldn’t assume people will continue to work in child care just because it’s fun and they love children. She had noted earlier that child care professionals are leaving the field in high numbers.
“They can’t spend love at the gas pump, and they can’t spend love at the grocery store,” Decker said on the courthouse lawn.
The most recent KIDS COUNT report put numbers to some of the stories speakers shared Monday. For example, it said families in 2020 paid from $8,400 to $9,500 for child care, more than the cost of in-state college tuition.
The May 2021 report, a project of the nonprofit Montana Budget & Policy Center, also noted the problem is more pronounced in rural areas, with six counties lacking even one licensed child care provider at the time: “On average, rural counties have child care for 23 percent of children with all parents working, compared to 38 percent for moderately rural counties and 43 percent in the least rural counties.”
Missoula has more providers by comparison, but Moline, with Wild Wonders, still ticked off many barriers businesses such as hers face, including that some property owners are unwilling to rent to child care providers because they consider them too much liability. Plus, she said it can take three to eight weeks — and many phone calls and emails — to get a worker approved by the state.
Meanwhile, Moline hears aspiring employees asking for $13 an hour, or $27,040 annually, and she’d like to offer them even more — health benefits, a 401(k), and paid time off. KIDS COUNT notes child care workers earned $22,900, in 2020, just above the $18,000 of those earning minimum wage.
At the event, Missoula County Commissioner Juanita Vero said the word “strike” can put fear in people’s hearts, but the demonstration on the lawn wasn’t pitting providers against parents. Rather, she said it was a day of solidarity, a call to action for government, businesses, nonprofits and community members to figure out how to change the fact that critical workers in an essential field are also some of the lowest paid — “It doesn’t make sense.”
After sharing an observation that high school students who fell behind had been ill prepared even by the time they had started kindergarten, Sen. Shannon O’Brien, a Missoula Democrat and former teacher, led the demonstrators in a chant about “The most important job.”
Montana has a problem statewide, O’Brien said. But she called on people on the lawn to participate in their democracy and communicate with their elected leaders at all levels for change.
“Friends, there is a solution,” O’Brien said.
In a statement following the demonstration, Kalispell’s Renee August, executive director of the Montana Association for the Education of Young Children, said the situation is a crisis. The association noted Congress is considering new federal investments in early child care and education and urged action.
“Montana families need Congress to deliver on its promise to help families find affordable care, support workers with living wages, and help ensure our child care system is equitable,” August said in a statement.
Montana KIDS COUNT
The demand for child care slots in Montana far outstrips the supply, according to Montana KIDS COUNT of the Montana Budget & Policy Center. It notes the situation is worse for parents of infants and toddlers ages 0 to 1 year old, and the existing crisis deepened in the pandemic and affects the economy.
“Labor force participation for mothers with young children dropped 7 percentage points between 2019 and 2020 in the three-state region of Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota,” the report said. “Inadequate child care also impacts businesses. When workers cannot access child care, businesses experience lower productivity and struggle to recruit and retain workers. A recent analysis estimates that inadequate child care causes Montana businesses to lose $55 million while parents miss out on $145 million in wages.”
- Category: Montana News
Knudsen says ‘leftward shift’ has become ‘intolerable’
The office of the Attorney General of Montana (Photo by Eric Seidle/ For the Daily Montanan).
Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen and two other Republican attorneys general have pulled out of the national association of state attorneys general.
The move to pull out of the organization follows Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, who left the organization last year. Until then, membership included every state attorney general in the union.
Knudsen, along with Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton have all quit the National Association of Attorneys General. That organization had represented every other state’s attorney general and has been an organization for 125 years.
In a letter posted this week to Knudsen’s Facebook site, Paxton, Schmitt and Knudsen cite the “Association’s leftward shift over the past half decade, and said the organization had become “intolerable.”
The Daily Montanan reached out for more clarification about which issues were problematic for Knudsen but had received no comment by the end of the day Friday.
The letter also said that Knudsen, Paxton and Schmitt had met with the senior NAAG leadership, but nothing had been done to assuage their concerns.
“Those conversations were friendly, but nothing has been done. And we see no signs that anything will change in the future,” the letter stated.
When Marshall left the organization, he told it that he’d be hiring a young lawyer to his consumer protection division with the dues.
In 2020, the State of Montana, spent more than $41,000 in dues and expenses related to the membership, according to the state’s online expenditure database.
In 2021, that number had fallen to $7,951.
“We will need to discuss the administrative and financial details involved in extracting ourselves from NAAG,” the letter closes.
“While we are disappointed in their decision, NAAG would welcome the Missouri, Montana and Texas offices to re-engage as active members at any time,” said NAAG Chief Communications Officer Allison Gilmore.
It’s also a sudden move for Montana’s attorney general. In 2019, then-attorney general Tim Fox, also a Republican, was elected the leader of the organization and touted civility as his emphasis during his year-long term as leader.
The American Tort Reform Association cheered Knudsen’s move in a press release, and pointed to its recently released report, “The National Association of Attorneys General: A Nonprofit that Acts Like a Plaintiffs’ Firm.”
The conclusion of the report was deeply critical of the National Association of Attorneys General, saying it “has only one goal: suing businesses for profit.
“Far from being a neutral entity, the NAAG massively benefits financially from these lawsuits, and in turn, uses its considerable resources to help coordinate and facilitate even more lawsuits,” the report concluded.
That’s a conclusion that the national association disputes.
“We will continue to provide a community for attorneys general and their staff to work together in a bipartisan way to serve their constituents and advocate for the public interest,” Gilmore said. “Bipartisan committees of attorneys general, not NAAG staff, control how the organization’s funds are spent. Information can also be requested at any time by any NAAG member.”
Gilmore pointed to several resources including training, annual meetings, publication, counseling and appellate advocacy support as some of the services members receive.
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