- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Billings Gazette, Feb. 12 , on health care for Montana’s low-income residents:

One out of every five Montanans gets health care through Medicare. That was 201,000 of us last year - everybody over age 64, along with some disabled adults.

With so many Montanans depending on Medicare, questions and problems frequently arise. Good communication is crucial to resolve them. Many Montanans turn to our congressional delegation for help, hoping that a U.S. senator or representative can get the answers needed.

That source of help has been severely hampered since the Trump administration took over the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. CMS employees won’t talk to congressional offices; they say they’ve been told not to talk or correspond with Congress.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., wrote a letter to President Donald Trump on Feb. 2, asking him “to lift the order you have given that bars federal agencies, particularly the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services from communicating with members of Congress.”



Meanwhile, Montanans kept calling about medical claims and enrollment. Hospitals, clinics and doctor’s offices contacted his office about Medicare issues. So when Trump invited Tester and nine other senators to lunch Thursday, Montana’s senior senator brought along a pocketful of email printouts showing unsuccessful attempts at communicating with CMS on a Medicare issue that a Montana hospital needs to resolve.

When Tester brought up the CMS communication ban, Trump “seemed genuinely surprised and said that shouldn’t be happening and looked at Reince Priebus,” Tester told The Gazette later. “I said I’ve got an email trail that shows this is going on.”

Tester gave Priebus the emails, and the White House chief of staff gave his cell number to the senator.

“To be fair to the president, I don’t think he knew about,” Tester said. “I had the impression they were going to fix it.”

Tester said he will be back in touch with the White House early this week if the communication blackout continues.

Tester described the lunch meeting as “a free-flowing conversation” between the president, four GOP senators and six Democratic senators. Tester brought up other issues at the White House: the effects of the Trump hiring freeze on veterans claims processing, support for public lands and transparency in campaign finance. The critical point is that the senator communicated, the president communicated.

When the flow of information is blocked between the executive and legislative branches - as has happened with CMS - during the past few weeks, Congress cannot do its oversight work. When government cuts out information to the public, citizens are denied their right to fully participate in their government.

Think about what CMS silence means for senior citizens who are just trying to get the health care coverage they’ve earned and being fearful that a claim won’t be paid and they’ll be stuck with the bill, or for small, rural Montana clinics that serve all in need in their community trying to deal with a huge federal agency in Washington, D.C.

As Tester wrote to Trump in the letter he hand-delivered Thursday: “The recent communication ban puts Montana seniors at risk.”

We join Tester in calling for opening better lines of communication with CMS - and throughout the federal government.

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

___

The Bozeman Chronicle, Feb. 14, on a local-option sales tax:

It goes without saying that any new tax is going to meet stiff resistance. It’s in our DNA to hate the very idea that we are coerced into giving up our hard-earned money to the government.

So it comes as no surprise that proposals introduced in the state Legislature to authorize local governments to seek voter approval for a local sales tax and gas tax are not sitting well with a lot of folks. In an unscientific Chronicle poll, the results of which were published on this page on Saturday, nearly 60 percent of some 1,200 respondents said they would not support a local sales tax even if it was tied to property tax relief.

While the reactions to these proposals are predictable, they ignore a couple of hard realities.

Local governments rely exclusively on property taxes. During periods of growth, such as the one our community is experiencing now, property owners are dinged excessively for funds to pay for new schools, street improvements and expanded law enforcement services, among many other things

Local taxpayers have usually been generous at the polls, approving bond issues to pay for needed improvements. But the threat of property tax fatigue is real and could doom more and more bonding proposals to defeat. And it needs to be acknowledged that all of us who live here pay property taxes. If renters think they are spared, they need only consider rapidly rising rents and what part of that is caused by increases in property taxes.

But more than just an alternative to property taxes, a local sales tax and gas tax would tap into a new kind of taxpayer - the tourist. With Yellowstone National Park, major ski hills, world-class trout streams and other outdoor attractions, more tourists and tourist dollars pass through Bozeman than any other municipality in the state. And all those tourists pass through here without paying a dime for the wear and tear they inflict on our streets, utilities and other services.

It’s been estimated a local sales tax could raise $30 million annually, and that would translate into a lot of tax and rent relief to beleaguered locals.

So before you get your hackles up in response to local sales and gas proposals floated up in Helena, consider the significant benefits they could bring to our local cost of living.

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

___

The Montana Standard, Feb. 12, on environmental cleanup negotiations in Butte:

Are you wondering what’s happening in the consent-decree negotiations that will determine the extent and nature of the Butte hill’s cleanup?

So are we.

With the shadow of administrator nominee Scott Pruitt hanging over the EPA; with the Legislature in session and commanding the attention of most of state government; and with a new Butte-Silver Bow administration, we can’t pretend to be unconcerned.

Of course, the negotiations are as secret as they ever were. So, as usual, we simply don’t know what’s happening.

We are left to hope that, when push comes to shove, the county and the state will do the right thing, bringing the EPA and ARCO along with them.

When these negotiations have been at the white-knuckle stage before - in 2006 - the state stepped up in a big way and advocated for Butte.

It refused to go along with all provisions of a flawed Record of Decision that codified a waste-in-place strategy for the upper Silver Bow Creek watershed.

In its “letter of partial concurrence,” the Department of Environmental Quality stood up for doing the right thing for Butte:

“DEQ does not concur with the overarching decision to leave accessible, major sources of groundwater contamination in place. We refer specifically to the Parrot Tailings, Diggings East Tailings and the Northside Tailings. Our concern is that leaving these wastes in place poses a significant and permanent threat to groundwater and to the long-term water quality in Silver Bow Creek.”

How big was that dissent? Without it, we would be much further down the wrong road toward a misguided, inadequate and quite possibly criminally negligent settlement. Butte could be left riven by a scarred and polluted landscape that would permanently preclude the vision of a restored creek.

The state has publicly remained steadfast in the ensuing decade. Gov. Steve Bullock’s unilateral decision in 2015 to remove the Parrot tailings is one very significant reflection of this - even though the going is slow.

Equally significant and even more recent: In a joint letter last month to the Restore Our Creek group in Butte, both DEQ and the state’s Natural Resource Damage Program doubled down on the state’s earlier position.

The letter, co-signed by DEQ Director Tom Livers and NRDP chief attorney Harley Harris, said in part:

“The state agrees that the best long-term remedy for Upper Silver Bow Creek corridor, and the one that provides the best platform upon which to conduct effective restoration activities, would be the complete removal of all accessible tailings, mine wastes and contaminated soils from the Silver Bow and Blacktail Creek floodplains.”

So while we can’t be sure what’s happening in these negotiations, we trust that these words from the state represent bright lines rather than points for negotiation. The state’s clearly stated position should be table stakes - a minimum requirement - for whatever else may be contained in a consent decree.

We believe Butte’s future quite literally depends on this.

So, secret negotiators, whatever happens with EPA, or however distracted by other events you may be, remember this: Butte demands and deserves nothing less.

Don’t sell our creek down the river.

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

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