Deena Mansour Commentary: “Broadening Perspectives: A Montana Youth Leadership Program”

The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at The University of Montana was founded 30 years ago to honor the life work of Senator Mike Mansfield and his wife, Maureen Hayes Mansfield. Before I launch into my topic, I would like to note that today, we join the family in grieving the loss of the only child of the Mansfields. Anne Mansfield passed away on April 24 at the age of 74. Our thoughts are with her daughter Caroline Marris and her family and friends around the world.

In a recent commentary, I shared Mike Mansfield’s strong interest in fostering youth. In his 1989 Message to Future Generations, he noted the importance of youth making the effort to understand people from around the world, and the importance of “accommodation and compromise, knowledge and understanding.”

In support of Mansfield’s vision, the Mansfield Center successfully competed for grant funding for the U.S. Department of State’s American Youth Leadership Program. This is a relatively new initiative of the State Department, designed to prepare youth leaders to become responsible citizens and spark in them an interest in foreign cultures. Our goal is to support Montana youth to develop cultural understanding so that they may advance international dialogue and compete effectively in the global economy. The University of Montana is host to one of only seven such programs in the country, and the only one for Cambodia.

As a result of this grant, the Mansfield Center is honored to support the travel of 20 high school students and two high school teachers to Cambodia for a month this summer. From a pool of nearly 160 applicants, we were honored to accept many future leaders of our state. They hail from towns large and small, including such communities as Opheim, Shelby and Ronan.

These 15-17 year olds are incredibly courageous to sign-on for this program. Most have never been out of the U.S. before. They have made a commitment to leave their family and friends behind for a month, relying on one another, program staff, and the support of strangers. They’ll experience heat like they’ve never felt, and eat food that they have never imagined. They’ll be immersed in a society that speaks Khmer: a completely different alphabet, vocabulary, and set of sounds.

We’ve heard from a number of them that others in their communities have questioned why they would ever want to do such a thing. In response, one student wrote, “I strongly believe that one of the most important things in life is seeing different perspectives and experiencing as much as one can of our complex world. Traveling to Cambodia would open my eyes to things I have not yet had the chance to see, and get me started in a lifetime of unique and wonderful experiences.” Another said, “…living on one of seven reservations in Montana, opportunities for many Native American teenagers are few and too far apart. When this opportunity presented itself to expand my outlook, I couldn’t have been more positive that this trip was something I was meant to do…. Researching Cambodians and hearing their stories, I kept thinking how Cambodians and Native Americans are not too different. I know I could create a relationship and connections with Cambodian people that could possibly last a lifetime.”

The focus of this group is on shared challenges in the environment and climate change. They’ll be taking lessons learned from our Montana environment, and contrasting them with new ideas learned from Cambodian partners. But more than just natural resources, the group will be learning about culture and society, including some hard issues, such as the genocide of an estimated two million people during the Khmer Rouge era. Our Montanans will visit the Killing Fields of Cheung Ek, where the trees are marked with blood of babies and children, and the ground still littered with their bone fragments.

The group will not travel unprepared. An important aspect of this program is an intense six-month preparation period, in the form of readings, webinars, and speakers. One of the students, Angus from Ovando, noted how much he has learned about the Cambodian genocide, noting, “Education is one of the most critical factors in preventing mass slaughter. Most of the Khmer Rouge soldiers were uneducated youth that were susceptible to the influence of the regime. The modern youth of Cambodia should be provided a secondary education, even though that’s easier said than done. But children should also be informed of what really did happen during the regime rather than being neglected that information.”

In terms of educating our own children, we’re honored that the Mansfield Center is doing its part to broaden Montana perspectives.

You’ll be able to follow the students’ visit to Cambodia starting in mid-June, on our website at umt.edu/Mansfield. We hope you’ll join them as they experience this great adventure.

Deena Mansour writes on behalf of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center.

Tom Power Commentary: “Exporting Natural Gas: Undermining Energy Security and Econonomic Well-Being”

Increased supplies of natural gas, combined with the slow economic recovery from the Great Recession, have dramatically reduced natural gas prices in the United States. Competition from that cheaper natural gas also has put downward pressure on domestic coal use by electric generators, leading to reduced coal prices and the layoff of workers at many mines including those in Montana and Wyoming.
Oil production in the United States, including that associated with the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and Montana, has also dramatically increased, boosting U.S. oil production to levels not seen for over two decades and turning around a relentless decline in U.S. oil production that began 40 years ago after peak production in 1970. But oil and gasoline prices have remained stubbornly high. Something seems wrong with the working of supply and demand when that increased domestic oil production doesn’t put downward pressure on the price we have to pay for oil and gasoline too.
But if we step back a bit, these divergent price paths for oil and natural gas make some sense. The natural gas we produce is largely landlocked because it is costly, and, some would say, dangerous, to liquefy that natural gas and load it on huge tankers to ship to Asia or Europe. The price that natural gas could fetch in Japan or Germany would be four times what it sells for in the U.S. But first it has to get there, and the U.S. doesn’t really have the gas liquefaction and port capacity in place to try to take advantage of those very high international price differences.

It is not surprising that American natural gas producers want to break out of their landlocked situation and ship their gas overseas to enjoy the higher prices there. In fact, the oil producers in the Bakken oil fields want the Keystone Pipeline for the same reason: The Bakken oil is being produced far from the markets that can use it. It represents a large local supply of oil that can drive down the price buyers are willing to pay because of the high costs of getting that oil to market. The Keystone Pipeline would allow Bakken oil to be shipped straight to oil refineries on the Gulf coast where it can then flow into international markets and claim a price that fully reflect world oil prices.
That brings us back to why oil and gasoline prices have not come down despite dramatic increases in U.S. oil production. The infrastructure for the shipping of petroleum from isolated locations like Saudi Arabia or the North Slope of Alaska to the rest of the world has been in place for a long time. There is a worldwide oil market off of which we as a nation have lived for a long time. That worldwide oil trade sets the value of oil in the U.S. as well as elsewhere in the world. We have no choice but to pay that world price if we want to import that oil and our oil producers can also use that world price to set the price they demand for domestic production.
We have all grumbled at times about being “over the barrel” (pun intended) when it comes to oil and gasoline prices and having to pay whatever the world demanded of us so that we could continue to feed our oil habit. But now, strangely, our political and business leaders are telling us that we should also commit ourselves to a worldwide market for natural gas. Those “leaders” repeatedly tell us about all of the jobs that will be created by building the infrastructure so that we can move that natural gas to port cities for export. They also remind us of the higher prices our domestic natural gas producers will be able to get if we facilitate that export.
What they do not tell us is that what is good for natural gas producers is not good for the rest of us. We currently have the benefits of natural gas at a relatively low price. That reduces the costs of operating our households. It is also attracting manufacturing activity back to the U.S. because that plentiful natural gas supply at a very low price gives us a competitive advantage.
Natural gas is also a relatively low carbon fuel. As a result, the increased production of natural gas in the U.S. could provide us with a transition fuel as we seek to maintain our economy while reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Purposely linking the price of natural gas in the U.S. to the higher prices people elsewhere around the world have to pay for natural gas is a strategy to undermine the American economy and sabotage even further any hope of our getting our massive greenhouse gas emissions under control.
There is something strange going on here. The natural gas industry previously argued that expanding natural gas exploration and development to almost every acre of land in the nation where natural gas might be found would help us rebuild our energy independence and boost our energy security. Now they are urging us to ship these resources away and embrace higher natural gas prices in the U.S., leaving us exposed to the same market forces that most of us cursed when oil prices were sky-rocketing.
There appears to be no limit to the economic, social, and environmental damage that some folks seem to think is justified because a tiny minority can make a financial killing off of it. It is time to push back against the cynical use of “jobs” to justify almost anything and everything without regard for what it actually does to our nation.

Tom Power Commentary: “The Public Relations Misuse of the Language of Economics”

Almost all of us are impacted by tax laws, government regulations, and public subsidies. That is true of individuals pursuing their own interests, profit-oriented commercial businesses, non-profit organizations seeking to follow their own visions of a better world or government agencies of one sort or another.
Given that such taxes, regulations, or subsidies can directly impact the success or, even, viability of a broad range of individuals’ and organizations’ objectives, it is not surprising that a lot of effort is put into influencing the decisions that governments make. Public relations professionals are hired to positively influence the public’s perception of the size and importance of the contribution different organizations make to our individual and collective well-being. Lobbyists are hired to try influence the decisions of legislators and regulators in order to make those government decisions more supportive or, at least, less damaging to their organizations’ activities and objectives.
One popular public relations gimmick that is regularly used is the so-called “economic impact analysis.” Recently we have seen such impact analyses used to try to influence the public’s view of the Colstrip electric power plants, the activities of Montana artists, new Montana coal mining proposals, the Montana’s University system, and the expansion of the Medicaid health insurance program, to name just a few.
Given that we tend to perceive economic hard times as either just around the corner or currently upon us, this feeling of economic vulnerability is an attractive pressure point for those that seek to protect or enhance their private interests by wrapping them in our collective public interest in a stable and prosperous economy. That is, private interests are disguised in the public interest by suggesting that almost all citizens have a direct economic interest in the success of those private interests.
This use of economic language to magically transform almost any private interest into the public interest has to be recognized for the public relations gimmick that it is. This purposeful confusion and masquerade would simply be insulting or laughable, like any other advertisement, if it were not for the distortion and corruption of economics that such so-called “economic impact analyses” depend upon.
Economics, as a social science, studies how individuals and societies cope with scarcity. It also develops guidelines for the optimal use of scarce resources. Central to economics is the unavoidable need to make tradeoffs or choices that involve weighing benefits against costs in the pursuit of net benefits or avoidance of net losses.
In real world settings, it is rare to find situations where there are only benefits to reap and no costs that have to be considered. As economists often remind us, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”
But “economic impact analyses” shrug off this central economic tenet that costs and benefits need to weighed. These very peculiar “economic” analyses typically describe economic ventures as having only benefits and no costs for the local community. But the corruption of the basic insights of economics goes even further, and transforms things that both businesses and economists would usually label costs and simply re-labels them as benefits. In these “impact analyses”, no economic choices or tradeoffs need to be made. The “analyst” simply presents an array of pure benefits to the community and implicitly suggests that it would be irrational not to embrace and approve such a free lunch. With only benefits and no costs, whatever is being proposed becomes an offer that is simply too good for the public or government to burden with taxes or regulations, not to mention the absurd possibility of actual rejection.
It should be clear that something is missing from this type of public-relations-based impact analysis, namely the weighing of benefits and costs in the process of making rational choices. If there were only benefits and no costs associated with a proposed project, there would usually be no controversy at all about that proposal. It is because there are perceived costs (as well as benefits) that public controversy emerges. In that setting any economic analysis worthy of that label should attempt to weigh both the benefits and the costs so as to contribute to a rational public decision. But in the world of public relations, the motivation is the often the opposite: To overstate the benefits and suggest that there are no costs.
This is not to say that real economic impact analysis has no important uses. If, for instance, a very large project is proposed that may significantly boost the population, placing stress on public services such as schools, police and fire protection, and the local road and highway system, a real economic impact analysis might provide warning of these potential disruptive and costly impacts so that mitigation measures and their funding can be planned for. It is important to note that in this setting, particular costs associated with the project are explicitly investigated rather than just laying out pure benefits.
Environmental impact analyses, of course, also have the purpose of carefully and completely laying out the full range of benefits and costs so that the public and public decision-makers can, in a classic application of economics, compare and weigh both so that an informed and, hopefully, more rational and productive decision can be made.
The next time you hear a commercial group or anyone else bragging about the gigantic positive economic impacts it has or will have on the well-being of the community, treat it as a paid advertisement that almost certainly has repeatedly violated all of the basic rules of economic logic. That impact analysis is highly likely to simply be a gimmick to trick the public into providing private business interests with special treatment at significant cost to the public interest.

George Seielstad Commentary: “New Beginnings”

We are at the beginning not only of a new year, but of a new geologic epoch as well. Years happen often: 2013 is Earth’s 4.6-billionth. Geologic epochs are much rarer, only seven in the last 66 million years. The one we are entering is the Anthropocene, an elegant word for describing the time when Earth became dominated by humans. How else can you describe a planet on which nearly half the land is devoted to providing food for a single species, Homo sapiens; where the flow of nearly every river has been interrupted by dams; the chemical compositions of the atmosphere and oceans are being changed; and more matter is mined, processed into goods, and distributed around the world than is moved by natural erosion. Never has one species risen to such domination of the planet, nor has done so in such a brief time. Indeed, the future of the global environment is now in our hands.
The changes we humans have inflicted on the planet have consequences: a warming of the entire globe; melting icefields; rising sea levels; more frequent and more severe floods and droughts; extreme heat waves occurring more often and lasting longer; changed precipitation patterns; oceanic dead zones; wildfires scarring more land; diseases in places they have never been before; and dramatic permanent losses of other species. It is not an altogether pleasant legacy to be passing to the future.
Let us ask of ourselves, if everyone in the world lived as we do, would we be creating a better world for all children? More broadly, for all children of all species? Most comprehensively of all, for all children of all species for all time? In short, our very mastery of planetary processes obliges us to take responsibility for their continued life-enabling gifts.
Just as we make resolutions for personal improvement in the year ahead, we must now make resolutions for collective improvement in the Anthropocene epoch just dawning. A few to be included are:
• First, consume only for need, not for greed. An equation that combines exponentially growing populations with exponentially growing per-person demands for the conversion of natural resources into products has no solution on a finite planet.
• Second, protect ecosystem services. Life exists on Earth only because it enjoys services Nature provides, free, all the time. A few examples include pollination, climate moderation, decomposition of wastes, stabilization of soil, protection from harmful solar radiation, provision of food, fiber and medicines, and the intangible gifts of aesthetic beauty and spiritual inspiration.
• Third, wean ourselves from fossil fuels. Fracking has deceived us into thinking that fossil fuels are abundant. But all fracking has done is to compensate for the decline in conventional production. It has also perpetuated the practice of investing more energy to achieve slimmer returns. Clinging to a past in decline instead of creating a future with inexhaustible renewable fuels is a deadend strategy.
• Next, lengthen time horizons. An Industrial Revolution with a 250-year history marks but a blink of an eye on a planetary timescale. The mismatch between our desire for more and more, faster and faster, versus the Earth System’s stately metabolism is glaring, and the Earth System is certain to prevail in the end.
• Finally, accept planetary citizenship. Ninety-seven out of every 100 people born into tomorrow’s world will be in today’s developing countries. Their path to development cannot follow ours, nor can we continue on our current path while preventing others from adopting it. All seven billion of us on today’s planet must together create a future that takes full advantage of our coupled minds.

As we put these resolutions into practice, we will have taken advantage of the traits that distinguish our species. We are both infinitely creative and have a strong sense of moral purpose. As the Anthropocene dawns, our focus must be less on self and immediacy, and more on the health in perpetuity of a global society and the planet whose services sustain it. Every human, every ecosystem, every organism that will live on Earth from now on will be affected by the decisions we make.
Happy New Year and Happy New Geologic Epoch.

Susan Kohler Commentary: “Legislature”

Good evening. This is Susan Kohler, CEO of ; the Area Agency on Aging for Missoula and Ravalli Counties. Tonight I want to discuss what the aging network is requesting for support at the State Legislature.
Yesterday I joined colleagues from around Montana to testify before the Joint Subcommittee on Health and Human Services about our funding needs. This was an important opportunity to let the committee know how state dollars make a difference in the lives of older Montanans.
The Area Agency on Aging Association, consisting of 10 areas across the state and their partners, are advocating for two main priorities. First is to have the label “One Time Only” removed from our $3 million statewide request for funding. This is the fourth session during which the Area Agencies on Aging have had to go to the legislature to ask for $3 million dollars, which for six years now, has been designated as “One Time Only. Why continue to get this label on critical funding that is for ongoing support of our services? The second priority is to ask for an additional $3 million for the biennium. This extra funding is needed to remove waiting lists which have cropped up due to the erosion of the original $3 million we have received for six years.
Area Agencies are the focal points for state and federal funding. We contract with senior centers, county Councils on Aging, home health organizations and other businesses to provide supportive services to older adults living in our service areas. Missoula Aging Services serves Missoula and Ravalli Counties; some of my rural peers cover anywhere from 11 to 17 counties in their service areas. We provide services to individuals regardless of income however we have to provide subsidies for those individuals who cannot pay the full amount of the services. We help older adults and those who care for them navigate the complexities of long term care services, and provide respite to those caring for an older adult with Alzheimer’s or other related dementia. We provide Meals On Wheels, homemaking services, personal care services, Medicare and Medicaid consultations, transportation and congregate meals, among others.
We also support Senior Corp programs– volunteer programs administered either directly by our agencies or partners. You may have heard of Foster Grandparents, Senior Companions and RSVP. These programs address the issues of social isolation and potential depression in older adults by providing opportunities to put their skills and interests to good use. Volunteers with these programs not only feel productive, they also help meet critical community needs and deliver needed services to others.
Last year the Area Agencies on Aging network served 58,105 older adults and those who care for them in Montana. Although most are older adults, we also see their adult children seeking guidance and support for their parents. It is important to know that most families still help to support their aging parents but they don’t always live in the same town and are often juggling multiple priorities in their lives.
The Aging Network looks at funding as a partnership. State-wide, the order of support from most to least is as follows: The federal government is Number One. Second is local government, including county and, sometimes, city funding. A close third consists of program income and donations. Program income includes what older adults pay towards services they receive–some pay the full amount and others pay what they can afford. State funding is fourth. In the case of Missoula Aging Services, United Way is included in this mix, along with generous community donations of $100,000 annually to keep our Meals On Wheels program whole. We fund-raise much more than that to support other vital services, too.
Even so, under the current state funding scenario our service area already has a waiting list for homemaker and respite services, and Ravalli County currently has no resources to provide respite services for caregivers. The state is aging significantly, with the fastest growing population being 85-year-olds and over. It is no secret that older adults do better if they can remain at home. It is less expensive to provide support to them there than to prematurely place them in institutions like nursing homes.
This brings me back to the Aging Network’s two main priorities at the Legislature and what you can do to help. I invite you to advocate for Montana’s older adults by contacting the members of the Joint Subcommittee on Health and Human Services. Ask them to support the removal of the One Time Only label for our current $3 million, and to increase our funding by $3 million for the next biennium. If you have questions about how to do this, contact your local area agency on aging by calling 1-800-551-3191.
Susan Kohler is the CEO of Missoula Aging Services.

Sterling Miller Commentary: “National Climate Assessment “

New records for warm weather have become frighteningly common place. Watching this trend, no thinking person can fail to become alarmed by the record-setting heat we experienced last year. In 2012, we broke the previous hottest year on record not by increments of a tenth of a degree or so as is commonly the case for such records. Last year shattered the previous record high for the United States by a whole degree. The average US temperature in the US last year was 55.3 degrees. The head of the climate monitoring at the National Climatic Data Center called last year “off the chart” and he said 2012 will go down as “a huge exclamation point at the end of a couple decades of warming.”
The head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research said that these records “do not occur in an unchanging climate” and pointed out that they “…are costing many billions of dollars already”. Last year was 3.2 degrees warmer than the average for the entire 20th century and last July was the hottest month on record with 19 states setting yearly heat records in 2012.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also reported that 2012 came in second in the record books for the most weather extremes, which includes not only temperature records, but also drought, downpours and hurricanes that reach land. The number of such extreme events last year was exceeded only by the number in 1998. Not coincidentally, 1998 was also the year that set the previous record for the hottest year in the US. This isn’t surprising given the relationship between a hotter climate and the number of these kinds of extreme weather events.
We all remember Hurricane Sandy, but we can’t afford to forget the incredible drought we experienced this summer. That drought was the worst since the 1950s and in the US record books was exceeded only by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The recent PBS special by Ken Burns on the Dust Bowl called the Dust Bowl the worst man-made ecological disaster in US history. If you haven’t seen this Ken Burns special, you should. It is available for purchase as a DVD from PBS.org or you can wait for it to be re-broadcast. Like climate change, the Dust Bowl was a man-made disaster. We were fortunate in our political leadership during the Dust Bowl as Franklin Roosevelt didn’t ignore the problem and undertook the steps needed to address the land use practices that led to it. Climate change is a more difficult problem, as it is an international issue and requires us all to make the changes in our lifestyles to address it. It is also more difficult as political leadership of the caliber of Franklin Roosevelt is nowhere apparent.
A draft of the National Climate Assessment describing the changes that have occurred, and will occur, was issued this month and is now available for public comment. The executive summary of this report states:
“Climate change is already affecting the American people. Certain types of weather events have become more frequent and/or intense, including heat waves, heavy downpours, and, in some regions, floods and droughts. Sea level is rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, and glaciers and arctic seas ice are melting. These changes are part of the pattern of global climate change, which is primarily driven by human activity…..Evidence for climate change abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans…..U.S. temperatures will continue to rise, with the next few decades projected to see another 2⁰F to 4⁰ F of warming in most areas.”
One of the most dramatic and well-documented changes that has occurred is in the extent of decline of summer sea ice in the Arctic. Satellite photos show that the amount of ice that has disappeared is equivalent to about half of the area of the Continental US. This loss dooms not only polar bears and other arctic animals, but results in changes in weather patterns right here in Montana.
Another dramatic change is the world-wide increase in sea level of about 8 inches over the last century. The National Climate Assessment projects that sea level will rise by another 1 to 6 feet during this century. This will affect us here in Montana in many ways, including the flooding of nearly 5 million Americans who now live within four feel of the local high-tide level. These people will need somewhere to escape to and Montana will look pretty secure to them.
It is frequently said that it is too expensive to address the root causes of climate change, which is the burning of fossil fuels. However, unless we address the problem of human-caused additions of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, our burning of fossil fuels will become dwarfed by the magnitude of greenhouse gases added naturally to the atmosphere by the melting of the permafrost and loss of CO2-absorbing capacity by the world’s oceans. The costs of continuing to ignore the root causes of climate change now will seem like a bargain foregone to our children and grandchildren who will have to pay much higher costs in the future. We already saw this with the incredible damage caused by Hurricane Sandy last year where estimates of damage exceed $65 billion.
I urge you to read the National Climate Assessment, to comment on it, and to become political and personal activists to assure the future health of the planet on which human society depends.
Sterling Miller writes for the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula.

Carl Graham Commentary: “Your government at your fingertips”

Why on earth is it easier to download descriptions of a Martian soil sample than it is to find out how much the Montana Department of Whatever spent on lawn care last year? The Montana Constitution guarantees us almost unlimited access to state financial information, but our state’s laws and technology don’t provide for that access. In effect, you have a right to know what’s being done in your name and how your tax dollars are being spent, but no practical way of finding out.

I have a lot of experience in this area. My organization has made countless records requests and even successfully sued the state for access to actual spending data. The overwhelming impression is that, while we have a right to public information, we don’t have a reasonable means of accessing it.

As our state government has increased in size and complexity, it hasn’t updated its rules or its technology to keep up with our right to know what it’s up to. Why does that matter? The harder it is for us to keep up the more likely we are to shrug and say things are just too complex for us to do anything about or for the knowledgeable few to game the system. Some folks like that. But it’s not how a participatory democracy should work. Informed citizens make informed decisions. Problem is, we simply can’t stay informed under the current setup in Montana.

It’s one thing to see a budget. That’s easy to find. But it’s quite another thing to see how that budget was executed: who got contracts, what was bought, how many people got hired, and how much was spent on any of those things? Article II Section 9 of Montana’s Constitution guarantees your right to know all that. But you don’t have a practical means of exercising that right. Sure, you can spend hours and hours surfing web sites from agency to agency and maybe track down some pieces of the puzzle. But you’re not likely to find information even as basic as what you have in your own checkbook.

Or you could make a written request to an agency or office asking for specific data. If you know where to ask, and if you ask for the right thing, and if they have a document that precisely matches your request, and if they don’t force you to travel to their office during normal business hours to make copies, you may end up happy with the result. But probably not.

And is that the best we can do in the Information Age?

I can find and buy a hydraulic cylinder for a Meyer’s sixty inch snowplow from my living room in ten minutes and with a half dozen mouse clicks. Why can’t I just as easily see how much was spent and who it went to for a snow blower the state just bought? It’s not a question of inventing something new. It’s a question of harnessing current technology in a way that makes our government more transparent and accessible. And Montana is one of only five states in the nation that hasn’t at least made an attempt to allow its citizens easy online access to their records.

This isn’t a left or right issue. U.S. PIRG, hardly a bastion of right wing ideology, released a transparency scorecard in 2012 describing state government efforts to put their spending online. Montana ranked second to last with a score of seven – that’s 07 – out of a hundred. Texas scored highest with a 98. That’s pitiful. Our state officials should be ashamed that they have failed in their basic duty to let taxpayers know how their hard earned money is being spent. And quite frankly our taxpayers should be ashamed that they haven’t demanded more accountability from their employees.

So why haven’t we done this? The only argument against putting the state checkbook online is the cost, and it’s a bogus one.

Spending websites have been done to varying degrees by the federal government and 45 states. Average implementation costs have been in the low hundreds of thousands and operating costs in the low tens of thousands of dollars across the board, with most much lower than even that. Even the federal site was only $600,000. This is a pittance compared to the benefits provided to taxpayers, legislators and even state agencies in running an accountable and transparent government.

Senator Taylor Brown has a bill draft out there that would create just such a site in Montana and bring us into the 21st century. It’s LC1316 and you should take a look at it if you think knowing where your money goes is important.

Imagine tracking a dollar out of your wallet from the time it goes into government’s coffers until it’s spent: the revenue source, appropriation, agency, program, contract, recipient, and anything else that dollar touches. That’s true transparency and openness that will let people engage with their government and hold it accountable. The technology is cheap and readily available. Almost every other state has done it. The mandate is in our state Constitution. What’s missing is the political will to make it happen. Tell your elected representatives that you want Montana’s government to be as transparent to you as you are to it.