- Associated Press - Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Independent Record, Dec. 30, on the cost of Montana’s air ambulance services:

Montana’s booming air ambulance service is nothing less than a godsend for those who need it, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be improved.

In the past, most air ambulances in Montana consisted of medical crews on helicopters or airplanes either owned or leased by hospitals. In the last decade, however, several independent, for-profit providers have started operating in the state as well.

A total 13 providers are now working in Montana, which has turned out to be a good thing and a bad thing for some Montanans.

On the positive side, the increase in providers means there are more air ambulances available. More airplanes and helicopters stationed in more places results in more lives saved, which is something we can all be grateful for.

These services are not cheap, however, and some Montanans are reeling from unexpected high bills that have left them with tens of thousands of dollars of debt.

Of course, most of us would probably rather live with an $85,000 bill than die from an injury or illness. But an unexpected debt like that can change a person’s life, and it’s important to find meaningful solutions that work for both the providers and the patients.

The Montana Legislature’s Economic Affairs Interim Committee has been tasked with studying air ambulance issues like these. And we are confident the group can bring positive change if everyone involved will work together, but unfortunately that’s not happening right now.

Of the 13 air ambulance operations in Montana, only 10 responded to a survey commissioned by the committee, and only three were willing to report their profit margins. That makes it very difficult to find answers to some of the many questions related to this problem, such as why Summit Air Ambulance says it could not survive on insurance reimbursements while other air ambulance providers apparently can.

We know that none of the providers had an obligation to disclose any of the information requested by the committee. But it’s troubling to see that so many aren’t willing to do what they can to help resolve what is a very serious problem for many Montanans.

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

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Billings Gazette, Jan. 2, on disclosing campaign spending:

American election campaigns are awash with big money. From the presidential race to Congress, statehouses and the judiciary, the floodgates have been thrown open to money as speech.

This explosion of campaign spending makes transparency and disclosure much more vital that it ever has been. That’s why the majority of Montana lawmakers and Gov. Steve Bullock enact stronger standards for reporting on spending in our state and local elections. That’s why Montana Commission of Political Practices Jonathan Motl had a very busy December.

In three decisions issued last month on campaign complaints, Motl found a Gallatin County Democratic Party committee in violation, found a Democratic Party state committee not in violation and found violations by the Montana Growth Network, an independent political committee led by former state Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge.

Those cases dated to the 2012 election cycle before Motl was even in the COPP office. But looking ahead, Motl points out that new rules effective for the 2016 elections close reporting loopholes and aim to increase public access to information about who is spending how much to influence Montana elections.

“In 2016 more candidates and committees will be required to electronically file,” Motl noted in the Gallatin County case. “That expanded electronic filing, coupled with increased ability of COPP staff to data-entry hard copy information, should get more campaign finance information out of hard copy files and into the electronic files accessible on the COPP website, thereby increasing transparency.”

In his Montana Growth Network decision, Motl said, “An ‘issue advocacy’ independent expenditure made in the 2012 Montana elections did need not be reported or disclosed. Issue advocacy expenditures will, however, need to be reported and disclosed in Montana’s 2016 elections.” The new Montana law requires reporting of spending on “issues” if it occurs within 60 days of the start of voting. Previously, independent groups would run negative ads against candidates but skirt disclosure by claiming they targeted an “issue” rather than the candidate.

Bullock, who has been the target of negative ads, teamed up with Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, and other lawmakers of both parties who have been hit with attack ads from shadowy groups that sent mailings to primary or general election voters. They had a tough job passing the new law. Republicans who saw the need for more openness and fairness in campaign rules had to vote against their party leadership.

After the law was enacted, Motl had the duty of writing administrative rules to implement it. Many of the same lawmakers who tried to stop the campaign disclosure bill complained that Motl’s proposed rules didn’t carry out legislative intent. Twenty-three disclosure opponents demanded a poll of all 150 lawmakers.

Montanans who want transparent elections are gratified to see that the majority of lawmakers stuck to the principle of the public’s right to know. The naysayers had the legislative conduct a poll on 16 different rules. On every single one, a majority of lawmakers responding agreed the rule is consistent with their intent.

Democrats, who are the legislative minority, solidly supported disclosure. Without their votes, Ankney’s disclose act wouldn’t be law today. Extra credit is due those stalwart GOP statesmen who stood up for what’s right while standing up to their party leaders. Sadly, lawmakers fitting that description were few in the Eastern half of the state. We salute those Republicans in our area who voted for their constituents to have better information on campaign spending: Ankney; Sen. Taylor Brown, of Huntley; Rep. Tom Berry, of Roundup; Rep. Geraldine Custer, of Forsyth; and Rep. Tom Richmond, of Billings.

As reported by the Associated Press, Motl’s investigation of the Montana Growth Network’s finances shows that the group raised $978,000 from 14 donors. Most of that money came from out of state and most of the spending was directed at a 2012 Montana Supreme Court race. In 2016, Montana law and Motl’s evenhanded vigilance will help citizens know who is spending to influence their vote - before their ballots are cast.

A well-informed electorate is crucial to making our government accountable and responsive to the people. Public information is a safeguard against the secret deal making and corruption that marked Montana’s early politics and threatens us still.

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

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Missoulian, Jan. 3, on protecting student privacy in wake of data breach:

An inadvertent but significant breach of student privacy in Missoula a few weeks ago should serve as a wake-up call for every school district in Montana.

Sensibly, Missoula County Public Schools is now undertaking a review of its policies and best practices regarding the handling of confidential information. But every school district in the state should be doing the same. While the recent incident in Missoula was unusual, as more information is collected, stored and transmitted using increasingly connected technology, the potential also increases for more serious breaches.

That’s why it’s important for schools to ensure tight control of student records, and for Montana to develop a consistent statewide policy to enforce student privacy.

MCPS, like most school districts, already has general policies in place regarding student record-keeping and privacy. The recent release of student data exposed a few places where these policies could be tightened.

On Dec. 4, 28 parents connected with the football program at Hellgate High School received an email that included an attachment with private information about more than 1,000 Hellgate students. The attachment also contained some information that wasn’t sensitive, interspersed with private academic, criminal, disciplinary, family and medical records, as well as one teacher’s evaluation.

Later that month, following its investigation, the district announced that the assistant principal at Hellgate was responsible; that administrator subsequently resigned. MCPS Superintendent Mark Thane explained that best practices had not be followed, that the district would be reviewing its relevant policies, and that a new policy would be added that would avoid similar incidents in the future.

Thane also offered reassurances that the information security systems in place at MCPS are sound, and that staff are trained in privacy protocols.

The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act is the preeminent law covering student information in the United States, and school districts that violate this act risk losing Department of Education Funding.

Yet in many key ways the federal regulations also come up short. They primarily concern the right of parents to access their children’s education records, and to prevent the release of some information (with a long list of exceptions). Some advocacy organizations, such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center based in Washington, D.C., have long urged the passage of a Student Privacy Bill of Rights that would explicitly describe the right of students to access and control their own records, as well as provide a framework for security and a process for enforcement.

These groups point out that school districts are collecting more information on their students than ever before, and that this information is sometimes shared for purposes that stretch the definition of education.

Moreover, in mid-November, a congressional committee held a hearing on information security at the Department of Education to follow up on an inspector general’s report from 2014 that found the department’s information systems are vulnerable to “serious security threats.” It concluded that those systems remain vulnerable.

Schools will collect a lot of information about their students over the course of their educational careers. This data will include test results and grades, but may also include also physical and mental health evaluations, family income and housing information, custodial agreements, and a host of other sensitive information.

And while it’s rare for a news organization - which constantly pushes for more and better access to public information - to advocate for tighter control of any information, these students records are clearly private and should remain so.

The best way to ensure it stays private is to delineate the rules for handling this information, and the consequences for failing to follow the rules.

Currently, those rules are full of holes and the repercussions for violating them overly weak. Montana should take steps to correct this by directing the Office of Public Instruction, which has its own Student Records Confidentiality Policy, to develop a statewide student privacy policy for its school districts. At the moment, OPI has no such rules in place for schools districts and doesn’t provide training to school personnel on information security. If a big district like Missoula hasn’t fully addressed student privacy through policy, then certainly a lot of the smaller school districts statewide with fewer resources and staff will be vulnerable as well.

Of course, OPI would need to be allotted sufficient funding to provide training, and the necessary authority to enforce its policies. The state Education and Local Government Interim Committee will meet next on Jan. 14 in Helena. We would urge the committee members to add this discussion item to their agenda.

In the meantime, it would be a smart idea for Montana’s school districts to begin reviewing, updating and training staff on privacy standards on a regular basis. Those that don’t leave their students increasingly vulnerable at a time when information technology is only growing more invasive and sophisticated.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1PMAV6I

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Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Jan. 3, on Gov. Bullock’s bison proposal

Gov. Steve Bullock’s proposal to tolerate Yellowstone Park bison outside park boundaries in Montana year-round is historic. And now it merits the approval of other state and federal agencies with a stake in the game.

Bullock has proposed allowing bison to roam outside the park’s western boundary in the Horse Butte area north to the Taylor Fork drainage. And bison would also be tolerated outside the park’s northern edge to Yankee Jim Canyon.

It’s a modest proposal that is drawing criticism from bison advocates for not going far enough. But it’s one that recognizes the political realities of this contentious issue. And it’s an important step.

Now it needs the approval of federal and state officials involved in the Interagency Bison Management Plan. And they should extend that approval. There will likely be objections to parts or all of the proposal from some involved in the process. And it may have to be adjusted to answer some of those objections. But in the end, it should be adopted essentially intact.

Montana’s history with this iconic species has been a rocky one involving systematic killing of roaming bison and hazing the animals back into the park with helicopters. In many years, bison have been slaughtered, drawing the attention of national media and rightfully creating a public relations nightmare for the state.

That spectacle prompted state and federal officials to seek a better way for dealing with park bison. Bullock’s proposal is the culmination of that effort.

In many ways, the Yellowstone region has become an example for the nation and the world of how a natural environment can be preserved and enhanced, even in the face of population and tourism growth. Wolves had been reintroduced to their historic range and are thriving here. A grizzly bear population that was in crisis 40 years ago has recovered to where federal protections of the species may soon be lifted.

Now Montana can become first state to manage bison the way they should be - as a species of wildlife.


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