- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Billings Gazette, May 9, on saving Montana’s state parks:

Montana residents can visit all 55 of our state parks for free. It’s a great deal that draws about 2 million visits per year.

Unfortunately, the parks are worse for the wear with more than $22 million in maintenance backlogs and infrastructure needs, parks that are undeveloped, underdeveloped and understaffed. The parks division has only 60 full-time, year-round employees for the entire 55-park system.

Montana State Parks has a total annual budget of $8 million, but receives no state general fund money. The parks don’t get money from hunting or fishing licenses. The No. 1 source of parks revenue is the optional $6 fee on light vehicle registrations. Fortunately for park lovers, most people opt to pay that fee as they pay their annual vehicle registrations. But the vehicle fees are only 33 percent of the parks budget. The rest of the budget comes from fees for camping and other services, concessionaire contracts, state accommodations tax, boat and fuel decals, coal tax, federal and park store retail sales.

In 2014, the parks division and the state’s newly created park board wrote a strategic plan for the 2015-2020. Among its goals are:

- Developing diversified revenues

- Growing strategic public-private partnerships

- Building an engaged constituency for state parks

Progress toward those goals has fallen short in the years since they were written. That’s why in January Gov. Steve Bullock appointed an independent panel of entrepreneurs and other Montanans who care about parks to gather public comment, brainstorm new ideas and research how to better support and sustain parks like Makoshika near Glendive, Medicine Rocks by Baker, Hell Creek in the Missouri Breaks, Petroglyph Cave, Plenty Coups and Lake Elmo near Billings, Cooney in Carbon County. The parks budget also must cover the state historic sites in Virginia City and Montana City.

As the commission looks at sustaining revenue for the state parks, it ought to consider that the vehicle fees now providing a third of the budget only apply to cars, vans and pickup trucks. Many motorized vehicles that are driven into state parks have permanent registration. Recreational vehicles, campers, boats, ATVs and motorcycles have one-time fees assessed, so keeping them on the road doesn’t generate fee revenue to maintain state parks.

Another area the commission should scrutinize is enterprise. Very little parks revenue comes from concessionaires, yet such private enterprises in public parks can enhance the visitor experience - with food, facilities, activities and supplies - while boosting park revenue.

The Parks in Focus Commission includes Stace Lindsay, president of Fusion Venture Partners; Mark Aagenes of the Nature Conservancy; Lise Aageenbrug, executive director for the Outdoor Foundation; Dr. Shane Doyle, an educator from Crow Agency; Dave Galt, former executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association; Angie Grove, longtime legislative auditor; Norma Nickerson, director of the Institute for Tourism at the University of Montana; Michael Punke, author and vice president of Global Public Policy for Amazon Web Services, Lance Tresbesch, CEO of TicketPrinting.com and Ticket River, Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby; Jeff Welch, founder of MERCURYosc; and Dr. Aaron Wernham, CEO of the Montana Healthcare Foundation. Commission staff is being supplied by the nonprofit Resources Legacy Fund in Bozeman at no cost to the state.

The Parks in Focus Commission is scheduled to meet later this week in Kalispell and to tour state parks in the Flathead area. Its next meeting will be Sept. 28 at Makoshika. The final meeting in December will be at Buffalo Jump state park near Great Falls. Many Gazette readers won’t be able to attend a meeting, but we can easily speak up by submitting suggestions and comments online at the link with this Gazette opinion at billingsgazette.com.

This commission of highly capable volunteers will be making recommendations to the governor and 2019 Legislature. Speak up now to be part of forging a better future for Montana State Parks.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2I7PBx5


Bozeman Daily Chronicle, May 8, on tightening requirements to receive food assistance:

A proposal before Congress to further tighten requirements for individuals to receive federal food assistance is verging on being downright vindictive.

The bill, passed out of a House committee last month, would shorten the time frame unemployed, able-bodied individuals can receive food assistance from three months to one month. It would also expand the upper age range of those subject to the requirement from 49 to 59 and extend the requirement to individuals whose children are over the age of 7.

Montana Food Network Chief Policy Officer Lorianne Burhop says the tougher requirements are not needed and will be an onerous burden that will cut off food from individuals who are already facing many difficulties - like keeping a roof over their head or maintaining some means of transportation - that are making the business of finding work very difficult.

Proponents say the proposal represents common sense reform that will give people a hand up instead of a hand out. “We’re talking about able-bodied adults who have chosen not to work,” Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte said recently.

The ideology behind that sentiment is understood. But it is typically espoused by those who have never found themselves needing help getting food. The assumption is that food assistance recipients are shiftless freeloaders who need to be booted out of the system to get them to work.

There are certainly some who abuse the system and take the food assistance as part of a strategy for avoiding work. But Burhop, who has daily contact with those needing food assistance, says most are in dire straits and depriving them of food assistance will only make matters worse.

Also to be considered is that the able-bodied recipients aren’t the only ones impacted. They may have children or other family members who will have less access to food when benefits are denied.

Adopting these stricter standards are unlikely to produce substantial savings to the national treasury. And the problems they could cause might end up costing more in the long run.

Gianforte and his colleagues in Congress are urged to reject these stricter requirements and leave the food assistance eligibility requirements alone.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2KJiS2Z


Missoulian, May 6, on Sen. Tester taking a hit from President Donald Trump:

The outrage aimed at Montana’s Sen. Jon Tester over his handling of the recently aborted nomination of Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson is only the first shot in what is sure to become a growing barrage of attacks as the Senate election nears.

Republicans incensed that overblown criticisms of Jackson were aired before they could be fully investigated seem to have no qualms about doing the same to Tester. In their rush to defend President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, they accuse Tester of waging a smear campaign out of a purely partisan desire to obstruct Trump.

Forget that Trump has signed no fewer than 13 bills forwarded by Tester, the majority of them designed to improve service to veterans and improve accountability in the VA. Ignore the fact that Tester has voted in favor of more than a dozen of Trump’s other nominees to the VA, including two high-level positions confirmed just last week. And never mind that Tester had the full support of the Republican members of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, including Republican Chairman Johnny Isakson of Georgia, in seeking to delay Jackson’s hearing until the allegations against him could be investigated.

No, Trump and his supporters are trying to paint Tester as the sole Democrat responsible for sinking an unquestionably stellar choice to lead the VA. And in doing so, they are attacking one of the most moderate Democrats in the Senate on his single most successful issue.

Tester’s record of support for veterans and attention to veterans’ issues goes back years, even to before he became the most powerful Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. In that position, he has continued to be a voice for veterans, alternately calling out the agency for poor performance, demanding reforms and highlighting improvements.

Veterans in Montana and throughout the nation can rightly judge him on his effectiveness. But it is grossly inaccurate to claim that Tester suddenly shirked his responsibility to veterans when he approved the public release of serious concerns raised by dozens of individuals who had worked with Jackson previously. Indeed, Tester’s actions were entirely in keeping with his duty to veterans and in line with his stated commitment to transparency. President Trump should take note.

Instead, in a series of statements over the past week, Trump has warned that Montana’s senior senator “has a big price to pay” for his role leading up to Jackson’s resignation, even tweeting that “Tester should resign.” Had Trump’s administration more thoroughly vetted his choice to lead the VA, of course, these allegations might never have become an issue in the first place.

But since that didn’t happen, it fell on the members of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee to thoroughly review Jackson’s record of service. In the course of doing so, they found plenty of reason to suspect that Jackson is not qualified for the critical job of guiding one of the nation’s largest agencies, responsible for the care of more than 9 million veterans, including more than 50,000 veterans enrolled in the VA health care system in Montana.

Tester is the ranking Democrat on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. It is literally his job to review information - including both accolades and complaints - about potential VA leaders.

And again, both Democrats and Republicans on the committee agreed that Trump’s nominee warranted deeper vetting. Since Trump’s administration failed to provide the necessary information collected as part of the usual vetting process, committee members set about gathering this information themselves. In addition to finding no prior experience managing a large government agency, they heard reports from more than 20 military employees that Jackson had mishandled medication, was sometimes intoxicated while on duty and had fomented a hostile work environment, among other charges.

This information was then shared with the public - because the committee is a public body comprised of public servants working on the public dime. It was presented as exactly what it was - allegations that had not been substantiated but which clearly warranted further investigation.

Strangely, Jackson, who remains employed as a White House physician, withdrew his name from consideration almost immediately, even before some of the reports could be countered. The Secret Service, for one, already announced that it had looked into the claims that he had wrecked a car while drunk and found no substantiating evidence.

As Tester noted in an interview last Thursday, “(Jackson) could have answered the allegations, maybe we could have knocked them down and moved him closer to confirmation. But he chose to withdraw.”

The White House has since taken pains to share the results of any official reviews - reviews that should have been done before Jackson was nominated if Trump were truly concerned about keeping any potentially embarrassing claims about Jackson’s past behavior out of the public eye.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument’s, that Tester had not done the job entrusted to him by the voters of Montana, and had simply let Jackson’s confirmation proceed without closer scrutiny. It has been less than a year since President Trump signed into law the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, cosponsored by Tester, which established an Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection within the VA. The last thing the scandal-plagued agency needs is these same allegations to be raised by whistleblowers against its own top administrator.

Fortunately, the system set up by the U.S. Constitution to either reject or confirm the president’s nominations to cabinet posts worked exactly as it should. Montanans of every political stripe, veteran or not, should feel satisfied with the outcome.

And we should keep in mind that there’s a good reason Trump and his supporters aren’t wasting their time attacking Isakson or any of the other Republicans who opposed Jackson’s nomination. That reason has everything to do with party politics and elections, and nothing to do with what’s best for veterans.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2K5BNUu

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