Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Tax fairly

Posted on Wed, Jul 31, 2013 at 2:37 PM

Sen. Max Baucus has taken on the gargantuan task of reforming our nation's tax code. If done right, it could turn out to be the most significant accomplishment of his career. But with well-established special interest groups standing in the way, it might be more likely that we just get more of the same, or worse yet, a bad deal for Montana.

Baucus' decision to start from a "clean slate" differentiates this effort from past attempts at major tax reform. In other words, Baucus' finance committee will begin by completely eliminating the existing tax code, and then rebuild it from the ground up. The idea is to force special interests to justify why certain tax policies, like credits and deductions, should be included moving forward.

The ultimate objective is to reduce tax rates for everyone and make the system far simpler to navigate. That would have positive economic impacts across the board and energize America's recovery.

This clean slate approach makes perfect sense. Our existing tax code is notoriously voluminous and complicated. Each year, American families and businesses spend an estimated six billion hours and $160 billion to complete their taxes. The vast morass of rules, regulations, credits and deductions makes it difficult for anyone to understand.

An unintended result of such a convoluted tax code is that we've made it our nation's policy to treat some individuals and businesses as winners with preferred tax treatment—and others as losers. That's because most tax rules were designed to incentivize certain behaviors, like home ownership or saving for your child's college education. But as any good economist will tell you, when you use government policy to incentivize one behavior, it inevitably results in bad outcomes somewhere else. 

For instance, allowing home mortgage interest deductions has helped millions of Americans achieve home ownership, but it has also incentivized buying bigger, more expensive homes and ultimately driven up the cost of housing for everyone. It also means that we pay higher tax rates, overall, to "pay" for these tax deductions.

Clearly, the more complicated we make the tax code, the more likely it is that we will have these winner vs. loser scenarios. That's why the most important tenets of any tax reform package must be fairness and simplicity. Sticking to these we can produce a flatter, more equal progressive tax structure that everyone can understand.

It sounds so simple, but unfortunately, tax fairness will be very difficult to achieve. There are a myriad of special interest groups who will try to game the system, or worse, use the tax code to create disadvantages for specific industries.

For instance, over the last several years the oil and gas industry has been targeted for unequal tax treatment. The Obama administration and allies in Congress have attempted to single-out energy companies by eliminating certain credits and deductions that are standard for businesses in every other economic sector. 

Such policies run contrary to what most of us consider fair play, but even so they have been very real threats to Montana's energy industry.  And they certainly run contrary to the "clean slate" approach being taken with tax reform.

Nevertheless, it's important for Senator Baucus and his tax reform allies to keep a wary eye out for attempts to leverage the new tax code to create favorable tax treatment, or to punish certain industries as a way to pursue a political agenda.

This is a very big task Sen. Baucus has taken on, and he needs to know that Montana is backing him. Go and weigh in with your comments about what you think should be included in the tax reform package at, and urge Baucus and his colleagues to keep fairness and simplicity central to the reform package.

Sen. Bruce Tutvedt


Montana Senate Taxation Committee


Family values

Posted on Wed, Jul 31, 2013 at 2:34 PM

On a recent afternoon stroll along Higgins, my girlfriend and I passed a couple of folks and their dog, sitting in repose on the sidewalk, with seemingly all of their possessions. Their appearance was disheveled, but their vibe was light and their faces optimistic. Then I noticed their sign, which read, "not rainbow, just hobo." As if that is somehow a positive contrast.

True, the Rainbow gathering has been a hot topic this summer, and it seems at times that popular opinion, as well as articles both in print and online, consider the gathering an unmitigated disaster. In general, the Rainbow Family seems to have garnered a reputation as a rough collection of jobless, homeless, sketchy, vapidly arrogant, drug-addicted, aggressive panhandlers that exude a mysterious sense of entitlement. A blight upon our fair, hardworking society. Well, occasionally I would say that's pretty fair, at least as an assessment of what people often see out here in the cities. However, as someone who has attended 15 Rainbow Gatherings, both regional and "national" (national simply referring to there being one really big one in the states each summer), I can tell you it's quite a bit more complex than that.

For starters, despite various casual media commentary discussing "official dates of the gathering" and the like, no such official dates exist. The Rainbow Family of Living Light, as it is unofficially known, is actually not a group at all. It is a spiritual and social movement, an outgrowth of the well known hippie era of the late '60s and '70s that now, in the minds of the mainstream, dwells in the realm of counter culture. Really, it is just a different culture, a tribal culture, like you might find in other countries or in this one perhaps a hundred years ago. It is not clearly defined by any constructs of organization, such as forest service land use permits or dates. True, the main part of the national gathering is July 1-7, but that is only a temporal guideline. People arrive much earlier than and stay much later than that week. There is no gate, no admission, no money exchanged (except discreetly between individuals), no explicit rules and no judgment of individual behavior (except that which occurs in one's own mind). It is not a festival. It is not an excuse to do acid in the woods with naked people, although that does occur. It is, as is suggested by the name Rainbow, a broad spectrum of opportunities, experiences and energies. It is a chance to create a totally unique version of yourself, if only for a few days or weeks, against the unspoiled canvas of wild meadows and forest. It's a place where kindness really matters, where artistic endeavors are social currency and where fun, love and laughter reverberate amidst the ebb and flow of drums, flutes, sitars and wildflowers. It is a place where saying "I love you" to total strangers before 8 a.m. and meaning it with all your heart is completely normal. It is a place where moments of spiritual transcendence are encouraged. It is a place where you can be whoever you want. No strings. Just the uninhibited dance of life set to the music of the soul. Haters need not apply.

Thomas Schaffnit


Thursday, July 25, 2013

More to the story

Posted on Thu, Jul 25, 2013 at 4:00 AM

The Goodman Group and Hillside Health Care Center would like to respond to a number of items covered in your July 18 article, “Nurses are sick and tired.” Here is our response:

How do you know when someone, despite his or her charm, is misleading you? You check the facts. Unfortunately, the Independent was beguiled by spokespersons for UNITE HERE Local 427 and their histrionic claims.

When your reporter contacted us, we declined to discuss the specifics of our position because we respect our employees and their union representatives and chose to honor the process of contract negotiations, which are continuing. We believe it is in the best interests of all parties to keep talks confidential until contract negotiations conclude or collapse. We avoid airing complicated issues (which are not easily distilled into pithy comments) in the public arena.

However, since the union opted to “talk outside the talks” and that talk resulted in misstatements and incorrect inferences, we are compelled to defend our reputation and set the record straight.

Here are the facts:

• The talks are not a contract dispute, as reported. They are negotiations for a new contract. The former contract initially expired on June 30, 2013 and has been extended.

• The union refused our offer to extend the contract with all existing terms, plus a wage increase at a higher percentage.

• The last wage increase per the former contract was in July 2012; an extension of that would have taken effect July 1, 2013.

• Kari Hoffman was quoted as saying she “hasn’t seen a raise of more than 20 cents an hour in over a year.” Under the former contract, Hoffman received a cost of living and merit raise of $.34 per hour in July 2012, which would have continued under the contract extension. Effective October 2012, she applied and was selected for a position that pays her an additional $1 per hour.

• The story inferred that employees are concerned about how our residents and patients are treated at Hillside Health Care Center. This is not supported in fact. An independently conducted Hillside Employee Satisfaction Survey last April showed more than three out of four employees (78 percent) would recommend Hillside for the care patients receive, judging it at as “good” or “excellent.”

• Union reps claimed that Hillside is “forced to buy or borrow supplies from other facilities.” Correct. At the three local communities managed by The Goodman Group, we do share resources to take advantage of bulk purchasing/shipping, volume pricing and effective allocation of little-used equipment. It is insincere for union spokespersons to misrepresent cost efficiency and purchasing power as miserly.

• The absurd statement from union reps that “the same meals are served to residents for days on end” is easily disproved: Patients have several menu choices every day. Meals are planned in advance and a monthly calendar of daily menu choices is distributed and posted. All long-term care facilities are required by law to provide variety, for nutritional diversity as well as to provide a range of tastes. Patients who request the same, or a few, menu choices every day, do so against our dietary advice. Menus, patients’ individual diets and their dietary requirements are all directed, managed and monitored by Hillside’s registered dietician.

• Union reps’ citing of turnover and an attempt to link it to staffing is deceitful on two counts: 1) Hillside Health Care Center staffing standards exceed the state’s minimum staff requirements. This readily available information on total nursing staff at Hillside is posted daily. Using the last two weeks as an example, state staffing requirements for Hillside are calculated to be 1,495 hours and actual nursing hours paid out were 2,869 hours (nearly double) 2) Turnover has decreased 12 to 15 percent over two years.

This story is potentially injurious to the mutual interest of the parties because our center’s reputation is paramount to our position in the marketplace. The outcome of people taking these statements at face value could potentially result in loss of market share at Hillside. Isn’t this counter to employees’ stake in job security, continuing wage increases and better benefits?

We have a felt need to defend the reputation of our community and the 78 percent of Hillside employees who rate the care they provide our residents as good to excellent. Inferences to the contrary illustrate why we refuse to participate in public dialogue (“he said/she said”) while negotiations are continuing. It is counterproductive outside the meeting room and there is so much “inside baseball” surrounding all the issues, to simplify it colors interpretation of the true facts.

It is not a winning proposition for any of the parties, including the Missoula Independent.

Paul Teagle

Regional Director of Operations

The Goodman Group

Bernice Zimmermann

Executive Director

Hillside Health Care Center

Monday, July 22, 2013

Landowners win

Posted on Mon, Jul 22, 2013 at 11:16 AM

During this year’s legislative session, lawmakers and Gov. Steve Bullock put the interests of landowners ahead of the corporations that condemn property for private, for-profit purposes when they passed House Bill 417, a bill that helps restore some fairness in the eminent domain process. It was sponsored by Rep. Kelly Flynn, R-Townsend.

While Montana’s property owners are eager to build our state’s economy (most are business owners themselves), I believe that the power of eminent domain should only be used for public projects that advance the public good. The process should be fair, and landowners should receive just compensation for the property taken. HB 417 makes the condemnation process more fair by requiring that the entity condemning the property give a landowner a final written offer before initiating condemnation proceedings, preventing bad actors from playing manipulative games with various offers which leave the landowner unsure of where they stand.

There is more work to do to restore balance to our eminent domain laws, but HB 417 was an important start and now a good law.

Tom Reeves


Impossible task

Posted on Mon, Jul 22, 2013 at 11:14 AM

I consider myself a Wilderness enthusiast. I have spent the past four summers working on Wilderness trail crews for the Forest Service, most recently for the Bitterroot National Forest. I am no friend or advocate to motorized or mechanized equipment in our Wilderness, but I find Gary Macfarlane and Friends of the Clearwater opposition to the 45-minute helicopter flight to transport 682 pounds of material to Fred Burr Reservoir very misguided (see “A dam dilemma,” July 11).

The switchbacks and trail to the reservoir is incredibly brushy (you cannot even see the trail), very steep, out sloped and altogether far too narrow for horses. I would advise even the most experienced packer stay away from this trail, let alone make numerous trips on it. I wonder if Macfarlane has hiked this trail recently, or if he has any concept of the amount of time and effort that it takes to maintain and improve wilderness trails. I would say probably not.

Macfarlane points out that “Helicopters are prohibited, horses are not.” True, but the work required to keep trails open for horses in Wilderness is highly labor intensive, costs money, and drastically lagging behind. Even blasting is loud, expensive, and impactful. Where is this improvement crew supposed to come from and who is going to pay for them? How much time will they need to spend camping and impacting the land to finish improving the switchbacks? Good trail work takes a high level of skill that takes years to acquire. Last year there were only seven boots-on-the ground members of the Bitterroot National Forest trail crew and 1,500 miles of trail to maintain. That is an impossible task.

I understand that setting precedents like unnecessary helicopter flights is detrimental to Wilderness and degrades the law. If the Forest Service could spend less money and time tied up in Wilderness litigation, maybe they could afford to better maintain and improve trails like Fred Burr in the first place. If these trails could be kept in better condition, then they would be more suitable for stock, rendering helicopter flights unnecessary. Maybe Friends of the Clearwater should litigate Congress for not giving the Forest Service enough money to take proper care of designated Wilderness, the gems of our public lands. I think that Gary Macfarlane should drop this particular issue and let the Forest Service spend that money where it is desperately needed, which is up keeping the trails in the first place.

Renee Morley


Thursday, July 11, 2013

All in favor

Posted By on Thu, Jul 11, 2013 at 4:00 AM

When reading Alex Sakariassen's article (see "Aisle crossing," June 27), it seemed as though the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act and the Rocky Mountain Heritage Act are in limbo due to a lack of support by people in Montana. This is not the case. The bills are supported by a majority of Montanans—we know what is best for our public lands. The problem in seeing them passed lies in Washington, where a cooperative bill and bipartisan support are difficult to find in action. If Congressman Daines is able to use the support of his state to see these bills through, we would all benefit from the economic and recreational enhancements.

While opposition to these bills is a concern in Washington, it is not in our home state. Daines has seen this support after he backed the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, when we were impressed by his ability to join with bipartisan forces to act on behalf of his constituents. Congressman Daines is an avid outdoorsman himself; he backpacks and bags peaks, and like the rest of us, he understands the need for industry in our state. His family homesteaded on the Rocky Mountain Front. Daines knows where we are coming from in our hope to pass the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act to support the timber industry and create recreation areas and wilderness for future generations.

When Montanans reached across the "aisles" between different interest groups to create the legislation that is the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, they shook hands on a Western ideal. The ideal that our public lands can and will be managed for a variety of uses: to benefit the economy and future generations, and uphold the unique beauty of the Big Sky country we live in. By creating this legislation, we made it clear that we are tired of fighting each other in expensive litigation that may never allocate land for timber management, wilderness or motorized and non-motorized recreation. When no one is able to enjoy our public lands, we all lose. That is why the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act is supported by 70 percent of Montanans. Now, we'd like to see the same movement by our elected leaders in Washington. Join together and show us that you believe in our way of life, and you are working for the best interest of everyone.

Allison Linville


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Stepping away

Posted on Wed, Jul 10, 2013 at 2:01 PM

Last week Missoula suffered a great loss, quietly. There wasn't a death, nor was it that someone had decided there was a better place to live than Missoula. This loss was Marta Meengs deciding that she had reached her limit regarding the medical nursing industry. Last Wednesday, while performing what would be her last impaction, she turned to her fellow nurse and said, "Kelsey, this is my last hurrah. I didn't tell anyone else, but this is my last day (on the medical floors of St. Pat's.)" They both chuckled with complete understanding of why.

Marta, with over 30 years of nursing experience, walked quietly out the door that afternoon. This would have been a much different moment had the thousands of people she touched been there to say goodbye. Marta would often come home with a story, or stories, of individuals she couldn't name undergoing very trying times in their lives. Whether it was from a patient in great pain, or a child confused about why her mother was sick; and yes, the rare comical moment on what I think must be the most trying floor at that hospital5 North, the oncology/renal floor at St. Pats. She treated many that had their days numbered, or faced years of challenges.

The health care industry has a lot to do with Marta deciding that she couldn't carry on with this career. The pressures the medical system places on hospitals and the financial pressures from running a business when "clients" have no way to pay for services have changed the way all the "clients" are treated. Instead of being faced with three patients, Marta often had six. Instead of concentrating on the patient, with a calm demeanor, Marta had to struggle with a new computer system that she never was able to master. Instead of taking the time to adequately explain a procedure to the patient or their family members, she had to worry that another patient was x minutes late in getting some medication. Instead of holding a patient's hand during his last breath Marta had to figure out which computer screen was correct. Instead of helping a patient get a straw to their mouth she had to answer a call from patient No. 5 who has been relentless all day. The examples are endless.

These nurses go non-stop all day long. Eight hour days are really nine or 10. A 12-hour shift is more like 13 or 14. I don't know if it is unique to 5 North, but those nurses hardly even break for lunch. It is a day of constantly juggling crisis after crisis.

There should have been a party in some form for Marta's contribution to nursing, but maybe more importantly, a celebration for all those still in the trenches of not only 5 North but all the nurses and Health Care Assistants in the industry that continue to do what is all too often a thankless job.

This decision of Marta's wasn't done lightly and has been long in coming, but was made quietly. I only knew about it finally happening that afternoon after hearing about the last impaction of her career. It was a decision made with an element of sadness for leaving a medical career that allowed her a life of a great amount of freedoms (there is an enormous demand for nurses), but also a decision that brought a level of relief that I could see in her face that evening.

The paycheck could no longer be compensation for Marta. Let's hope we find a way to solve this health care crisis before more Martas leave.

Thanks Marta!

Tim Skufca


Go team, go!

Posted on Wed, Jul 10, 2013 at 1:59 PM

Montana has many treasures. Perhaps our most important long-term treasures are places like the North Fork of the Flathead, the "Bob," the Beartooths and the Mission and Swan ranges between which I live. Our elected representatives understand the long-term economic and social value of the wild and quiet places we are blessed with.

Congressman Daines is trying to do the right thing: pass bills that a vast majority of Montanans agree with, like the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act and the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. But partisan politics in D.C. are getting in the way.

Montanans value teamwork. We want our team of Sen. Baucus, Rep. Daines and Sen. Tester to work together for Montana. We don't' want people from states without our wild treasures to influence our team more than we do. I urge our team to pass the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, and the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. It's worth our best effort. Go team!

A. Lee Boman

Seeley Lake

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Nurse on Corregidor

Posted on Wed, Jul 3, 2013 at 4:36 PM

Growing up back east, city bus transportation was both necessity and education. Once, going home, an attractive older lady with a younger caretaker boarded. Whether standing or sitting, the older continually screamed, jerked and twitched as if she was being poked unmercifully from many directions with hot irons. There were no Lithium or Prozac type medications in those days.

After a short while, some of the other passengers began to mockingly imitate her. The noise level grew as the bus progressed on its route. Then the younger lady pulled the stop cord and the two disembarked, older first. While the driver leaned over the door control handle, the younger stopped silently in the step well and stared back into the eyes of the mockers until all the passengers grew silent. Then she raised her voice so all could hear, stating simply as she stepped to the curb, "She ... was a nurse ... on Corregidor." At least until my mom and I disembarked several blocks later, the only sound to be heard was that of the engine changing pitch as the driver ran through its gears.

Off the bus, I asked mom what a Corregidor was. She replied that if I still wanted to know when I was 18, she would tell me then.

George S. Patton was reported to have said something about "Don't cry for the dead, but rejoice in your own living."

Bill Moser


Prime-time programs

Posted on Wed, Jul 3, 2013 at 4:35 PM

The recent Indy piece on MCAT profiled a few public access TV producers, a dying breed in this digital world, but the article missed the boat in failing to showcase the bulk of the community outreach we perform (see "Characters welcome," June 27). In addition to hundreds of city and county government meetings every year, including public school meetings, MCAT offers Media Assistance Grants (MAGs) to area nonprofits, resulting in hundreds of additional shows each year, including lectures, seminars, conferences, musical performances, documentaries, rallies—anything a nonprofit can think of, we do it for them. Dozens of nonprofits take advantage of MCAT's filming and editing services grants every year.

But wait, there's more!

This summer MCAT is offering several media camps for children. MCAT also mentors through the Flagship program. MCAT also sponsors filmmaking contests. In an age of do-it-yourself-at-home-and-post-it-online videography, MCAT maintains a vital role in reaching out to our community, the Missoula area community, in all these other services.

MCAT is Missoula.

Ron Scholl

MAG Superviser



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