The Daily Montanan’s top 10 stories of 2022

Housing, marijuana and GOP supermajority top the list

By: - December 27, 2022 4:07 pm

The interior of the Montana state capitol in Helena, which was completed in 1899, 10 years after the state was admitted to the union. (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan.)

2022 … it’s been … real.

The year kicked off with legal adult marijuana use in Montana, and we Montanans waged court battles over other products of the 2021 legislature, laws related to voting, wolves and vaccines.

With the Covid-19 vaccine, drug therapies and boosters widely available, many had hoped the new year would be a return to some normalcy, a return to pre-pandemic times. Depending on how you look at it, that happened or it didn’t. For example, Covid was supposed to be over, and we were told that the virus would move from “pandemic” to “endemic.” And while that happened, the novel coronavirus continues to claim thousands of lives. Meanwhile, RSV and influenza have come roaring back, creating a phrase that will likely continue through 2023, a “tripledemic.”

As for politics, Montana continued to return strong Republican majorities to local and state offices, including a Supermajority to the legislature, while the country went a more moderate direction. Despite former President Donald J. Trump deciding to begin a bid for the White House in 2024, his brand has been badly – maybe irretrievably – damaged with seized documents from Mar-a-Lago and a Congressional investigation that could lead to criminal charges.

Montanans faced their own problems, with dangerously low staffing at the prison, an out-of-compliance state hospital sanctioned by the feds, and arguments over social issues, such as whether drag queens should read books to kids. (Montanans largely rallied around the queens.)

The state and country have continued to grapple with inflation and rising prices, and employers continue to struggle to find workers. Climate change has marched on, unabated, as hurricanes have rocked the South. In the Treasure State, the summer brought historic flooding to Yellowstone National Park and surrounding communities, albeit no lives lost. Now, however, we’re still shaking off the effects of a “bomb cyclone” that sent the mercury plummeting so low that not even the temperature gauges could measure that type of cold.

The Daily Montanan has selected 10 stories the staff felt were among the biggest issues or news stories of the year. Granted, this exercise is always a matter of judgment and therefore, open to debate.

Here, without ranking, are what we believe to be 10 of the most impactful stories of the year:

Housing woes continue

As prices continue to rise on everything, maybe nothing has been impacted more than housing. While the median house prices in Bozeman approached $1 million, other urban areas of Montana saw prices surge, along with interest rates, and inventory plummet. This had a devastating impact on renters, too.

Housing experts: ‘Bonkers’ housing market, interest rates hurting Montanans’ buying power

For this first time, Montana has a Supermajority in the Legislature

For the past decade or more, Montana has become “less purple” – that is, less bipartisan. A conservative wave, ushered in part by former President Donald J. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” philosophy, resonated deeply in Montana. Montanans sent Republican legislators to Washington, D.C., and Helena in huge numbers, but none more profoundly so than when the GOP achieved a “supermajority” – veto proof – in the Legislature for the upcoming 2023  session.

Montana Legislature will have a Republican supermajority and PSC will remain all GOP

Ryan Zinke returns to Washington, D.C.

Former Secretary of The Interior Ryan Zinke returned to Treasure State politics after a stint as a cabinet member under Trump. The former state lawmaker, Navy SEAL and Republican member of Congress regained a place in the U.S. House, although this time, it’s representing the western part of the state after Montana received another House seat in the latest Congressional reapportionment.

Republican Ryan Zinke wins U.S. House seat in Montana’s new western district

Nearly a dozen nursing homes close

After the pandemic funding ran out, nursing homes across the state started warning that the increased cost of staffing, which included pay rates for nurses tripling, meant they could no longer survive on Montana’s anemic reimbursement rate and might start closing. In 2022, 11 nursing homes announced that they would be closing, sending the remaining residents sometimes hundreds of miles away from the communities they knew as home. Meanwhile, the Gianforte administration said that a failed business model and new trends in aging and capacity were to blame.

Montana nursing homes continue closing, residents, families stressed

Judge finds unconstitutional three laws alleged to trample on voting rights

Despite debunked election conspiracy theories in 2020, conservative Montana lawmakers jumped to change voting laws in 2021, including Election Day registration, identification requirements and a move to ban ballot collectors. They argued that changes were necessary to protect the integrity of Montana’s elections. The items landed in court, and after a two-week trial, a Yellowstone County judge found three bills to be unconstitutional. The Montana Secretary of State has appealed that ruling to the Montana Supreme Court.

Judge strikes down three Montana voting laws as unconstitutional

LR-131, ‘Born Alive Act’ fails

Legislative Referendum 131, known as the “Born Alive Act,” purported to require medical abortion providers to save a fetus at the time of the procedure – something medical providers said is already enshrined in law. The medical community formed strong opposition to the measure saying it would lead to poor health care and rob already stressed and grieving parents from a precious few moments spent with infants whose survival was impossible. Montana voters solidly defeated the bill, and at least one poll shows most Treasure State residents appear to want abortion to remain legal.

‘Born alive’ Act fails to gain support in Montana

Recreational marijuana is legal and state coffers fill

Despite fears of some lawmakers that legalizing marijuana would lead to chaos, crime and a surge of headaches, Montana became one of many states to have legalized pot beyond medicinal use. Even though many conservative lawmakers publicly opposed the notion of legalization, they ultimately capitulated after several votes that showed Montanans were squarely behind the measure. After nearly a year, cannabis dispensaries are legal in many parts of the state, and the revenue from taxation has filled state coffers.

Montana tax revenue from weed projected to go up, but wine, beer stay relatively flat

State officials try to fix an ailing state hospital

For years, the state’s hospital in Warm Springs has been a source of violations and stories of abuse. This year, the problems culminated in the federal government cutting off Medicaid funding for the facility. Undeterred, the Gianforte administration has hired consultants, made staffing changes, and it appears that some long-term progress is being made toward ensuring the state’s hospital is reimagined and restructured.

Lawmakers urge DPHHS to actively pursue federal reaccreditation for Montana State Hospital

Historic Yellowstone flooding

An unexpected warm spell that brought both rain and heat in the early part of the year caused historic and devastating floods in Yellowstone National Park, forcing park officials to close most of the park for part of the tourist season. Roads to Gardiner, Montana, were wiped out, blocking a popular entrance to Yellowstone and hurting the tourism industry in places like Gardiner and Cooke City. Officials from the state and federal government rushed resources and power to open the park to tourists, but the complete damage will likely take years to fully restore.

Flooding closes Yellowstone National Park, isolates Gardiner, and evacuates part of Red Lodge

Regents push back on gun policy

When the 2021 Legislature passed a law that made it legal to carry concealed weapons nearly anywhere, lawmakers said that specifically included public college campuses. But the Montana Board of Regents pushed back, asserting that the Constitution gave the board power to govern those campuses without lawmaker interference. That led to a showdown in the courts that wound its way to the Supreme Court, which said the Montana Constitution is clear: The lawmakers cannot usurp the power that properly belongs to the regents.

Montana Supreme Court: Regents can set gun policy on state’s campuses

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