- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Independent Record, Sept. 9, on the state’s sunshine laws:

Montana’s continued secrecy with information that should be released to the public is now threatening not only its citizens’ right to know, but also federal money intended to protect children.

As we’ve written in the past, many of the organizations that evaluate government transparency consistently rank Montana among the worst states in the nation.

We in the media have experienced the problem firsthand, as government officials routinely ignore or reject our requests for information of high public interest. And unless we’re able to force disclosure with a costly and time-consuming lawsuit, that often means the Montanans we serve don’t get information they need to determine what their government officials are doing or how their tax dollars are being spent.

Now it’s the federal government raising concerns with Montana’s closed-government culture. And the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is threatening to discontinue an annual $120,000 grant for child abuse prevention if the state continues to withhold details about children who die at their caregivers’ hands, The Associated Press reported.

While officials with Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services acknowledged that public awareness about child abuse deaths is needed to “bring systemic changes to improve the safety of children,” they say a state confidentiality law prevents them from releasing the information.

Montana’s overzealous confidentiality laws appear to be the root cause of the problems we are experiencing, too.

The state allows records to be withheld if a person’s right to privacy is deemed more important than the public’s right to know. But without specifying what type of private information crosses that line, the vague privacy exemption is used a lot more frequently than it should be.

Federal rules require transparency in cases where a child dies from abuse or neglect. And in an attempt to preserve the federal grant, Montana DPHHS officials said they would urge the 2017 Legislature to pass a law bringing the state into compliance.

We hope this issue will finally convince state lawmakers that government secrecy comes with consequences and serve as an impetus for comprehensive transparency law reform.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1icY7Oi

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The Missoulian, Sept. 8, on suicide rates and prevention:

In Montana, the odds are high - too high — that you know someone who has died by suicide. A family member. A friend. A neighbor. A co-worker.

Montana has the highest suicide rate in the nation, at nearly 24 deaths per 100,000 people, and in 2013 and 2014, the suicide rate in Missoula was reportedly the highest it’s ever been.

Yet suicide is entirely preventable. There are a variety of effective resources available both locally and nationally, if only those considering suicide are connected to them in time.

It’s up to each and every one of us to help make those connections. Suicide prevention truly is everyone’s business.

The Western Montana Suicide Prevention Initiative, founded last year by United Way of Missoula County, partners with a number of local organizations to increase connectivity and awareness all year round. And during this week’s National Suicide Prevention Week events, it is offering a timely opportunity for the community to learn more about the warning signs of suicide - and strategies to help stop it.

This year, the initiative is following up on the success of last year’s suicide-prevention summit with a luncheon focused on suicide prevention in the workplace. A study released earlier this year found that this particular kind of suicide is on the rise.

Employees, employers and coworkers are in a unique position to recognize the behavioral changes that often point to suicide. Those who work closely together come to know one another well and can pick up on such changes, which include:

-Statements about feeling useless or burdensome, wanting to die or having no reason to live.

-Extreme mood swings ranging from a loss of interest to uncharacteristic aggression.

-Complaints about sleeping too much or too little.

-Increased alcohol or drug use.

-Isolation or withdrawal from recreational activities.

-Reckless or risky behavior.

Thursday’s luncheon promises to equip Missoulians with the information they need to help their coworkers get the help they need. Mental health services are available in Missoula and across Montana, and many employers offer additional resources as well.

And remember, if you or someone you know has suicidal thoughts at any time, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.

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

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The Billings Gazette, Sept. 7, on Montana’s workforce:

The 2015 Montana Labor Day Report describes the state’s unemployment rate as “at ideal levels, hitting 4 percent in July.”

Gov. Steve Bullock had much good news to share last week: “Workers are on the job at Main Street Montana businesses and earning higher wages.”

Montana’s workforce exceeds half a million jobs for the first time in state history.

Montana wages grew 3.5 percent over the past year, and the state is No. 6 in wage growth for the past five years.

Montana GDP grew 4.5 percent last year

But there are challenges ahead, according to the report, written by Montana Department of Labor and Industry economists Barbara Wagner, Amy Watson and Christopher Bradley and communications director Jake Troyer. The biggest challenge is that Montana is expected to have fewer workers than job openings over the next decade.

“With looming retirements from Montana’s baby boomer generation, Montana faces a workforce shortage,” Labor Commissioner Pam Bucy said in introducing the Labor Day Report. “Over the next decade, we project Montana’s labor force will add approximately 6,400 new jobs per year, but we will not have enough workers to fill those jobs.”

Here’s the problem: Although jobs are expected to grow by 6,400 a year, the workforce is expected to grow by only 4,100 people per year, based on U.S. Census projections.

Montana’s unemployment rate is expected to reach levels of 1 percent to 2 percent within the next decade.

Here in Yellowstone County where unemployment has been hovering below 4 percent, “help wanted” signs already are ubiquitous. Many businesses are having trouble filling job openings, particularly at entry level. If hiring is tough now, imagine 1 percent unemployment.

The economists caution that “overall economic growth will be slowed by worker shortages unless Montana finds ways to increase the available labor to record highs, shifting to more full-time jobs and investing in productivity-enhancing technologies.”

Where will Montana find more workers?

Montana has the sixth-highest rate of part-time workers among the 50 states with 22 percent of the workforce getting less than 35 hours per week. Some folks want part-time work, but for others full-time jobs haven’t been available. If that pool of workers can be employed full-time, their income will rise and the state economy will benefit.

To meet the expected workforce demands, Montana will need to increase productivity. The economists aren’t saying that people have to work harder, but that they must work more efficiently. That will require better workforce education that allows workers to continuously upgrade their skills.

There will be an increasing need to train workers faster without taking them out of the workforce while they train. That’s why the Department of Labor and Industry has partnered with Montana businesses and MUS to expand apprenticeship and other on-the-job training.

Montana has untapped pools of workers among several demographic groups. Montana women who work full-time, year-round have a median wage that is just 75 percent of the wage for men. Better wage and job advancement opportunities could bring more women into the workforce as would better family life benefits.

Offering benefits, such as paid family leave, usually saves businesses money in the long run because worker turnover is reduced and employers save money on training new employees.

There are Montana veterans, Native Americans, disabled adults and women who need training and opportunities to play a bigger role in our state economy.

Education is crucial. Fourteen percent of Montanans who didn’t finish high school were jobless last year, compared with 7.3 percent of high school graduates, 6.1 percent of folks with some college and 3.9 percent of people with a bachelor’s degree or higher. In the next decade, Montana jobs requiring higher education levels are expected to grow faster than occupations with low education levels, the report says.

New and ongoing collaboration between the state, Montana University System and private businesses is focused on making education for workers more accessible, affordable and relevant to job market and career needs, Bucy said.

Let’s celebrate all Montana workers today and resolve to support smart efforts to make our state an even better place to live and work.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1Q1sD84

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