Missoulian, Aug. 11, on local control of gun laws:
If only there were some magic words that could rescue us from this national nightmare in which the same horrific scenario plays out over and over again, with only the location changing. Last weekend, it was El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. At least 31 people died in just those two tragic incidents. Many more were injured.
And across the nation, Americans were left reeling once again, while grappling with how to respond to this ongoing epidemic and make our communities safer.
In Montana, voters have 14 more long months before we decide whether to take a small step forward - or a big step back - with local gun laws. A legislative referendum on the November 2020 ballot places the ability of local governments to keep guns out of the hands of individuals who shouldn’t have them, and to restrict firearms from public places, at risk.
In the meantime, more are sure to be seriously injured and killed by firearms in Montana and in other states. Thoughts and prayers and moments of silence will continue to be offered, and politicians will continue to debate the merits of various solutions to gun violence.
Many Montanans may be feeling frustrated and hopeless, but we are not at all helpless. Those of us who are gun owners can take pains to make sure our firearms are securely stored at all times. Everyone, gun owner or not, can familiarize themselves with the warning signs that often precede a suicide attempt, and learn what steps to take in response.
And we can all resolve to shut down inflammatory rhetoric on whatever platform it rears its ugly head, even when - especially when - it favors “our side” of an issue. It’s high time to stop demonizing others, and stop empowering those teetering on the edge of violence to attack others.
The recent attack on a 13-year-old boy at the Mineral County fair provides a good case in point. A veteran with an apparent traumatic brain injury cited President Trump’s comments as justification for the assault - because the boy was wearing a hat during the national anthem.
Fortunately, the alleged assailant didn’t use a gun; if he had, the outcome could have been much, much worse. As it is, the boy suffered a concussion and skull fracture.
Curt Brockway, 39, was taken into custody by local law enforcement and later released. His arraignment is scheduled for Aug. 14. Brockway’s family and attorney are now receiving threatening messages. As unacceptable and inexcusable as this attack was, it should not be used as an invitation to incite further violence.
Instead of further whipping unstable individuals into a frenzy, we should all be looking for ways to identify them and remove any instruments of violence they may use to vent their anger. And we should all be seeking points of agreement on how to stop shooters before they can kill.
That is one of the things Missoula has been trying to do since September 2016, when the City Council approved an ordinance expanding background check requirements to cover all private gun sales within city limits, with a short but broad list of exceptions (such as between family members, or for antique firearms).
It sparked a debate even before it passed, with Montana Attorney General Tim Fox saying the ordinance “likely violates our constitutional right to keep and bear arms,” and City Attorney Jim Nugent noting that under Montana law, local government already has the authority to conduct background checks.
Then, a state legislative leader from Culbertson asked fellow Republican Fox, now a candidate for governor, to provide an opinion on the matter. Fox determined that the ordinance was unenforceable because local governments lack the power to limit the sale or transfer of firearms. Last year, a state judge rejected Fox’s opinion, and the case is now facing appeal in the Montana Supreme Court.
Which brings us to earlier this year, when state legislators from outside Missoula ganged up to pass not one but two pieces of legislation challenging the ordinance. The first, sponsored by Rep. Matt Regier, R-Columbia Falls, passed along party lines and was vetoed by Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat.
But this merely triggered the companion legislation, which places language echoing the vetoed bill on the November 2020 ballot. This means Montana voters will have to decide whether Missoula and other local governments can enforce local gun laws.
The worrisome thing is that Legislative Referendum 130 seeks to not only reverse Missoula’s progress but also remove the power of every community in Montana to regulate firearms.
It would overturn decades of state law upholding local control - long touted by Montanans as the preferred approach to tackling community problems. That way, different places maintain the freedom to experiment to see what works best, and other governments can watch and learn from them.
Currently, local governments in Montana routinely regulate the carrying of concealed weapons, and do not allow the possession of firearms by “convicted felons, adjudicated mental incompetents, illegal aliens, and minors.” Also, local governments can restrict firearms from public places - such as schools, polling locations and parks.
LR-130 would end this authority. That should worry every Montanan in every corner of the state.
We may not be ready to agree on new legislation, on assault weapons bans or red flag laws. But we can all agree that certain people shouldn’t have guns: people who have a history of violence, who present an imminent risk of harm to themselves or others, or who are not mentally able to handle the responsibility of owning a gun.
And surely we can agree that the lawful authorities in our communities should have the ability to keep guns out of the hands of these individuals.
Daily Inter Lake, Aug. 8, on separating taxpayer resources and campaigns costs:
Gov. Steve Bullock came under scrutiny last month in an ethics complaint filed by the Montana Republican Party for his alleged use of public resources to campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. The GOP’s complaint took issue with a Montana Highway Patrol security detail that travels with the governor during his out-of-state campaign trips. The complaint argued that using public resources for campaigning violated a Montana ethics code that prevents public officers from using “public time, facilities, equipment, supplies, personnel or funds” for election purposes.
Montana’s political practices commissioner ultimately dismissed the GOP’s complaint, writing last week that there was no evidence to support the claims. Earlier in July, Bullock had reached a deal with Montana Attorney General Tim Fox to keep the security detail for his campaign trips, so long as the governor’s campaign reimburses the state.
But this isn’t the first time Bullock has faced question about mixing public resources for campaign purposes.
In 2017, Bullock took heat for his use of the state plane for work and campaigning. In that case, the governor agreed to reimburse the state and pay a fine. Then-Montana GOP spokesman Shane Scanlon said at the time, “It’s simply wrong for Gov. Bullock to campaign on the taxpayers’ dime.”
We couldn’t agree more. However, the gray area of separating official business from electioneering isn’t new, nor is it exclusive to one party or the other.
In fact Fox, who is running as a Republican for Montana governor, was scrutinized for a June trip to the U.S.-Mexico border. Upon returning from El Paso, Fox posted on his campaign’s social media sites photos and videos of his trip. The state Department of Justice paid $2,776 for Fox and Highway Patrol Col. Tom Butler’s travel expenses, the Associated Press reported. Fox’s campaign denied that the trip was for political purposes, and said that no state resources were used from the border trip to promote his campaign.
To be clear, Fox wasn’t found to be in violation of any ethics codes, but his trip certainly highlighted the razor thin line presented to public officers who are also political candidates.
A number of Montana public officers campaigning for election in 2020 will likely be faced with similar scenarios. Along with Bullock and Fox, Lt. Governor Mike Cooney, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton and Montana State Auditor Matt Rosendale are all seeking election. These candidates and their respective campaign managers and treasurers would be wise to take extra care in keeping a clean balance sheet that clearly separates official work from political aspirations.
And when in doubt, they should err on the side of the people they serve. Their constituents - ahem, taxpayers - expect nothing less.
Billings Gazette, Aug. 8, on waste ponds cleanup:
Why is there still no fix for the polluted water that has been gushing from Colstrip waste ponds for four decades?
“What is a reasonable amount of time in which the (state) should act versus conduct further study, given there has already been 30 years of seepage and the (administrative order) itself was seven years in the making,” Montana District Court Judge Robert Deschamps wrote in June 2016. Back then, Deschamps rejected arguments from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and ruled that environmentalists could proceed with a lawsuit challenging a 2012 agreement between DEQ and Colstrip’s operator, which was then PPL Montana. That pact set few deadlines and resulted in years of further study. By 2016, PPL was out of the plant and Talen Energy was the new operator and a co-owner. Opponents warned back then that the plant could close before Talen cleaned up the coal ash ponds.
Here we are more than halfway through 2019, with Colstrip Units 1 and 2 scheduled to close by Dec. 31. The Oregon and Washington utilities that own most of the newer, larger Units 3 and 4, are being required by those states to stop delivering coal-fired power in coming years.
Yet decisions about the costly remediation of the coal ash ponds have yet to be answered. Most importantly for Colstrip area residents and other Montana taxpayers, the state doesn’t have bonds or other financial assurance to guarantee that remediation will be done right and completed.
The Montana DEQ has said that the method of remediation for most of the coal ash pond sites at Colstrip will be selected this fall and that financial assurance will be in place by year’s end.
We hope that timeline is met, but history doesn’t generate optimism on this huge project.
Talen Energy, which operates the plant and owns part of Units 1 and 2, has informed DEQ that the complete coal ash ponds remediation and cleanup is estimated to cost between $400 million and $700 million. So far, DEQ has required Talen to post bonds covering $153 million.
The cleanup work is expected to take 30 years or more, according to Jenny Chambers, DEQ division administrator for waste management and remediation.
The coal ash pond leakage problem started long before Chambers joined DEQ three years ago, and long before the public knew there was a problem. When the plant was built in the 1970s and 1980s, there was no requirement for posting bond to guarantee cleanup and remediation during operation or at closing and there still isn’t any bonding requirement today.
If Talen doesn’t commence and complete the work as DEQ ultimately decides it must be done, the other plant owners (or their successors) would be legally liable for covering the cost in proportion to their ownership share.
The ponds started leaking wastewater containing toxic heavy metals into groundwater decades ago when the old Montana Power Co. had ownership in the plant. Then Montana Power sold its interest in Colstrip to PPL Montana, which years later spun off the plant to Talen Energy. The leaking didn’t come to public attention till Colstrip homeowners complained and sued. They received some compensation, but the plant continued to use the ponds and the ponds continue to leak.
DEQ is negotiating an administrative order of consent with Talen. “We’re very close for the remedies,” Chambers told The Gazette in a phone interview this week.
Chambers said public comment will be sought on the remedy selected before it is finalized, then “financial assurance” in bonding will be required. She expects that financial assurance will be in place by year’s end.
We cannot overstate the importance of DEQ getting financial assurance this year. Until the remediation costs are guaranteed with bonds, Montana taxpayers are at risk. The remedy must stop the contaminated material from leaking to groundwater, clean up the tainted groundwater and clean up surface impacts. Montanans are counting on DEQ to look out for the public interest in protecting human health and groundwater - and to ensure that taxpayers aren’t left with the bill that should be covered by utility shareholders.
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