- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Nov. 20, on the economic impact of tourism:

Any lingering doubts about the pre-eminence of tourism to Montana’s economy were laid to rest by a Chronicle Business Journal report published earlier this week.

The report found that tourism supports some 50,000 jobs in the state, about 10 percent of all jobs. On a per capita basis, Montana ranks sixth in the nation for tourist spending ($3.9 billion in 2014). The record-setting numbers result from a mix of domestic and international visitors. And due to attractions like Yellowstone Park, world-class ski hills and trout streams, a big chunk of those tourist dollars are spent right here in Southwest Montana.

But, while burgeoning tourism dollars present many economic opportunities, they also point out some glaring missed opportunities.

Montana is one of just five states without a sales tax. If the state imposed just the average of sales taxes in all 50 states - 5.45 percent - that $3.9 billion spent by tourists could yield more than $200 million that could be used to lower income tax and property tax rates paid by Montanans.

While state lawmakers are unlikely to muster the political will to go that route, there are more politically palatable options.

State law already allows counties to impose a voter-approved gas tax. That could yield millions for street and road maintenance we now pay for through our property taxes. In Gallatin County, such a tax should be put to a vote.

State lawmakers could expand resort tax options to larger communities. If Bozeman could impose a voter-approved resort tax on goods and services typically used by tourists, it would raise millions to offset taxes paid by residents. But right now, that option is limited by state law to incorporated communities with populations of no more than 5,500. And where they have been implemented - in places like Big Sky and West Yellowstone - they have yielded millions that have paid for noticeable community improvements.

Lawmakers did impose a 4 percent bed tax on hotel and motel accommodations that has been hugely successful in raising millions for promoting state tourism around the nation and the world.

Common sense tells us that no one alters their travel plans base on the sales taxes they will pay at their destinations. Many tourists are shocked when they find out there is no sales tax here. But as tourism spending continues to grow here in Montana, so is the chunk of cash we are leaving on the table.

As the political season unfolds, ask candidates why we are passing up all this money

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1YtwsrN

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Billings Gazette, Nov. 19, on campaign finance rules:

Twenty-three GOP Montana lawmakers are on record as saying that proposed new state campaign finance rules don’t reflect their legislative intent.

No surprise here. Each of the objecting lawmakers voted against Senate Bill 289. The Disclose Act is intended by its supporters to provide Montanans with more information about what is being spent by whom to influence their votes.

Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, sponsored the bill, which was backed by Gov. Steve Bullock. It passed the Senate on a final vote of 20-30 with bipartisan support. The final vote in the House was 51-48 with Democrats and Republicans voting for transparency.

The deluge of negative commercials and flyers in recent years - in both primary races and general elections - has made running for public office more grueling for targeted candidates. Worse, the attack ads turn off voters, who decide to stay out of the mess. Unprecedented large sums are being spent in Montana elections, with much of the money coming from out-of-state organizations that demand unlimited spending and secrecy for their money sources.

In the Disclose Act, Bullock and the majority of Montana lawmakers stood up to special interests trying to influence Montana government. They voted for accountability. They insisted on public disclosure of spending on public elections.

Of course, lawmakers who get support from these shadowing dark money organizations tried to protect their special interests. They are still fighting against disclosure.

The latest round is attacks on rules that the law required Commissioner of Political Practices Jon Motl to adopt so the law can be implemented. The rules started out with a thorough vetting by a panel that included COPP staff and seven attorneys. The public rule making process included two full days for public comments. After reviewing dozens of public comments, Motl and his staff revised some of the rules, which Motl expects to adopt next week.

Under a statute that has rarely been used (until this year), the 23 lawmakers are forcing the state to poll all 150 lawmakers on whether they agree with 16 of the rules. Regardless of how lawmakers respond, the poll won’t affect adoption and effectiveness of the rules.

Who are these legislators mandating a lengthy questionnaire on the legislation they failed to stop last spring?

Nancy Ballance, Seth Berglee, Randy Brodehl, Tom Burnett, Ron Ehli, Ed Greef, Dave Hagstrom, Bill Harris, Theresa Manzella, Matthew Monforton, Mark Noland, Albert Olszewski, Randall Pinocci, Keith Regier, Scott Staffanson, Kerry White, Daniel Zolnikov, Debby Barrett, Jennifer Fielder, Cary Smith, Janna Taylor, Fred Thomas and Roger Webb.

On Tuesday, an interim legislative committee voted down a GOP effort to delay the rules. It was a 4-4 tie. Those voting for delay also voted against SB289 last spring.

Montanans may reasonably ask: Do these lawmakers who opposed SB289 earlier now reject the rules because they will implement the Disclose Act as supporters intended?

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1PYoFiD

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Great Falls Tribune, Nov. 24, on Montana’s support for man convicted in 1979 killing:

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock was right last week to grant clemency to Barry Beach, who served more than three decades in prison for the murder of classmate Kim Nees of Poplar.

First of all, this is a remarkable story in terms of citizen involvement. Beach’s case drew attention from justice groups across the country, and in recent years, Beach had support from clubs around Montana. The largest and most enthusiastic group can be found in Great Falls, and Beach backers were a fascinating mix of conservatives, liberals and independents. These folks had limited success on the legal front, but they performed amazingly well during the 2015 Legislature - with help from legislators, of course.

Several bills supported by Beach-backers sailed through the Legislature. The key bill, House Bill 43, gave the governor the last word on clemency, rather than allow the Board of Pardons and Parole to have final say on whether a prisoner is released or gets locked away for another five years.

Legislative success for Beach’s supporters was impressive. In addition, Montana now has a more flexible criminal justice system, and the state’s reputation for treatment of prisoners has been upgraded.

Locking up people and throwing away the key used to be a popular concept, but that’s expensive and also appeared to be unnecessary in the case of Beach, who a few years ago behaved well while out of prison for 18 months awaiting a potential new trial in the Nees murder case.

We think Beach, who was not yet an adult at the time of the killing in 1979, served a sufficient amount of time in jail compared to sentences given today. That’s assuming he was guilty of the crime.

Bullock showed courage in ending Beach’s stay in prison, although he was by no means the only prominent official to back Beach in recent years. Beach gained support from former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns and a number of other folks both familiar and obscure.

It would be a hopeful thing to look at the success of Beach’s supporters in gaining his release and to conclude the system worked in the long run.

And there are positive developments to take away from this long process. Indeed, Beach’s case helped reform the probation and parole system in Montana, and that’s a good thing.

Various parties will continue to argue about whether Beach’s original conviction was appropriate. The editorial board’s position is Beach has spent enough time in prison.

We also believe that groups of activists taking closer looks at Montana’s criminal justice system are good for our state.

Montana did not admit to wrongfully imprisoning Beach for more than 30 years. Instead, a desire that Montanans receive equal treatment under the law, and acknowledgment of Beach’s good behavior in recent years, encouraged the eventual outcome.

Now it’s up to Beach to show his citizenship and prove the governor was right to set him free.

Editorial: https://gftrib.com/1MB5FEH

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The Missoulian, Nov. 22, on accepting Syrian refugees:

In the nine days since Paris was hit by Islamic terrorists who killed more than 130 people and wounded hundreds more, a growing number of U.S. governors have vowed to turn away any refugees seeking shelter at their borders.

Montanans can take pride in the fact that our governor is not one of them.

While Montana is not exactly the destination of choice for most of the refugees fleeing the death and carnage in their home lands, residents here are organizing efforts to boost resources in order to resettle more immigrants in our state.

One local group called Soft Landings Missoula is working to bring an official resettlement agency to the area, a move that would open western Montana to more refugee families in the future. Missoula was home to just such an agency as recently as 2008. Before then, it helped many Hmong and eastern European immigrants, among others, settle in the Missoula area.

Most of these settlers came here to escape certain death in their home countries. They infused their new home with new customs and traditions, and we are all the richer for it.

Yet with President Barack Obama’s pledge to expedite the entrance of 10,000 Syrian refugees to the United States, Montana’s Republican leaders - U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, Rep. Ryan Zinke and Attorney General Tim Fox - have urged our nation to turn its back on this rich heritage, and on the plight of thousands of refugees who are dying even as we debate whether to accept them.

The U.S. is proposing to take on only a small fraction of the refugee crisis our European neighbors are seeing on the other side of the Atlantic. It’s understandable that we would want to keep that unfolding tragedy from our own shores. It’s also unrealistic.

The Islamic State has carried out violent attacks in Paris, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey . the list is long. All of the suspects identified in the Paris attacks are citizens of Belgium or France, except for one who may have used a fake Syrian passport to enter Europe via Greece.

Europe is struggling under a deluge of refugees that is straining its resources and its security. But the U.S., an ocean away from this humanitarian crisis, is not Europe. In addition to our obvious geographical differences, the American refugee screening process is much tighter than those of European nations, which have been hit with much higher numbers of applicants. In Greece, for instance, where an estimated 300,000 refugees have been processed so far this year, interviewers may meet with more than 1,000 migrants in a single day.

The U.S. system of vetting and resettling refugees is not perfect, but it is intensive. Refugees seeking to come to the U.S. must first meet the referral criteria required by the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Once they have a referral, they can apply for refugee status and request an in-person interview with an officer at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Then, a dozen government agencies and non-government entities - including the State Department, National Counterterrorism Center, Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, Department of Health and Human Services and the International Organization for Migration - will process those applications. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will refer cases and provide relevant information about the refugee situation in the applicant’s homeland.

This rigorous process typically takes at least 18 months - often longer. And so far, only about 2,000 Syrian refugees have been allowed to enter the U.S. since the war in their home country started in March 2011.

The Obama administration is proposing to speed up this process to allow more Syrians. Level heads have acknowledged that this can be accomplished while taking additional steps to ensure no terrorists slip through.

Gov. Steve Bullock, for one, has joined the call to review the existing screening process. On this, he is in agreement with Montana’s congressional delegation.

But Bullock and Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, while calling for additional security measures, are not calling to block refugees completely.

Zinke, on the other hand, has introduced legislation with North Carolina Republican Rep. Richard Hudson that would beef up federal security requirements - so far so good - but also stop all refugee resettlements until such time as Congress deems it appropriate to allow them.

Daines more reasonably called for focusing national resources on helping refugees in Syria’s neighboring countries and working to end the civil war in Syria. The U.S. should absolutely commit to doing those things as well.

But it should not close the door on the world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” as the inscription reads on the Statute of Liberty. America can continue to accept refugees, as we always have. We can provide some measure of relief to our allies in these turbulent times by accepting a greater number of refugees from Syria; this does not mean we must welcome them witlessly. We can enhance security screening requirements as necessary.

After all, there are perils in allowing our European neighbors to shoulder this burden alone. Overwhelmed nations do not make strong allies in a global war on terror. The U.S. has a duty and an interest in providing aid to the world’s refugees until the day comes that they can safely return to their home countries.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1lJ937E


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