Mary Sheehy Moe Commentary: “Missoula College: A Cinderella Story

Well, a new legislature has convened, and for the fourth straight session, Missoula’s two-year college will be pleading with legislators for a new facility. For the last decade, the facility that began as a vo-tech and was recently re-christened Missoula College of the University of Montana has been bursting at the seams. Constructed in the late ‘60s for a student body of 700, Missoula College now enrolls roughly 2500 students. The College’s programs have grown from the strictly occupational to the full array of community college offerings – workforce programs, transfer degrees, developmental coursework, dual enrollment classeses for high school students, and community outreach.

It hasn’t been easy. Like Montana’s other university system two-year colleges, Missoula College has fought the vo-tech stereotype for years – the local perception that it’s a last resort for people who – well, just aren’t “college material.” Although its tuition is much lower than the university’s, its class sizes generally much smaller, and its student-centeredness more historic, for many years Missoula College was Missoula’s best-kept higher education secret.

That’s pretty much in the past now. But unlike most of the other two-year colleges, Missoula College has had no significant facilities improvements since it was built. In 2005 and 2007, the investments the legislature made in facilities in Great Falls, Billings, and Helena gave those colleges a much-needed makeover. Now high school kids are wowed when they visit those beautiful campuses for career days or dual enrollment courses. Now businesses cite their state-of-the-art facilities as a major factor in why they choose to locate in those communities.

Not Missoula College. Like Cinderella, for over 8 years she’s had to watch her step-sisters go to the ball and hope that someday her prince will come. Enrollments at Missoula College have shown the highest and steadiest increases of the former vo-techs. Sought-after programs have waiting lists of students clamoring to get in. To provide more space, construction students have built “temporary” trailers for classrooms and faculty offices … certainly not the kind of thing that wows students or industry.

But this isn’t about cosmetics. It’s about the quality of learning – and about the quality of the degree. Twenty years ago, I taught in Helena’s two-year college in trailers they called temporary — though they’d been there for years. In the winter, my students were so cold they wore their coats in class – and so did I. Forget state-of-the-art technology. Our focus on technology was putting the right amount of snow on the thermostat to kick the heat up. That’s the kind of experience Missoula College is facing now – or soon will be.

Then there’s the splintering of the campus, with the inconvenience to faculty and students traveling all over town requires. As just one example, healthcare jobs in Montana pay extremely well for graduates with two-year degrees. All healthcare programs require science courses with labs. Not possible at Missoula College. Students and faculty traipse around town, depending on the College’s gracious partners throughout the community to provide the lab experiences they need. But it may not be enough. All healthcare programs also require professional accreditation. This hop-a-freight approach to programming threatens accreditation, and without that, students’ degrees have little value.

Space matters. This college matters. Graduates from two-year colleges find good jobs with good wages right in their communities. Other graduates lateral over to four-year colleges and because of what they’ve saved on two-year college tuition, they complete a bachelor’s degree much more affordably. Local businesses prosper by having their two-year-college provide training customized to tap their potential. Although Missoula College is attempting to do all that for the community it serves, in its present facility, the strain is taking its toll.

The price tag for a new facility for Missoula College is hefty – $47 million. Part of the reason it’s that high is that the college will be the first facility on UM’s south campus, so that price tag includes laying the infrastructure for future growth. Yeah, that’s a lot of dollars – but making the investment in Missoula College makes a lot of sense. In a legislative session where the mantra is jobs-jobs-jobs, this kind of investment will ensure jobs in Missoula and Ravalli counties, perhaps the most populous area of the state, for decades to come.
It’s time for Missoula to stop spatting about golf and get serious about the sub-par facilities of the college whose historic and continuing reason for being is serving that community and region. It’s crucially important that you people in Missoula and Ravalli counties tell your legislators to support HB 14, the bonding bill for Missoula College. And because 700 Missoula College students come from all across the state, no matter where you live in Montana, you should be telling your legislators the same thing. It’s time to get this Cinderella out of the ashes and into the 21st century.


Tom Power Commentary: “From One Manufactured Fiscal Crisis to Another”

Many of the nation’s newspaper cartoonists have done a good job of making fun of the sighs of relief we are all supposed to have breathed when Congress and the President settled the “fiscal cliff” crisis on New Year’s Day.
Given that the “fiscal cliff” was manufactured by Congress as part of a temporary fix in the earlier 2011 stalemate over raising the federal debt ceiling, it was obvious that the same fiscal crisis was going to reemerge in early 2013 when that debt ceiling would have to be raised again.
If the House Republicans cannot get their way in the upcoming repeat performance of the debt ceiling battle, they again plan a suicide-bomber-approach to fiscal policy, namely threatening to force a purposeful but completely unnecessary default by the United States on its financial obligations. Given that the U.S. dollar and U.S. Treasury securities are the financial securities of choice that the rest of the world uses to store its wealth, what the Republicans are threatening is nothing short of a worldwide financial collapse.
What is important to understand is that the American dollar and U.S. Treasury bonds are threatened by no one but the Republicans in the House of Representatives. Despite the fact that the Great Recession originated in the United States, as it spread around the world, investors turned to the dollar and U.S. Treasury bonds for financial security. That was the safest place in the world for them to put their money.
The U.S. Constitution is crystal clear that Congress controls the “purse strings” of the federal government. It is only Congress that can mandate federal spending and federal taxation. The President and the rest of the executive branch of the federal government constitutionally then are supposed to implement those spending and taxing mandates.
The Congressional debt ceiling, however, creates a conundrum of conflicting mandates: What is the President supposed to do when Congress orders spending levels that are not covered by mandated taxes. Given that it is Congress that sets the level of spending and the level of taxation, one would think that Congress in establishing that federal budget had quite explicitly authorized whatever deficit or surplus resulted and was also authorizing the U.S. Treasury to facilitate those Congressional spending decisions.
But Congress has added a conflicting mandate: It has ordered the Executive Branch to spend and tax in a way that creates a deficit but has also ordered the Treasury to not facilitate that spending by either expanding the money supply or borrowing money. Thus the Executive Branch has to choose which of these Congressional mandates it should violate since it cannot spend the way Congress has ordered and manage the nation’s currency and debt as Congress has ordered. The President would have to violate one Congressional mandate or another no matter what he decided to do.
Such contradictory legislation might appear to make no sense. But there is political sense to it: It is a political maneuver that seeks to cut federal spending without Congress taking responsibility for specifying what spending should be cut. That allows members of Congress to avoid going on record cutting specific popular spending programs while trying, instead, to force the President to do exactly that.
We are back to the fiscal cliff of steep government spending cuts that may undermine our slow economic recovery from the Great Recession or, alternatively, force the U.S. Treasury to default on U.S. financial obligations for the first time in the nation’s history, possibly triggering a worldwide financial panic and collapse.
What the Republicans hope to get out of holding the American and world economies hostage in this blackmail scheme is what they call “entitlement reform” but is more accurately an explicit attack on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, and Unemployment Compensation. The Republicans either do not have the votes or do not have the political guts to propose and pass specific reductions in these social safety net programs as well as drastic cuts in almost everyone’s favorite federal program. Given that they cannot accomplish what they want using the democratic legislative process, they have turned, again, to hostage-taking and blackmail.
This is outrageous, dangerous, and unnecessary extra-legal behavior by House Republicans. Since 1960 Congress has acted 78 times to adjust the federal debt limit to allow the U.S. Treasury to meet America’s financial obligations. Most of those adjustments of the debt ceiling were under Republican presidents although 37 percent of them were under Democratic presidents. This is routine government business that has always been approved so that the credit worthiness of the U.S. government was not in question. It should not be in question now either, but House Republicans want to purposely undermine our credit worthiness by keeping the U.S Treasury from meeting the nation’s existing financial obligations. This comes close to threatening the financial sabotage of the U.S. government and the American economy.
Enough is enough. We cannot make progress on any of our nation’s problems while stumbling from one manufactured financial crisis to another. Our economic hostage takers and blackmailers have to be legislatively disarmed so that we can get on with doing America’s business.

Doug Ferrell Commentary: “Wilderness Protection”

I want to talk a little bit today about some encouraging progress and momentum in protecting some of Montana’s precious wild country.
Actually what is especially encouraging goes way beyond how we manage wild country. It includes important progress on how we Montanans can work together on controversial issues and find ways to solve problems together.
At a time when our country is polarized and divided on so many issues, and when our congress is having great difficulty finding common ground and getting its basic work done, it is encouraging to realize that we do have the ability to tackle and solve tough problems.
So what has been happening, and how has it been done?
Right now, two pieces of legislation before congress represent important agreements made by diverse groups of Montanans, many of whom have been historical opponents on land use issues. The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, introduced by Senator Max Baucus, and the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act introduced by Senator Jon Tester were both created by large, inclusive groups. These groups worked to find common ground and craft visionary agreements about better ways to manage some special areas of our public lands. Polls show both bills are supported by over 70% of Montanans, with support crossing party lines and geographical boundaries.
There are a couple of key reasons why these two efforts have been so successful so far. One is that they started with modest goals. In the case of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, ranchers, landowners, sportsmen and conservationists all agreed on a general goal of keeping this marvelous area pretty much the way it is today. The present mix of land uses supports world class wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities, and traditional ranching and outfitting industries. The agreement generally protects these existing land uses into the future. In the case of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which covers mostly forest land, the goal was to provide for active forest management and timber harvesting, permanent designations for motorized recreation, and wilderness protection for some of Montana’s premier wild country. These goals are modest and reasonable, and they represent a step forward from the gridlock and conflict over public land management that we have experienced for too long.
The second reason for our success is that the diverse groups committed to understanding and respecting each other’s values and goals, and then committed to actively support each other’s goals, whenever they were not in conflict with ours. Yes, we found we had a lot more in common than we thought, and we found some really great opportunities to support each other and get things done. What a great experience this has been. Along the way we have gotten a chance to meet some damn fine people.
As a wilderness advocate, I am thrilled that we now have a good chance to protect some of our remaining, magnificent wild country, in places like the Sapphires, the West Big Hole, the Snowcrest, and the Pioneer Mountains, plus additions to the Scapegoat, the Mission Mountains, and the great Bob Marshall Wilderness. These are treasured places that we hope to protect for future generations to use and enjoy in their present wild and natural condition. Now, we just hope we can get these bills through congress. Let’s get it done!
The 5000 members of the Montana Wilderness Association are proud to be part of a new day in working together to get things done. One where our treasured public lands bring us together to not only improve land management, but one where we as Montanans sit down together, find common ground, and make decisions that strengthen our communities.
I want to invite anyone hearing this message to go to the web and join MWA, and help support our work – work which is inspiring, challenging, and deeply rewarding.

Doug Ferrell is the President of the Montana Wilderness Association.

Carl Graham Commentary: “The 2013 Legislative Docket”

With the 2013 legislative session about to begin I thought it might be useful to highlight some of the important issues we could see coming out of Helena over the next few months. Montana is fairly unique in that we still enjoy a true citizen legislature and, regardless of what we may think of some them individually or even in their various groupings, our legislators represent one of the last bastions of true public service, giving much more than they get out of the of process. We should thank them for that, even the ones with whom we disagree.
So, what are they going to be talking about? Well, much of what you’re going to hear in the media between now and next April will be spectacular examples of superfluous issues because that’s what makes news. The hard work and hard issues will be left to the back pages because, well, they’re hard. They’re hard to explain, hard to understand, and hard to get people excited about. But some of these issues will drive future Montanans’ ability to live, work and play here, and they deserve more than passing references on opinion pages or superficial treatment under spectacular headlines.
So let’s look at a few of them.
State Employee Pay: Montana’s public employees are not overpaid. In fact too many of them are underpaid. But they do enjoy benefit packages and job security that our private sector workers can only dream of. This simply isn’t sustainable. At some point private sector workers will see their state employee neighbors’ immunity from the business cycle as grossly unfair, especially when they’re making sacrifices to foot the bill. This is a tinder box that will only burn hotter the longer we add fuel without significant reform, especially in the area of pensions.
Public Pensions: Montana’s pension systems are underfunded to the tune of nearly $4 billion by the state’s accounting, and by closer to $10 billion using real-world accounting standards that wouldn’t land a private sector employer in jail. The state understates this liability by assuming, for example, a 7.75% return on investment while actual returns over the latest ten year period were under 5%. Everyone’s goal is, or should be, to preserve the promises we’ve made to our pensioners. But that outcome becomes less and less likely the longer we wait to reform the system in ways that make it both sustainable and fair to Montanan’s taxpayers.
Labor Reform: It’s not likely we’ll see much in this area because a GOP-led legislature and union-backed governor aren’t likely to find common ground. But if we care about growing jobs, it would be irresponsible to not demand a debate about our labor environment in at least two areas: right to work and minimum wage. Some simple facts form the parameters. First, we are surrounded by right to work states, and they are all outperforming us economically and demographically. Second, right to work states on average have lower unemployment rates, but also lower wages than states that compel union membership and/or dues. With those simple facts as givens, the remaining arguments mostly revolve around cause and effect and “fairness” issues that are inherently political. So our political leaders should be arguing them. Next, Montana’s minimum wage is significantly higher than the federal level even though our per capita income is among the lowest in the nation. It also increases automatically even with high unemployment rates. Labor is like any other good in that if you raise its price people will buy less of it. We should have a debate over whether we would rather force people, especially the young and poorly educated, onto the public dole or allow them the dignity of earning a living through the increased job opportunities that would be available at even the federal minimum wage level.
Natural Resource Development: Economic development in Montana means responsible natural resource development. It’s what we have, and it’s sustainable because it’s unique to the state. If you want Montana oil or coal or gold or wheat or recreation, you have to pay Montanans to get them. That’s not true of portable industries that can easily relocate. So while we should welcome all industries, we should also be lowering barriers, especially those that come from Washington D.C., that restrict the responsible development of what we have here in abundance.
Education Reform: Montana’s schools are good but have seen static performance at higher per pupil costs for two decades. We’re good at teaching our kids on average, but nobody’s average. Each kid deserves to be taught in a way that maximizes his or her potential, and our current one-size-fits all system simply doesn’t allow us to optimize educational outcomes for each of our kids. We need to catch up to the true education innovators around the country by providing more delivery options that address the needs and aspirations of each student, and not just accept that they do Okay on average.
What Should Government Do vs. What Can Government Do? Finally, in times of abundance it’s easy to say government should do something because government can do something. Political philosophy aside, that simply doesn’t work when taxpayers are struggling to make ends meet and can’t afford an ever expanding state. Just because government can do something doesn’t mean that it should. Whether for fiscal or philosophical or moral reasons, we as citizens will be forced to take more responsibility for our actions, for our livelihoods, and for our happiness as the math catches up and current spending levels become unsustainable. The sooner our public servants in Helena acknowledge that fact and begin to grapple with its implications the easier their decisions will be, and the better our lives will be.

Clark Fork River cleanup impacting local ranchers

Superfund clean-up along the upper reaches of the Clark Fork River is set to begin this winter. In tonight’s feature story, reporter Allison Mills looks into how the clean-up will impact ranchers and how the agencies plan to tackle cleaning up one of the nation’s largest Superfund sites:

Dr. Tom Roberts Commentary: “Health vs. Health Care”

In January of this year, the Eastman Kodak Company filed for bankruptcy after 131 years of business. It’s been suggested that Kodak thought they were in the film and chemical industry, when they were really in the business of creating images. When a better way to create these images came along they hadn’t changed and so went out of business.
We’re just beginning to recognize that we have created a similar situation with the business of health. Especially in the United States, we’ve focused on providing health care. What we should be looking for though, is not more and more expensive health care. What we really want and need is our health.
If health care did in fact give us health, then it would be worth continuing our substantial and ongoing investments. What’s becoming more and more apparent though is that health care is only responsible for about 10% of our overall health status. The rest is determined not by the doctor, but by many other factors including our environment, our genetics, our social status and choices we make about lifestyle.
70% of the deaths in the United States and 75% of our medical spending is related to chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and to some extent cancer. Social inequalities have been shown to be much more predictive of illness, disability and death than any amount of health care. Even developing countries are seeing a rising epidemic of chronic disease which now overshadows the old killers of acute infections and injuries. In an aging society, chronic illness becomes the overwhelming factor that determines health and drives health care spending.
Yet, our model of health care remains stuck in the early 20th century when curing acute illness in a predominantly young population was the goal of medical care. We continue to pay mainly for sick visits within our health care system. Only recently have we begun to recognize that what we really should be paying for is prevention and effective management of chronic disease. We pay very high prices to cardiologists who intervene when someone has a heart attack and yet, even now, we fail to pay or pay very poorly for systems of care that deal with the underlying causes of that heart attack.
Medical students today recognize that primary care doctors earn dramatically lower pay than specialists. They tend to work longer hours and their status is lower. It’s no wonder that less than 7% of these graduating students choose careers in primary care. Our entire system is oriented to acute interventions, after disease is already established. Even within primary care offices, we are just now at the very beginning of understanding what we need to do to effectively manage diabetes and hypertension over the long haul, much less how to effectively deal with our current epidemics of obesity, smoking, and a sedentary society. Spending on public health is less than 1% of the total medical budget. And yet we know that effective interventions at this level are the best investment for improved population health.
Meanwhile we are acutely aware that parts of our country which spend more money on the health care industry do not have healthier people. The variability in spending can be as much as 3 times higher in some areas than others, without any noticeable effect on population health or quality of life.
The only reasonable conclusion we can come to is that much of our $2.5 trillion per year spending on health care is unnecessary. It pays for very expensive medical care, much of which we don’t need. That spending instead should be redirected in ways that support prevention and health maintenance.
Yet, despite what we know, this approach comes up against powerful obstacles. Not the least of which is our own social expectations of instant cure and relief of symptoms. The newest drug or surgical intervention is preferred over a careful, steady, and thoughtful approach to diet, exercise, mental health and other prevention activities.
Perhaps eventually, we will come to understand and reward a healthy, community based approach to wellness. Given our current directions, that may still be a long time coming. When and if it does, perhaps like Kodak, our current focus on acute disease treatment rather than health will become a thing of the past.
“What Business Are We In? The Emergence of Health as the Business of Health Care” By Ash and Volpp in The New England Journal of Medicine, September 6, 2012, page 888-9 and
“From Sick Care to Health Care- Reengineering Prevention into the US System” by Marvasti and Stafford in The New England Journal of Medicine, same issue, page 889-91

Mark Hanson Commentary: “Watch Your Language”

One of the most important aspects of considering a moral or political issue is often scarcely noticed. It has to do with the words chosen to define it. For example, when we talk about doctors helping patients die, do we call it physician-assisted suicide, or physician-aid-in dying? Each term suggests a different set of values. Selecting the terms we use to describe an issue is called framing, and the dominance of certain frames in our society—and our lack of attention to them—is a worrisome ethical issue in its own right.

Linguistics professor George Lakoff describes framing this way. Every thought you have activates neural circuits in your brain that become fixed over time. Up to 98 percent of our thoughts become automatic, and many exist in what we call “frames,” which structure our understanding of life. You associate the term ‘hospital,’ for example, with a frame that includes doctors, nurses, rooms, and so on. Frames are also hierarchical, meaning that one must understand certain things first before one can understand others. Here is where politics and morality come together, Lakoff claims, because the highest frames in politics are the moral values, like freedom and fairness, to which political debates refer.

Framing implies that the ways in which we describe political issues are not morally neutral, because certain values will be privileged over others. Using terms favored by conservatives reinforces conservative frames and therefore conservative values. Likewise for progressive terms. The more you use them, Lakoff claims, the more they seem like just common sense, and that’s why we have to be careful.

Current coverage of the so-called fiscal cliff issue provides an important window into how certain values have become dominant in our public discourse. Conservatives like to talk about “tax relief” and “cutting spending” for “entitlements.” Lakoff suggests that the term “relief” is associated with easing afflictions, so if you continually use the term ‘tax-relief,’ you reinforce the idea that taxes should always be reduced. Under President Eisenhower, the top tax rate was over 90 percent. Under Nixon, it was 70 percent. With George W. Bush, it was 35 percent. And people still want relief.

The term ‘government spending’ implies money spent on things that are unnecessary. The term ‘entitlements’ reflects Governor Romney’s sentiment that 47 percent of Americans feel entitled to government support, as if something is owed to them for nothing.

But what if we used different frames? Columnist Tom Friedman suggests that instead of tax cuts we should say service cuts, because services—think roads, schools, and security—are what we cut when we cut taxes. Alternatively, instead of speaking of raising taxes on the wealthy, President Obama speaks of fairness, and asking people to give something back—an entirely different frame.

Rather than talk about government spending, President Obama talks about investments, in education or infrastructure. And the term ‘entitlements,’ Lakoff points out, ignores the fact that people have often earned benefits through contributions from wages.

Despite differences in frames, it is worth noting that political leaders rarely talk about cutting the defense budget. But note that we call it defense, rather than military, because the frame ‘defense’ implies security rather than waging war.

Lakoff argues that conservatives have largely won the battle of frames, a conclusion supported perhaps by noting how regularly Democrats like Max Baucus use the term ‘tax relief.’ It is also important to note, however, just how many important moral issues are framed with economic terms. Author Jack Turner argues that in the absence of a larger shared vision of a good society, we often turn to money as a common value and thus frame issues economically. In Montana, we might especially notice how discourse about the natural world frames nature largely in terms of “resources.” Note how Senator Tester’s bill is titled “The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act,” even though it also preserves wilderness.

We should therefore continually ask ourselves two questions in matters of ethics and politics: First, whose interests are most served by the way an issue is framed, and second, does that frame represent our best values for thinking about that issue? What if we recast the fiscal cliff debate as being primarily about service cuts and social justice, rather than tax relief and entitlement spending? What if we followed Turner’s recommendation to refuse to use the language of economics when talking about issues that should have little to do with money? As Lakoff reminds us, the more we use this language, the more it becomes fixed in our brains—literally.

The dominant ways of framing debates in our country today favor the wealthy and the powerful. Achieving a measure of a better society and truer democracy must begin with our own awareness of how the issues we face are framed and then, as Lakoff suggests, substituting frames in our own speech that represent the higher values we should aspire to for ourselves and for our society.

Mark Hanson writes as a guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.