Daily Montanan’s biggest stories of 2021

Year marked by historic legislation, political controversy, pandemic

By: - January 1, 2022 8:55 am

A group of students holding signs in a rally for equal and human rights at the Montana State Capitol in Helena on March 15, 2021 (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan).

The Daily Montanan started reporting in the first week of January, and who knew as we were just getting started that Jan. 6 would become part of everyone’s vocabulary? As the Daily Montanan began, we covered the opening of the Legislature, a new governor, attorney general, secretary of state and auditor – completing a historic sweep of state offices to be held by Republicans.

As the year continued, we saw COVID-19 vaccines come and the delta variant give way to the omicron variant. What began as a hopeful moment that life would return to normal instead gave way to another rise in infections.

Historic legislation, political controversy, a pandemic and climate change were all themes of 2021. Here are our staff’s selection of the biggest stories the Daily Montanan covered during its inaugural year.

The judiciary vs. the legislature vs. the executive branch

Photo illustration (Photo illustration via Pxfuel | Public domain).

At one point, all three branches of state government were pitted against each as the Legislature tried to subpoena emails from the state’s top court administrator, while the executive branch provided thousands of documents to lawmakers. Later, the Supreme Court ruled that the subpoenas were invalid and ordered the emails returned, but not before a bitter exchange of letters and opinions, including one in which Attorney General Austin Knudsen told the high court that their ruling didn’t apply to his office.

Currently, the emails are still in the possession of the Legislature as Knudsen has appealed to the United States Supreme Court to review the case, the first of its kind in Montana.

St. Peter’s feuds with the Attorney General 

Attorney General Knudsen and his top deputy warned St. Peter’s Hospital Health in Helena of possible legal action stemming from claims made by a COVID-19 patient’s family member in October that the hospital refused to administer a  pair of unapproved treatments for the virus prescribed by an outside doctor.

Along with Knudsen and Deputy Attorney General Kris Hansen, Public Service Commissioner Jennifer Fielder, a former state senator, left a message with the hospital reiterating the claims of mistreatment and suggesting that “if this doesn’t turn out well there will be a suit.”

After the Independent Record broke the story, Democrats called for an investigation by Special Counsel Abra Belke, a former Senate GOP chief of staff. The report outlined in detail the series of incidents surrounding the controversy and related communications, but it made no specific findings of law.

In response to the report, officials at St. Peter’s reasserted claims they first made in October that “providers and care team members were threatened and harassed when they refused to administer treatments for COVID-19 that are not authorized, clinically approved, or within the guidelines established by the FDA and the CDC.”

House Bill 702 outlaws vaccine mandates

A vial of COVID vaccine (Illustration by Carlos M. Vazquez II via Flickr.com | CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Even though some states have sought to copy or pass similar legislation, Montana was the first state to not only make vaccine mandates illegal, but also rule out measures that include mandatory masking or vaccine passports for the unvaccinated.

House Bill 702, passed by the Legislature, was a sweeping bill that not only made vaccine requirement for COVID-19 unlawful, but requirements for other vaccinations, like measles or polio, optional. Even though the bill carved out exceptions for public school districts, it did not make exceptions for hospitals, healthcare centers or doctor’s offices, making it difficult for those institutions to stop the spread of the pandemic, without requiring masks for everyone, regardless.

The bill has also caused confusion as President Joe Biden has tried to tie federal funding for different programs to vaccine requirements, something that will likely be decided by courts in 2022.

Guns can be nearly everywhere … except campus

Montanans can carry concealed firearms without a permit in most places in the state with the passage of House Bill 102. The bill aimed to open the Montana University System to guns, with some limitations, but in a lawsuit, the Montana Board of Regents argued the state Constitution puts the power to oversee public campuses squarely in their hands.

In November, a Lewis and Clark District Court judge agreed with the Regents and issued a permanent injunction on the parts of the legislation that overstep their authority.

Many students expressed relief, but the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Seth Berglee, said the order gives the Regents as much power as a fourth branch of government.

The case isn’t over. The Montana Attorney General has filed an appeal with the Montana Supreme Court, where it’s pending.

UM Law School deans step down, campus handles other gender equity disputes

Demonstrators protest  during a walkout at the University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

A dean recruitment is under way at the University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law following reports the former dean and an associate dean discouraged students from taking Title IX complaints, including reports of sexual harassment and assault, to the UM Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX. Paul Kirgis stepped down as dean in October but remains a tenured faculty member. UM said he will not be teaching classes spring semester. Sally Weaver is no longer serving as associate dean but remains an adjunct instructor and director of student success until her contract ends in May.

Most of the allegations involved a law student and then-mayoral candidate, Jacob Elder, who denied the claims. Elder lost the mayor’s race in November to incumbent John Engen, who gets sworn into his fifth term in January.

UM faces other high profile disputes related to gender equity, including a possible class-action employee gender discrimination lawsuit and separate sex discrimination complaint filed by former basketball Coach Shannon Schweyen.

Transgender laws proliferate

The regulation of transgender rights in Montana played out during the 2021 legislative session and unfolded around three major pieces of legislation: House Bills 112 and 427 and Senate Bill 280. Respectively, the bills ban transgender women from participating in K-16 sports, limit the type of healthcare transgender youth can recieve and require a court order to change the gender designation on a birth certificate.

The legality of HB 112 and SB280 are being tested in Montana courts via two lawsuits, with both cases pending.

Elsie Arntzen vs. Public Education

Expressing “no confidence” in her leadership, Montana’s AA superintendents all signed a letter demanding Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen stop undercutting public education and start addressing the “serious deficiencies” she’s created that are affecting schools. Arntzen, a Republican, said she took their concerns humbly and seriously but also said she believed the letter from 12 superintendents was politically motivated.

Earlier, four county superintendents had signed an open letter to Montana citizens describing problems with the Office of Public Instruction, including ones stemming from a 90 percent turnover rate during Arntzen’s tenure.

In an email this week, OPI said Arntzen reached out to the superintendents of the two largest districts the same day she received the letter. Additionally, OPI noted Arntzen has reserved Jan. 14 for a meeting with all of the superintendents, as one district leader requested following Arntzen’s own invitation to meet, and she awaits their confirmation.

Wildfires burn in winter

Provided by the Fergus County Sheriff’s Office for the Daily Montanan.

An unprecedented December wildfire ripped through the community of Denton in Fergus County, destroying homes and other structures. Fire officials and law enforcement officers said they were thankful no lives were lost.

The U.S. Drought Monitor’s map released Friday showed most of Montana remains in extreme drought, and a portion is in exceptional drought. A fire ecologist from the University of Montana said record low fuel moisture contributed to the Denton fire, and similar fires are likely in the future with a lengthening fire season. In fact, as 2021 gave way to 2022, thousands of residents between Denver and Boulder, Colorado were returning after catastrophic fires that destroyed hundreds of homes.

“As that pattern continues, these types of events will become more and more common,” said UM’s Philip Higuera following the Denton blaze.

This year, other destructive wildfires included the 2700 fire on Flathead Lake, the Robertson Draw fire near Red Lodge, and the Richard Spring blaze on the Northern Cheyenne reservation. Gov. Greg Gianforte secured a major disaster declaration for Montana as a result of the damage caused to the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and Rosebud County communities.

Population growth means second House seat, redistricting

A growing population has afforded Montana a golden opportunity for increased political representation in the form of a second U.S. House seat. Montana’s new district was announced following the release of 2020 U.S. Census data earlier this year, kicking off months of political jostling in the state’s nonpartisan Districting and Apportionment Commission over the size, shape and alignment of the two districts. Advocates, party officials, tribal leaders, and hundreds of citizens weighed in.

Republicans, generally speaking, wanted a clean east-west split down the middle of the state; Democrats honed in on competitiveness, seeking to group together the state’s population centers to create a winnable district after years of GOP representation in Congress.

Ultimately, the decision came down to the commission’s Supreme Court-appointed chair, a tribal attorney and law professor named Maylinn Smith. She broke a tie between the commission’s four partisan appointees, approving a map that put Lewis and Clark and Park counties in a deep-red eastern district, but left fast-growing and liberal leaning Gallatin County in a less solidly Republican western district.

Still, the commission’s work isn’t finished: Over the next year, it will work to draw new versions of Montana’s 150 state House and Senate districts, which will come into effect with the 2024 election. And before it does that, it still needs to work out some policy changes, such as reallocating incarcerated people to districts where they last lived before going to prison. Either way, the forthcoming process will likely prove to be just as involved and political as the preceding one, albeit on a more granular level. 

Bids for Congress announced

The announcement of Montana’s new U.S. House district almost immediately spurred campaign announcements from a series of politicians on both sides of the aisle, especially for Democrats, who see the best opportunity in decades to represent the state in Congress.

In the western district, the Democratic primary is largely among Cora Neumann, Monica Tranel and former legislator Tom Winter. State Rep. Laurie Bishop announced a campaign but dropped out earlier in the year. Former Congressman and Trump official Ryan Zinke has emerged as the likely frontrunner on the Republican side.

In the East, incumbent Rep. Matt Rosendale will be looking to maintain a seat in Congress, while Red Lodge author Jack Ballard has entered the fray on the Democratic side. 

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