- Associated Press - Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Billings Gazette, Aug. 3, on Montana hospitals’ preschool remedy

An investment in educating 4- and 5-year-olds pays off over their lifetimes.

But it’s often difficult to get public policymakers to put a high priority on early education, intervention and prevention of problems that mostly yield benefits in future years. That’s why Montanans have reason to cheer a pilot program that will make high-quality preschool available to more of our kids over the next couple of years.

Last week, Gov. Steve Bullock visited Billings to announce the award of state grants to 16 early childhood programs, including Billings Head Start, Lockwood Public Schools, Beartooth Children’s Center in Red Lodge, Kountry Kare in Shepherd and Small Wonder Child Care Inc. in Lewistown.

The 16 grants add up to $3 million this year and will serve 285 preschoolers, according to a news release from the governor’s office. If that sounds like a lot of money, consider that the average cost of childcare in Montana is $7,900 a year for a four-year-old child - about 13 percent of the average family’s income. Many studies have shown that every dollar spent on quality early childhood education generates several dollars in future savings for society. Children who get a good educational start in preschool are more likely to read at grade level in elementary school, more likely to graduate from high school and to earn more by working as adults.

Funding preschool has been a priority for Bullock since he was elected governor, but it proved a tough sell in the Montana Legislature. In 2015 and again in 2017, Bullock’s preschool proposals died in skeptical committees where lawmakers said the state shouldn’t support preschools, complained that 4-year-olds are too young for education and insisted that the state couldn’t afford preschool.

Late in the session, Bullock, Montana hospitals and GOP legislative leaders settled on an unusual method of funding this two-year preschool pilot: The state’s largest hospitals agreed to be temporarily taxed to fund preschool grants - if the state would preserve a separate hospital fee program that helps fund hospitals’ Medicaid reimbursements.

The STARS grants are “one time only” appropriations. Bullock will have to persuade a majority of lawmakers to support any continuation of the program in the 2019 session.

At the very least, 285 Montana children will have the opportunity to be ready for kindergarten and have a closer-to-even start on the rest of their education. HB639 requires the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services to report to legislative committees by September 2018 with analysis of the pilot and recommendations for its future.

Montana is one of just a handful of states that has not financially supported preschool. Unfortunately, the no-preschool states include our neighbors - Wyoming, Idaho and the Dakotas. Our region’s children certainly aren’t less in need of quality early education. In the rest of our great nation, states with Republican and Democratic leadership have recognized the importance of getting tots off to a good start. It’s so much better for kids and communities to identify learning problems as early to prevent little learners from falling behind their peers.

Starting this month, the STARS preschool pilot will make a real difference for dozens of children in Yellowstone County and a couple hundred more around the state. That accomplishment should make Bullock, lawmakers and hospitals proud.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2v2OoBo

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Missoulian, July 31, on transgender people using Montana public restrooms or locker rooms

Last Wednesday was a bad day for civil rights in Montana and America.

It was a day that saw the president of the United States express an intention to bar transgender individuals from military service, and a day that a group of well-funded bullies got the go-ahead to pursue the persecution of a small number of Montana residents who happen to be transgender.

Yes, on the same day that President Trump tweeted that the nation’s armed forces would no longer welcome transgender service members, Montana’s secretary of state cleared a proposed ballot initiative that would make it illegal for Montanans to use the taxpayer-funded facilities of their choice, and allow people to sue for emotional or mental distress if they encounter a transgender person in a public bathroom or locker room.

It appears the president’s tweets were premature and there are no immediate plans to reinstate the ban that was lifted just last year. However, his message was clear: it’s war on transgender people.

And Montana, unfortunately, is now on the front lines thanks to the ballot initiative submitted by Jeff Laszloffy of the Montana Family Foundation, the same group that tried to push Montana’s Legislature into passing a similar law earlier this year. That effort failed, thankfully, but now the foundation is working to put its discriminatory agenda before voters in 2018.

Initiative 183 would “require a person using a locker room or protected facility in a government building or public school to use the facility that is designated for that person’s sex.” In order to appear on the 2018 ballot, the initiative must earn at least 25,800 signatures representing at least 5 percent of voters from at least 34 House districts in the state.

There’s no telling how many people in Montana have never (knowingly) met a transgender individual and may harbor some misunderstandings about them, but it’s highly likely that supporters of this initiative will try to leverage those misunderstandings into fear and loathing.

The truth is, Montana doesn’t have and doesn’t need any law barring anyone, of any gender or race or religious background, from using certain public facilities. There simply isn’t a problem - but this ballot initiative could create some.

As the supporters of I-183 attempt to justify the need for such a law, we suggest that they explain to Montanans why the mother of an 18-year-old boy with severe autism should not be allowed to help her son use a public restroom - not even after checking to ensure the room is empty, not even in a private stall.

And while they are at it, tell the adult son of an 80-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s that he may not enter the women’s restroom to help guide his distressed mother out of a confusing and unfamiliar place.

Tell Montana’s law enforcement officers, attorneys and judges why they should spend any portion of their valuable time enforcing this requirement when there are so many other urgent matters demanding their attention.

The tragically misguided folks proposing this law harbor the delusion that they can “tell,” at a glance, whether someone was born male or female. The reality is that they are much more likely to mistake feminine-looking men and masculine-looking women for transgender people, and subject them to the humiliation of having to produce a birth certificate to prove it - humiliation they intend only for those who are transgender.

And it would backfire. The law would require transgender men to use the women’s bathroom and the women’s shower - and transgender women to use men’s facilities - because of a single letter on their birth certificate.

As a practical matter, do we really want to require Montanans to carry birth certificates to “prove” sex in order to use public facilities? And are we really prepared to pay out public dollars to individuals who sue for “emotional distress” over this issue?

Remember, North Carolina passed a similar law - and its economy has yet to recover. At last count, the state had lost out on an estimated $3.76 billion over the next 12 years.

We think Montanans have too much common sense and regard for our neighbors to enact laws that would do absolutely no good - and plenty of harm.

Perhaps, though, there’s a way to make everyone happy and put this matter to rest once and for all. In that spirit, and tongue firmly in cheek, here’s our own modest bathroom proposal: Let’s hold a statewide vote on whether those who keep trying to pass “bathroom bills” should be required to do their business in outhouses from now on.

Sure, it might be inconvenient, giving up the comforts and convenience of indoor plumbing, but surely it’s a small price to pay for the iron-clad assurance of complete privacy.

The rest of us will leave our birth certificates at home and continue to make free use of Montana’s public restrooms.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2vkr6ZR

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The Montana Standard, July 31, on text messages not being immune from public records retention law

The State of Montana’s government is in budgetary crisis.

On Tuesday of last week, after revenues came in $75 million lower than projected, the state announced severe cuts, including $30 million from the fire fund when the state is literally burning up, $14 million from the already strapped Department of Public Health and Human Services, heavy cuts to the state library and the state Historical Society, and assorted others.

As Democrats blamed the Republican-controlled Legislature and the Republicans blamed Budget Director Dan Villa and Governor Steve Bullock, Lee Montana Newspapers decided to examine the interactions that produced the results we got from the legislative session. So we filed public records requests for communications between the governor, Villa, and legislators - including text messages between them. Obviously, communications between legislators and the two state officials would be public records, since they are the building blocks of policy and governmental action.

The state turned over some texts between Bullock and legislators. But we were told, “Mr. Villa . does not keep his text messages.”

This is a small piece of a far bigger issue. State government policies on records retention have been widely criticized by transparency advocates as inadequate. State law calls for a qualitative test: if a communication is an invitation to lunch or some other triviality, retention is not required. But messages that contain substantial information about government are required by law to be retained.

The law does not specify that public records don’t have to be retained if it’s inconvenient. It does not specify that if conversations between public officials about public business are in an ephemeral format, nobody has to worry about hanging on to them.

When a reporter pointed out to Eric Stern, an attorney whose title is senior adviser to the governor, that state law required retention of messages about state business, he responded, “I am not aware of any Montana state agency that requires state employees to retain their text messages on personal devices. Text messages are transitory and ephemeral communications with a high expectation of privacy for the sender and receiver, and they occur almost always on personal devices.”

We believe that’s the problem. Whether state business is conducted on a desktop computer in a state office or a personal device, its value - and required retention - is the same. Text messages are indeed transitory and ephemeral, but no public official should have a high expectation of privacy when conducting state business.

Stern also said that state retention guidelines “are for public records, not ephemera such as text messages.” Again, there is no distinction in the law for the nature of the technological platform upon which state business is conducted.

When we asked Mr. Stern if any steps were going to be made to recover texts between Villa and legislators, his response descended from opposition to arrogance.

“Confirmed, we will not ask Mr. Villa to do that. Nor would we make him go to the garbage dump to retrieve a sticky note he might have thrown away, containing a short message.”

Oh, please.

Gov. Bullock has given consistent lip service to transparency in government. He also has national political aspirations. Neither are advanced by such an approach from an aide.

And given the budget circumstances, we wonder if the $41 an hour Mr. Stern is being paid by taxpayers might be better applied toward hiring two more Child Protective Service case workers.

As opposed to a snarky “senior adviser” used to stonewall reporters.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2vmcVE4


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