Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Feb. 12, on Montana State University’s diversity:
There were a lot of disappointed people when news broke recently there would be no International Food Bazaar at Montana State University. The 35-year tradition had attracted a big following from campus and around the community - and with good reason. It was symbolic of the diversity MSU’s many international students bring to Bozeman, more diversity than can be found in just about any other city in the state.
There were some grumblings that MSU had deliberately kept the cancellation quiet to avoid the inevitable controversy that would ensue. But it appears the cancellation was simply due to insufficient interest among the international students themselves. And who can blame them? Many are here to earn graduate degrees - a notoriously time-consuming enterprise. Taking time out from studies for the bazaar may just have been too much to ask. And staging large cooking events like the bazaar is no easy task. It taxes university kitchen resources, and it is difficult to meet increasingly stringent health requirements for serving food to the public.
But the proposed alternative - serving a different culture’s cuisine out of a food truck on campus each week doesn’t seem sufficient for replacing the bazaar.
Perhaps the end of one tradition can lead to the beginning of another. There surely must be a less-taxing way to highlight cultures represented on campus - some way of exhibiting the music, clothing and languages of different cultures at a single annual event that takes advantage the many talents these students have. There may be an opportunity here for the MSU student senate to reach out to the Office of International Studies and offer help organizing a new event. Support from the student body as a whole might give the international students the impetus they need to get another cultural celebration established.
The number of international students at MSU has grown along with overall enrollment increases. These students have become a significant part of the community and they enrich all our lives with the diversity they bring.
And that diversity should be celebrated in some significant way.
Missoulian, Feb. 10, on demanding overhaul of regulatory system for teen treatment programs:
Infrastructure. Aquatic invasive species. Education. Criminal justice reform. The 66th session of the Montana Legislature is currently riding the crest of an unprecedented wave of bill draft requests on a mind-boggling array of topics.
In fact, the Legislative Services Division crunched the numbers, and found that a whopping 699 more bill draft requests were submitted in the first 19 days of the current legislative session than in the previous session. More bills - at least 80 - also have made it past committee hurdles for a vote on the chamber floors.
Among the pressing legislation being considered in this session are two bills seeking to tighten oversight of alternative residential programs for youth. As shown in the Missoulian’s recent investigative series, “Troubled Kids, Troubled System,” there are some serious lapses in Montana’s regulatory system.
If legislative leaders fail to demand improvements now, it could well be another two years before urgent reforms are finally addressed. In the meantime, hundreds of youth - mostly teenagers - will continue to be put at risk through programs that are allowed to operate with very little meaningful regulation.
Most of these youth come from out of state, making it difficult for parents to monitor their children’s progress in person. Some programs also strictly limit their students’ ability to contact or communicate with their parents directly. And the state’s astonishing lack of transparency makes it unduly difficult for parents to thoroughly research the various programs operating in Montana, which offer widely differing levels of care.
Yet these programs are all lumped together under the same regulatory system that was created by the 2004 Legislature - thanks to a bill written and sponsored by owners of the very programs that would be regulated by the new system - after these businesses spent $34,000 lobbying legislators.
This system, still in place today, tasks a Private Alternative Adolescent Resident or Outdoor Program (PAARP) board with overseeing inspections, complaints and licensing. The board operates under the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, rather than a state agency that deals with child care or education. Three of the board’s five members run the same programs they are charged with regulating. And programs claiming a religious affiliation are exempted even from these generous requirements.
Given these realities, it comes as little surprise that inspections take place rarely or that schools are given a week’s notice beforehand. What’s more surprising is that the PAARP board has no transparency and no teeth when it comes to handling complaints. It has received some 58 complaints in the past dozen years, but according to PAARP rules, these complaints are not released to the public unless the board takes disciplinary action - and it has never taken such action. The board is severely limited in its ability to require programs to follow best practices, let alone adhere to basic standards.
Therefore it is disappointing that, so far, there is only one bill in the Legislature aimed at addressing one important aspect of the state’s regulatory failure. House Bill 222, by Hungry Horse Democrat Rep. Zac Perry, would finally bring religious programs under the state regulatory system. Legislators have sought to do the same in past legislative sessions but were unsuccessful, despite strong support for this legislation from the PAARP board itself, which has provided public, written testimony in past legislative sessions at every opportunity.
Passing this bill would be a solid step in the right direction. But Montana must take strides on at least two other aspects of this issue.
First, the PAARP board should be expanded from its current five members to seven, and the majority of public members should consist of experts in child psychology, therapy and adolescent mental health - who are not also owners with a stake in the very programs they are charged with overseeing.
It is worth noting here that the PAARP board chair, speaking only as an individual and not on behalf of the board, also supports changing the board makeup to include more members who are not affiliated with treatment programs. John Santa, a licensed clinical psychologist, is a co-director of Montana Academy, a therapeutic school for struggling youth he co-founded in 1997, along with his wife and fellow psychologist Carol Santa, Medical Director John McKinnon and his wife, Rosemary McKinnon, a licensed clinical social worker.
Last week, Santa told the Missoulian Editorial Board that he also is personally open to the idea of moving PAARP from the Department of Labor and Industry to the Department of Public Health and Human Services, although he would of course want to see specific ideas on how the board would work under DPHHS before fully supporting this change. He added that he would also want those who have experience running youth treatment programs in Montana to have a chance to provide input and help negotiate how the board would work under DPHHS, ideally in a way that would recognize the different kinds of care offered by different programs.
That’s the second item still missing from the current legislative agenda. The Department of Labor and Industry is clearly a poor fit for a board that deals with alternative treatment programs for troubled youth. PAARP should operate under the DPHHS umbrella so that problems that fall outside the board’s scope can be dealt with by qualified agencies, such as Child Protective Services. Inspections should take place regularly and without advance notice, so that inspectors get an unpolished view of a program’s daily operations, and the entire system should be as transparent to the public as possible.
The deadline to introduce general non-appropriation bills in the present legislature is Feb. 23, which means time is quickly running out for legislators to take action. Critical lapses in Montana’s regulatory system have been ignored for too long already. It’s time for legislative leadership to give this their immediate attention.
Billings Gazette, Feb. 7, on the cleanup costs of Colstrip’s coal ash ponds:
Billings Rep. Daniel Zolnikov calls it the $700 million question: Who is going to pay for the clean-up of Colstrip power plant’s coal ash ponds, and how much will it cost?
Currently, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality pegs the number at $700 million, but true clean-up costs in Montana have been notoriously underestimated, and no one will really know until the work begins.
If $700 million is an accurate number, it’s still a bit unclear who will shoulder the burden of paying for all of it?
Zolnikov, who is the chairman of the Montana House Energy Committee, told The Gazette that regardless of the pricetag, the cost should be borne by the companies that own the Colstrip plant, not the taxpayers, who have historically been on the hook for other Montana clean-ups of mineral extraction.
He said that clean-up responsibility belongs to Colstrip’s six owners, many of which are publicly regulated utilities and aren’t likely to disappear, even if they have to pay for clean-up. And for groups like Talen Energy, which is not a public utility, it will post a surety bond for its share by the end of the calendar year, Zolnikov said.
As an added safeguard, the state’s DEQ has about $80 million set aside for clean-up. Granted, that’s not an amount that would cover the total clean-up bill, but it helps buoy the project.
We share Zolnikov’s concern: Taxpayers in Montana have had to clean up after corporations and company made millions by leaving behind the mess of a costly clean-up. We are going to hold lawmakers to their word when it comes making sure taxpayers don’t have to pay for the ponds, which carry with them significant environment concerns.
We also expect the DEQ and other state leaders to make sure that we’re fully protected for the full amount because the cost is so high and likely to be much higher once it’s completed. We also want the Legislature to make sure the surety bonds are secured.
The next question is how much will Montanans pay? And the answer to that looks to depend on where you live. Customers of NorthWestern Energy could be on hook for $100 million — roughly 1/6th of the cost — because that’s its ownership share.
But Zolnikov has questions: Did the Montana ratepayers already pay for clean-up as part of the operational costs? Or did it pay when Northwestern purchased it? Can the Montana publicly regulated utility convince the Public Service Commission that it should be allowed to saddle the public with its portion of the clean-up costs going forward?
While we understand that coal ash ponds are a part of any coal operation, we also want to make sure that large corporations can’t find an excuse to shift the burden. And, we’d like to know: How much would a typical utility bill rise and for how long?
Finally, this brings us to the discussion of Colstrip’s future. While some are proposing the state take over the aging power generating complex, others are proposing shuttering the facility entirely.
Yet Zolnikov sees a gray, ashy lining to this otherwise silver cloud.
Granted, coal faces an uncertain global future, at best. That’s something that not necessarily Colstrip can overcome. Global markets, pollution and cheaper alternatives have spelled big trouble for America’s most reliable power source.
Timelines from the clean-up efforts project nearly 30 years into the future. And $700 million will go a long way in keeping people employed in Colstrip. In fact, there will likely be a cottage industry in clean-up that should provide work to those already working.
In the meantime, though, Colstrip has a chance to reinvent itself. Not only that, but Colstrip has something that other communities would kill to have — the already-built infrastructure of powerlines heading into the community.
That means there’s a ready-made energy future there if the city or the energy industry decides Colstrip can be a place of different power generation. That’s what Zolnikov sees.
“What they have right there right now is valuable and if we don’t do something to utilize it, we lose something that they’ll never build again,” Zolnikov said of the power transmission lines and system that runs into Colstrip and its coal-fired generators.
We hope whether it is renewable energy or change to something more environmentally friendly, for example natural gas, there is a possibility for a new economic future for Colstrip.
We hope that as the state considers who will pay for the clean-up for coal that as it sets aside money for the restoration and mitigation projects, it also puts a bit of seed money into reinventing itself.
For now, when Zolnikov thinks of Colstrip, he thinks of a steakhouse. For years, it’s been selling steak to happy customers. But tastes have changed and now the choice is for a vegan diet. The customers in states like Washington and Oregon are demanding different.
“We can either try to sell them more steak, which probably won’t work, or we can change our menu and offer what they want to buy,” Zolnikov said.
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