The Flathead Valley’s Leading Independent Journal of Observation, Analysis, & Opinion



24 May 2007

Mostly confusing

Check out this screen shot of the National Weather Service’s forecast for the Flathead for the Memorial Day weekend. I think the NWS has everything covered. In the illustrated forecast at the top of the page, the NWS informs us that Saturday will be “mostly cloudy.” But in the plain text section in the middle of the page — I’ve linked the two forecasts with red lines — we are informed that Saturday will be “mostly sunny.” I find this mostly confusing.


22 May 2007

A new Beacon seeks to enlighten the Flathead

Once again, Kalispell is no longer a one-newspaper town. The Flathead Beacon, a weekly, has begun publishing. And it has some serious financial support:

The Flathead Beacon is funded by television personality and 10-year Flathead Valley resident Maury Povich. Jonathan Weber, founder and publisher of Missoula-based, is the managing partner in the project and together with Povich recruited a team of local media professionals in late 2006. Tom Donnelly, of Frenchtown, an 18-year veteran of the publishing market, and Kellyn Brown, city editor at the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, were recruited to create and launch the Flathead Beacon. Flathead Beacon About Us.

Previous weeklies in Kalispell — the long defunct Kalispell Weekly News comes to mind — operated on a shoestring. Usually, they were personality vehicles, good for a chuckle, sometimes an antidote for hypotension, seldom a source of original reporting. Given its bankroll and personnel, the Beacon has the potential to be a credible alternative to the Daily Interlake and the Missoulian. We’ll see. I’ll be watching how the Beacon handles economics, politics, science, and natural resources.

In the meantime, a hearty “Welcome to the Flathead” is in order, and I extend it to the Beacon gladly.


18 May 2007

Forbidden flowers & other blooms

Spotted KnapweedSpotted knapweed. A forbidden flower, but also a very good looking flower. Larger image.

Buffalo Bur Buffalo bur. I found this tiny but tough yellow flower growing near a rock in what once had been a horse pasture. Larger image.

LilacLilac. I’m often asked how I managed to photograph something so small. There’s no secret involved. I used a digital single lens reflex, a 55mm f/2.8 micro lens, a tripod, and a wireless remote shutter release. I brought out the texture in the petals with Reindeer Graphic’s Adaptive Equalization, a free plug-in for Adobe Photoshop and similar applications. Larger image.


17 May 2007

No taxes, no government, no mercy — and no fluoridation

Rep. William Jones My first encounter with Rep. William Jones (R-Bigfork) was outside a public building in Kalispell. Jones, a dentist, was gathering signatures for a ballot measure authorizing the fluoridation of Kalipsell’s water supply. “For the first time since I’ve lived here,” I told him, “I wish I lived inside the city limits so that I could sign your petition.” He gave me a wan smile.

But he did collect enough signatures to get the measure on the ballot, where, as I feared and expected, the usual common sense of the voters decayed into a lopsided vote against stronger teeth. Fluoridation is one of those issues that brings the know-nothings and their John Birch Society genre friends out from under their rocks to do righteous battle with sound science. Fluoridation’s public health benefits are beyond reasonable challenge, but its opponents have learned to defeat it by focusing not on dental health but on the bogus issue of medication without consent.

Later, as Jones neared retirement and began positioning himself for a run for the legislature, he published in local newspapers oped pieces advancing economic theories that were a lot closer to Milton Friedman’s than to John K. Galbraith’s. Running in heavily conservative HD-9, where affection for Adam Smith and clean water coexist peacefully, where his economic views helped, and his support for public health measures didn’t hurt, he was elected in 2004 and re-elected in 2006. He worked quietly, sometimes joining with Democrats on health, education, and water quality issues, until Michael Lange’s foul diatribe against Governor Schweitzer caused him to lament the decline of civility in the legislature.

When the special session convened, Jones voted for the compromise budget. Why? Because, I believe, he understood that legislators who allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good fail to discharge their obligation to serve the people who sent them to Helena; their obligation to govern.

After the special session concluded, Jones, who earlier criticized Lange’s ugly breach of decorum, criticized the drumhead fashion in which, before leaving town, house Republicans dethroned Lange as majority leader, replacing him with Dennis Himmelberger of Billings.

“They didn’t even tell [Lange] what they were up to. I kept asking them not to do it, because they are destroying the party,” Jones said, referring to Flathead Republicans who participated in Lange’s ouster. “They just want the Constitutional Republican right-wing party with a platform of no taxes, no government, no mercy.” Daily Interlake, 16 May 2007.

And, no fluoridation.


14 May 2007

Voluntary school financing — is it workable? fair?

Greg Masters, whose website, It’s My Property, opposed the recent school levy elections, responded to What’s the matter with Kila? with a letter in which he says, “We want Kila School to receive the funding it needs,” but argues that “…we believe increasing taxes should be a tool of last resort, only if other means of voluntary fundraising have failed, and then only upon showing of an urgent public need.”

Masters proposal for funding schools on a voluntary basis raises two questions: (1) would it work, that is, would it consistently raise enough money to pay for operations, including routine maintenance, and (2) would it be fair to the community? I think the answers are “No” and “No.”

Volunteer fundraising would, of course, bring in some money, especially at first when the enthusiasm and energy of those raising the money was highest. And we know from experience with efforts to raise money for a multitude of school associated activities — fresh young faces frequently appear at my door in an earnest effort to secure a donation to a worthy, school associated, activity — that a fair amount of money is raised this way.

But we also know from decades of experience with public schools that voluntary contributions are not enough. That’s why taxes are necessary.

Taxation is the fairest way of financing our public school system. Public education is a community affair. Schools educate children, but education benefits the entire population. Therefore, the cost of building and operating public school should be paid by everyone, with each person’s share of the cost determined by a number of factors, including personal income and the ability to pay. Otherwise, human nature being what it is, free riders, most able to pay their fair share, would withhold their contributions.

This is not to say that the taxes that finance schools are fair, or as fair as they could be. Property taxes provide a relatively stable stream of revenue, and therefore are favored by governmental officials. Some so-called progressives also favor property taxes as a way of taxing wealth. But property taxes often bear no relationship to a citizen’s ability pay. For example, a retired couple on Social Security may own a house, in declining repair, for which, 40 years ago, they paid $25,000, but which today is assessed at $175,000, or more, because of a real estate boom. There are programs to mitigate this couple’s tax burden, but they are imperfect and worse, do not relieve the anxieties that attend the situation.

By contrast, the progressive income tax is based on the ability to pay and therefore is a much sounder choice for a source of public revenue for schools. Shifting from the property tax to the progressive income tax would would make our system of funding schools much more fair. But don’t expect so logical and just a change to occur anytime soon. Democrats are wary of abandoning attempts to tax wealth, governments are wary of shifting to a more variable stream of revenue, and Republicans hate the income tax more than they hate the property tax. As a consequence, we must muddle along with a far from perfect tax and levy elections that reduce school districts to a spring ritual of tin-cupping for operating dollars.

Finally, a comment on another kind of fairness. In his letter, Masters reports that “many emails I have received, the ones which were pro levy perceived our efforts as ‘anti-kids’ rather than an expression of our displeasure at the method school districts have chosen to increase their funding.” His complaint that opposition to the levy is being equated with a mean spirited attitude toward children is legitimate. I disagree with Masters on how to fund schools, but I have no reason to believe that he hates children.


9 May 2007

What’s the matter with Kila?

The levy for the high school passed yesterday, but as usual, voters in the rural precincts generally opposed it. That’s especially true for rural areas west of Kalispell. Except for Pleasant Valley, where only three voters bothered to cast votes — all “No” votes — in the levy election for the Kalispell High School district, the highest level of opposition to the levy was registered in Kila, where only 23.1 percent of the voters favored passing the levy.

Kalispell High School Levy, Unofficial Returns

Polling Place Registered Voted Turnout For Against Percent For
Fair-Mont-Egan - III
Cayuse Prairie - III
Helena Flats
West Valley
Creston - III
Smith Valley
Deer Park - III
Pleasant Valley

That’s an appalling lack of support for education — and this time it may have been due to an under the radar campaign waged by Greg Masters and others. Masters is the registrant of record for It’s My Property, a website opposing the levies in Kila and elsewhere. Here’s an example:

Why are the schools so short of funds?????

We support our kids getting a quality education, However, does providing mall-like “food courts” *3 at the new Glacier High and spending more money automatically make for a better education? We don’t think so.

Salary and benefit costs, already 70 – 88% of general fund expenditures (depending on the district) *1 are spiraling out of control. The smaller districts are spending too much money on administrators and federal red tape instead of books and teachers. We believe that the holding of a “special” school election, in May, is a waste of taxpayer’s money. Why not combine the school ballot measures with those of the general election in June election years?

Kila mill levies have increased more than any other district in the Flathead. Furthermore, this year Montana has a budget surplus of funds from taxes, why this additional tax increase? The Flathead High School district levy is already the third highest in the county (21 districts). *1

We do support voluntary participation from the community through fundraisers and other means. When was the last time you received a letter asking for a voluntary contribution?

We believe property taxes are high enough and the school districts do not need a tax increase. Please vote NO on the Mill Levy increases, on Tuesday, May 8 at the Kila School.

Whether It’s My Property had a significant impact on the outcome of the election is debatable, but one does wonder what it is about Kila that causes only one in four of its voters to vote for a school levy.


7 May 2007

Glacier High School — money well spent

Glacier High School

That’s Glacier High School in the panoramic photograph above. The building is actually much more impressive in person than in the photograph, which was assembled from five overlapping images with a wide angle lens.

On Saturday, 5 May, I took an hour-long guided tour of the new school, which opens in late summer. The only things it shared with the decrepit brick building where I began high school were a roof that didn’t leak, walls painted the same tepid shade of mustard tinted mayonnaise, and a number of earnest, well informed, faculty members who seem to have lost the ability to speak to adults as adults when student-age visitors are in the room (that’s probably an occupational hazard).

What struck me most apart from the solid construction and efficient floor plan was the amount of light supplied by the sun. Before public building were air conditioned, and before low cost fluorescent lamps were available, many schools featured large windows that flooded classrooms with light. That was followed by an era with a “stop mother nature at the door” design philosophy that produced schools that qualified for the prison architecture of the year award. Glacier High’s classrooms are not solariums, but many do benefit from windows and are friendlier places for it. The library, with its high, vaulted ceiling and soaring windows, is especially impressive in this regard.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing more about this outstanding addition to our local system of schools and sharing with you some of the 155 photographs I made during my tour. Tomorrow, however, I'm going to the polls to vote for the levy, which provides money to operate the schools.


4 May 2007

Tax “relief” at the expense of college students

Governor Brian Schweitzer and every member of Montana’s legislature need to explain to the public, and especially to students at Flathead Valley Community College, why, with a budget surplus that may approach one billion dollars, their tuition has to go up 21 percent next year while tuition at the University of Montana will be capped and property owners will get tax rebates or cuts.

According to a story, College OKs 21 percent tuition increase, in the 25 April 2007 issue of the Daily Interlake:

Community colleges weren’t included in the governor’s tuition-cap plan, which provided money to help four-year institutions limit tuition increases. Negotiations were started too late to reach an agreement with the community colleges.

“Throughout the legislative session, we shared with the Legislature that we weren’t included in the tuition cap,” Karas said.

According to FVCC President Karas, the tuition increase will cost an average of $268 per semester. That’s not much by the reckoning of some, but it’s plenty by the reckoning of those who must pay it. The rich do not send their children to community colleges. FVCC’s students, like the students at community colleges everywhere, struggle to pay for their education. For them, $268 is a big deal.

And it’s a raw deal. By leaving a tuition cap for community colleges out of his budget, Governor Schweitzer decided that it was morally acceptable to have community college students subsidize his tax rebates for property owners. And by not modifying the budget to include a tuition cap for community college students, Democratic and Republican legislators alike endorsed this reprehensible scheme.

I’m not cutting the Republicans any slack on this, but I’m less displeased with them on this issue than I am with the Democrats. How on earth can the party that believes in progressive taxation and economic fairness think that this is just?

For my part, much as I could use a tax rebate — who could not? — I cannot endorse picking the pockets of students to fill the pockets of the landed, and especially the pockets of the landed gentry.

The only saving grace of the special session that must be called so that a budget for Montana can be adopted is that it affords an opportunity for the governor and our legislators to cap tuition at community colleges as well as at the universities. And the legislature should provide FVCC with enough money that the tuition increase can be rolled back and the students reimbursed — with interest.


1 May 2007

The caucus that outsmarted itself

A friend, fond of paradoxes, once said of a man who’d just outsmarted himself, “he gamed it out, but he didn’t think it through.” That’s as good a description as you’ll ever get of what the Republicans in the Montana House of Representatives did to themselves the last four months, and why the legislature adjourned last week without passing a budget.

Scott Sales The key events occurred in the interregnum following last fall’s election. Meeting in Helena to choose their leaders for the new legislature, the Republicans tapped Scott Sales for speaker of the house, and Michael Lange for majority leader.

“My job,” said Sales, a Bozeman investments specialist beginning just his third term, “is to show no quarter to the Democrats as they try to push their liberal agenda.” Fond of military metaphors, Sales often sounds as though he has watched too many war movies on late night television.

Michael Lange A speaker with Sales’ tendencies should be paired with a majority leader known for his calm, thoughtful manner. But Lange, a Billings pipefitter, has the temperament of a barroom brawler. Were he a Democrat, he would be likened to a union goon (and in fact, he reportedly holds a union card). It was a hypergolic pairing that would produce incendiary results.

Worse was to come. Sales awarded the chairmanship of the education committee to Rick Jore (Republicans decide to teach educators a lesson), the home schooling Constitution Party representative from Ronan. When eyebrows were raised, Lange said, “I don’t recall the education community supporting the speaker, or myself either. They didn’t win. That’s the bottom line. If they want to control the committee, my recommendation to them is to be better at campaigning than they were. We owe them no explanation whatsoever.”

Those were the choices, those were the words, not of a political party seeking to govern, but of a political party looking for trouble; of a political party with chips on its shoulder.

Those chips were taxes, which they were hell bent on cutting, and Governor Brian Schweitzer, whom they were hell bent on humiliating.

The strategy

And they had a strategy, one they had gamed out, but, as they would learn at the end of the session, not one they had thought through completely. “Hang together,” they told themselves. “Vote as a bloc. Legislation must be approved by both houses. If we hang together, if we vote as a bloc, if we demonstrate more resolve than the Democrats — and we can and will because they are weak and our cause is righteous — we will prevail. Our tax cuts will be adopted. And Brian Schweitzer will be put in his place.”

That was the Republican mindset in the house from the opening day of the session. There was a religious fervor about it, a hyper-zealous intensity. It was, as the Helena Independent Record noted, the mindset of “…a party that apparently thinks all-out warfare is the way to do the people’s business.”

That all-out warfare inverted the traditional values of the legislative process. For the Republicans, the traditional virtue of compromise became the vice of betrayal. Civility became weakness, not strength. Lange’s profane, televised, diatribe on 25 April, said the IR:

…seemed to be another example of legislators determined from the beginning to obstruct the legislative process. Time after time this session, House leaders have stuck wrenches into the legislative gears, seemingly just because they can. Messing with normal legislative procedures, playing hooky from work, holding bills hostage to extort concessions… Editorial, 28 April 2007.

As the session neared the end of its constitutionally alloted 90 days, Sales and Lange — backed by their 48 fellow Republicans, and Jore — hardened their positions on the budget, intending, I believe, to provoke a crisis, convinced that their moral superiority would carry the day on tax policy because the Democrats — in the house, in the Senate, and the governor himself — would blink. But they didn’t blink, and Sales, et al, like Bush on Iraq, didn’t have a Plan B on which they could fall back. And their militaristic, all for one, one for all, and to hell with everyone else, mindset left them without the wit and flexibility to adapt constructively to changing circumstances.

As the Billings Gazette astutely observed:

…a dissection of this failed session shows that the last clear chance to avoid the train wreck belonged to the House GOP leadership. Speaker Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, refused for 10 days to take any action on any of the major spending bills approved by the Senate. The usual process (in our now-outdated textbooks) would have been for the House to accept or reject the Senate’s amendments, and if the House rejected these major amendments, to form a House-Senate conference committee to hammer out a compromise. That’s the way the system is supposed to work.

Instead, the crucial budget bills didn’t move. Majority Leader Michael Lange, R-Billings, met with Schweitzer on Wednesday morning [25 April] to discuss a compromise on tax cuts and school funding, then hours later denounced the governor with perhaps the foulest streak of language ever uttered in a public meeting in the Capitol. The days and hours ticked away with no gas in a legislative get-out-of-town vehicle. Editorial, 29 April 2007.

A frenzy worthy of Hamas

Some commentators attribute the legislature’s inability to pass a budget to failed leadership, assigning equal blame to Democrats, Republicans, and the governor. Others contend that the tax issue was just too hard to resolve in so short a session.

I disagree.

We’ve had flawed leaders and hard tax issues in every legislative session in Montana’s history, but neither leadership defects nor tough tax issues have prevented those legislatures from adopting a budget in the alloted 90 days. That’s because in those sessions, there were enough legislators who understood that compromise and civility are virtues, not vices, that deals could be made so that the legislature could discharge its constitutional obligations. In those sessions, however difficult, governing was the objective of both parties.

Not so this time. The Republicans in the house went into the session hell bent on forcing Democrats to capitulate. They worked themselves up into an ideological frenzy worthy of Hamas, selecting strutting leaders who reinforced each others worst qualities. They sought conflict, not compromise. And then, when they discovered they couldn’t bully the opposition, they committed what amounts to a legislative murder-suicide.