- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Missoulian, April 17, on a path to clean energy:

Montana is home to one of the top 10 emitters of greenhouse gases in the nation. The coal-fired power plant at Colstrip is by far the largest industrial source of greenhouse gases in Montana, according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Nevertheless, thanks to the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, Montana was finally on its way to charting a course for cleaner energy. In the past few years the state had put together a blueprint of sorts for complying with the plan, and earlier this year Gov. Steve Bullock announced the members of a 27-member advisory council charged with making recommendations on how to cut carbon pollution in the most environmentally effective, least economically damaging way possible.

Then the Clean Power Plan got tangled up in the courts, coal began a steady global collapse and Montana’s leaders seemingly abandoned efforts to help mitigate climate change in order to focus their attention on saving the Colstrip power plant.

Montana’s state and federal leaders have been spending a great deal of time talking about how to keep Colstrip viable. Bullock is even taking steps to put together a working group addressing Colstrip’s future.

They are taking this train in the wrong direction. Regardless of how the Clean Power Plan plays out in court, Montana must get back on track. It must not commit public resources to propping up an industry that damages public health. Montanans must remind our governor and congressional delegates that the state still needs to plan for a future that includes a strong, diversified energy industry, good-paying jobs and most of all, clean air.

There’s no reason to delay, and every reason to move forward with urgency. Montanans’ health depends on it.

Just this month, the U.S. Global Change Research Program released a new report that links the effects of climate change with public health, and noted that if things don’t change, Montana can expect to see more drought, soil erosion and dust activity, for instance. The report, “The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment,” connects these outcomes to human activities including agriculture, livestock grazing, irrigation and the like.

It also, of course, notes that Montana can expect more wildfires and more smoke - and therefore, poorer air quality.

In Missoula and Ravalli counties, poor air quality is particularly concerning. Although Missoula has made some headway thanks to local standards, it is still losing ground and its air quality continues to receive the poorest possible grade from the American Lung Association.

The American Lung Association will be releasing its annual State of the Air report later this month. Last year’s report, which studied the years 2011-2013, showed that hotter, drier summers - with their more frequent, more intense wildfires - were responsible for increased particle pollution in places like Missoula and Ravalli counties. In Missoula County, for example, 86 percent of the poor air quality days were directly attributed to wildfire smoke.

Consequently, Missoulians can expect to see more cases of chronic illness and respiratory disease. Children and the elderly, pregnant women, and people with heart or lung disease are especially vulnerable. Climate change is even extending the allergy season, including more - and more potent - airborne allergens.

County-level air quality standards are effective, but they can only go so far. Montana must join the national push to mitigate wildfires by curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and it can accomplish this by dramatically reducing the use of coal as an energy source.

And then what? Montana must continue to hold a statewide discussion that focuses on replacing polluting energy sources with cleaner ones, making use of new energy technologies and training a workforce equipped to overcome the inevitable challenges of such a massive transition.

Recent polling data shows Montana residents want to do something about climate change, but are skeptical of the Clean Power Plan. A poll released last month by the University of Montana and Stanford University found that 54 percent of Montanans agree that climate change’s effect “pose a serious problem for the state.” And a whopping 71 percent would prefer to see the state “develop its own plan to reduce emissions” instead of allowing the federal government to call the shots.

Montanans can already see that climate change is costing us immensely, and we shouldn’t wait to begin taking steps to reduce that threat by implementing our own standards. Bullock ought to reconvene the Clean Power Plan advisory council, and direct the group to continue working on this issue.

The council should be given the support to continue to develop state-level solutions to the global problem of climate change.

Montanans may remain divided on the Clean Power Plan, whether to lend public support to propping up Colstrip and, if so, how far to go. Regardless of those divisions, it would be wise to keep in mind that we all breathe the same air.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1Sk7lTB

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Billings Gazette, April 19, on the importance of tax refunds for Montana residents:

A day after the last 2015 Montana income tax returns - or extension-to-file forms - were mailed or emailed, consider what those tax revenues will do.

The individual income tax is the largest source of our state tax revenue, according to the Montana Department of Revenue. All the state’s individual income tax revenue goes into the general fund, accounting for 51 percent of that fund’s total revenue in fiscal year 2014. Individual income tax collections were slightly more than $1 billion in 2014.

With such a large portion of all state revenue coming from individual income taxes, that tax is critical to all major state services, including education, health, public safety, justice, corrections and transportation.

“When Montanans sit down to fill out their returns, they’re investing in the quality of life that we all enjoy,” DOR Director Mike Kadas said in a news release Monday. “Everyone who pays taxes can feel a sense of pride that they contributed to the vital services the state provides - that every child in this state can get an education, that we have safe roads to drive on, that we have clean water to drink.”

Montana’s dependency on individual income taxes is greater than average among the 50 states. Montana derives 42.4 percent of its revenue from its individual income tax, compared with a national average of 37.4 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Among our neighbor states, Idaho’s tax brings in 37 percent of its state revenues, North Dakota’s nets 10.5 percent, Wyoming and South Dakota are among seven states with no individual state income tax. However, Utah at 47.7 percent, Colorado at 50.6 percent and California at 51.6 percent get a larger percentage of revenue from individual income taxes.

Unlike Wyoming, South Dakota and most other states, Montana has no general sales tax, so it leans more heavily on income taxes.

Montana is one of very few states that allows federal income taxes to be deducted from income subject to the state tax. That deduction was capped by the 2003 Legislature, which also reduced the number of rates, lowered the top marginal rate, and gave preferential treatment to capital gains. Those changes took effect in 2005.

A widespread complaint about the Montana individual income tax is that it is complicated by various state laws that provide numerous deductions and credits. According to the DOR, most married couples find that they will pay lower federal taxes by filing a joint return, while in Montana most couples minimize their tax by filing separately.

Last year, the DOR processed 421,855 returns by the April filing deadline. In recent years, the total number of returns - including late and extended filings - exceeded 600,000. As of Monday morning, the DOR reported having processed more than 423,493 returns for the 2015 tax year and issuing nearly 319,953 refunds averaging $421.

The department says some refunds could take a little longer this year due to extra security and review procedures following an increase in fraudulent tax return filings. In the 2014 tax year, the DOR found 1,728 returns fraudulently filed by someone stealing a taxpayer’s identity and blocked fraudulent refunds that would have totaled nearly $2 million, according to Mary Ann Dunwell of the DOR in Helena.

It’s important for Montana taxpayers to know that the state is protecting their money. What is stolen through fraud, reduces the general fund revenue and cheats Montanans of support for the public services that benefit us all.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/23JrFbT

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Bozeman Daily Chronicle, April 14, on a logging project near Bozeman:

State forest managers are planning on logging a fairly large area in the Gallatin Range just southeast of Bozeman. Logging as it’s been done in the past has been known to chop up wildlife habitat and scar mountain views. So it is to be expected that proposing to remove trees from hillsides so close to Bozeman - and even closer to the upscale Triple Tree subdivision - is going to raise some concerns.

And it has.

The homeowners in the Triple Tree neighborhood have not flatly opposed the proposed logging in the Limestone Creek drainage. But they have voiced fears that, if the timber is removed with too heavy a hand, it could negatively impact views, wildlife and recreation in the area.

The mountain pine beetle has taken its toll on trees in the area and removing the dead trees would salvage some of their value and provide raw material for area sawmills. Done right it could reduce the intensity of fire when it sweeps through the area - as it inevitably will some day.

But state lands managers have to worry about more than reducing fire danger and supplying local mills. State laws mandate that they turn a profit off of activities on state land. And in the interest of making that happen, forest managers may be tempted to pursue the more aggressive strategies of clear-cutting and extensive road-building to minimize the costs of harvesting the timber and ensuring a profit.

If they succumb to that temptation, the effects on wildlife habitat, views and recreation could be troubling and long-term.

State forest managers acknowledge they don’t always make a profit on their timber sales but say they approach every sale with the intent to finish in the black. The Limestone Creek project should be one where profit takes a back seat to ensuring the timber is harvested with minimum impacts - clear-cutting only those areas where the pine beetle has killed all the trees and keeping road construction to a minimum. And they should consider a strategy that includes removing the roads and restoring the natural contours after the harvest is completed.

The legal mandate that managers of so-called state trust lands turn a profit may have made sense when the state was less populated and timber was much more plentiful. Lawmakers should consider modifying the mandate in ways that untie the hands of land managers and let them put other concerns - wildlife, aesthetics - ahead of profit.

We’re in the 21st century and logging in sensitive areas treasured by locals calls for a rearranging of old priorities.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1QmiC3I

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