Proponents of transgender bathroom bill never say “transgender”

Montana Family Foundation President and CEO Jeff Lazsloffy in January

The Montana Family Foundation is a research and education organization dedicated to supporting, protecting, and strengthening Montana families. It is definitely not a moneymaking scheme for Jeff Lazsloffy and his children. Its donors are not public, although in past years more than half the foundation’s income has come from Greg Gianforte. But his investment has been amply repaid in research and education, for example a bill before the state legislature that would have required Montanans to use locker rooms and restrooms that correspond to the genders on their birth certificates. Legislators rejected that, noting that a similar bill costs North Carolina billions of dollars earlier this year. So the Montana Family Foundation took its cause to the people, repackaging the Orewellian-named Locker Room Privacy Act as ballot initiative I-183.

Last week, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the description Attorney General Tim Fox had written for I-183 was not sufficient. In addition to its potentially inaccurate fiscal note, the court took exception to this paragraph:

I-183 requires government entities to designate a protected facility in a government building or public school for use only by members of one sex, and prohibits persons from using a protected facility other than the facility that is designated for that person’s sex.

You will note that the word “transgender” does not appear. Neither does an explanation of what the word “sex” means. A lot of people would say that a trans a woman is of the sex “woman,” but that’s not what I-183 says. I-183 specifies that a person’s sex shall be determined by their birth certificate.

That would create a lot of problems for transgender Montanans, which is exactly what I-183 is designed to do. Yet the Montana Family Foundation never, ever mentions the word “transgender” in its communications on this issue. Instead, it offers jaunty statements like this one regarding the defunct Locker Room Privacy Act: “This bill was just common sense! Women shouldn’t have to shower in front of men, and vice versa.”

“Common sense” is a thing politicians say when they don’t want you to think about what they just said. The Montana Family Foundation keeps talking about I-183 as though it were designed to address the problem of high school boys gaining entry to the girls’ locker room by simply declaring that they are female. As near as I can tell, that’s never happened. The real issue here is that Lazsloffy has made a career out of converting popular prejudices to politics, and prejudice isn’t as popular as it once was. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. Do it! Do it now, Linda!

Crimes are forgiven. Debt is forever

Fake news

My advice to you, sir or madam or whatever, is to never read the comments section of anything. It’s depressing. When we read the comments section, we imagine we are getting a cross-section of the general public, when in fact we are getting a cross-section of people who leave internet comments. This sampling error distorts our perception and convinces us that ordinary folks are even dumber than they actually are. I should know; I broke my own rule and have been reading comments on my Indy column all week, because such are the joys of satire. Here is the winner—this guy who believes Ben Jacobs wrote my column and is “a complete moron”:

“You just can’t fix stupid,” he says to the woman who tries to correct his spectacular misreading. This brings us to a rule even more ironclad than “don’t read the comments.” The people who call other people stupid are invariably really, really smart.

Anyway, this sort of thing amuses me, so I wrote another satirical column this week. It’s about Montana’s policy of revoking the driver’s licenses of people who have unpaid fines or court fees, and the class-action suit filed against it by the DC nonprofit Equal Justice Under Law. Their plaintiff is Michael DiFrancesco, who got a ticket for possessing alcohol when he was 14 and couldn’t pay his $185 fine, plus the fee for a mandatory substance abuse education course. As a result, he has never been eligible for a driver’s license. That would prevent him from getting a job—especially here in Montana, where everything is far apart and public transportation is poor—if he weren’t willing to drive without a license, which he has been. The ensuing citations have increased the amount he owes the state to just under $4,000.

If you read the comments on this article about his case in the Helena Independent Record, you will find the consensus view is that he shouldn’t have gotten a ticket in the first place. Among internet commenters, this passes as a penetrating insight. If you read their quote-unquote arguments, though, you will find few people arguing that the punishment for minor-in-possession-of-alcohol should be a $4,000 fine and suspension of driving privileges for ten years. Their position is not that minors who drink deserve whatever they get, but that minors who drink and don’t pay the fine deserve whatever they get.

What we are looking at here is a two-tier system of infractions. The punishment for MIP if you have $185 is a $185 fine. The punishment for MIP if you don’t have $185—or, in most cases, if your parents don’t have $185—is lifetime suspension of driving privileges, intermittent homelessness, and financial penalties that mount beyond 20 times the statutory fine. Compare what DiFrancesco has suffered as a result of drinking beer when he was 14 to what Greg Gianforte suffered for punching a reporter when he was 56. The difference in how these two people were punished comes down to how much money they had when they committed their crimes. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent, in which I cite Gianforte as a paragon of civic responsibility and argue that the poor are getting a sweet deal. Perhaps the commenters will finally agree with me.

What makes it okay to deport Audemio Orozco-Ramirez?

Supporters of Orozco-Ramirez march in downtown Billings.

In 2013, Audemio Orozco-Ramirez with the passenger in a traffic stop in Jefferson County, Montana. At that time, he had been living in the United States approximately 16 years. Orozco-Ramirez was born in Michoacan, Mexico. He has no criminal record, but the officer of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s department who stopped the car he was riding in suspected that he was in the country illegally, in part because he did not speak English. Orozco-Ramirez was arrested on a civil immigration violation and placed in a county jail sell with nine other men.

During a period of time that went missing from the jail’s otherwise continuous surveillance footage, a number of these men held down Orozco-Ramirez and raped him. In December, Jefferson County settled a federal lawsuit filed by Orozco-Ramirez for $125,000 without admitting that he was assaulted or it was liable. Since then, he has lived and worked outside Billings, checking in with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents on a monthly basis. During his last check-in, he was arrested and scheduled for deportation.

An appeals court judge has issued a stay against that decision pending a hearing. The feds frequently issue “U visas” to foreign nationals who are the victims of crimes and have aided authorities in their investigations, but in settling Orozco-Ramirez’s lawsuit, Jefferson County did not admit he was a victim of a crime. Legally, we can deport him. The question of whether we can do so ethically is more complicated.

Except for crossing the border illegally 20 years ago, Orozco-Ramirez has participated in the social contract. Our state and federal governments, on the other hand, have betrayed him multiple times. For example, there was the time we investigated him for civil violations as the passenger in a traffic stop. That doesn’t happen to Americans who enjoy constitutional rights. There was also the time we locked him in a cell full of rapists, also for a civil violation, and stopped watching what happened. Then there was the time we made a deal with him to forget about the rape thing and then picked him up for deportation while he was upholding his end of the bargain.

No American would agree that is the right way for a government to treat the people it governs. Yet because Orozco-Ramirez is not a citizen but merely a person who has lived here for the last 20 years, anything we do to him is fine. That’s a peculiar moral calculus, and you can read all about in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!

Even after hot mic snafu, PSC regulates solar out of business

I’ve been thinking about this joke for 20 years, and it’s the word “yearned.”

Let’s say you run a state regulatory agency tasked with setting rates and contracts for utility companies, such as the Montana Public Service Commission. Let us also say part of your mandate is to promote renewable energy. This isn’t just your general sense of what the public wants you do to; it’s federal law, mandated by the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978. Anyway, let’s say that despite this mandate, you secretly plan to use your regulatory power to increase profits for established utility companies and keep stuff like solar power out of the market. People have accused you of pursing this agenda before, but you denied it. Then, a hot mic accidentally records you talking about how to set rates so low it puts solar farms out of business.

You cannot go ahead and do it, right? You got caught planning to do something deeply unethical and federally illegal, and the only thing to do now is abort the plan. You certainly cannot set rates for solar farms so far below market that they cease to be viable businesses. People are on to you. And yet Commissioner Bob Lake did exactly that. In June, a hot mic caught him talking to rate analyst Neil Templeton about the threat of solar power. Templeton opines that “just dropping the rate probably took care of the whole thing.” Lake replies, “Well, the 10-year might do it if the price doesn’t. And at this low price, I can’t imagine anyone getting into it.”

That’s it! You made a recording of your criminal conspiracy, and now it is over. Yet somehow, last month, the PSC set the rates for the proposed MTSUN solar farm outside Billings at $20 per megawatt-hour over a ten-year contract. Compare to the residential supply rate the commission set for NorthWestern Energy: $62 per megawatt-hour over the next 25 years. MTSUN developer Mark Klein confirmed that his solar project would be unworkable under those terms.

I applaud this bold act of regulatory capture and welcome the PSC to our long war against the sun. My only concern is that it will come up again somehow. Still, I praise Lake and his colleagues for sheer brazenness. Montana ratepayers could have no stauncher ally in the fight against cheap electricity from dubious sources. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!

Steve Daines takes bold stand against methamphetamine

“The way I see it, heaven is a big, dark cave, and you can climb all over the walls and ceiling…”

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: American politics have come to a bitter pass, and what one voter holds dear is likely to enrage another. In these fractious times, Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) is doing what he can to bring the country together by standing up for what people still agree on. Last month, he celebrated Flag Day by proposing a constitutional amendment to ban the desecration of Old Glory. That probably cost him some votes in Tehran, but it seemed like a safe move otherwise. He followed it up with an editorial in the Missoulian and other Lee papers last week, in which he spoke out against methamphetamine. Beginning by noting that 95% of participants in his recent telephone town hall agree meth is a problem, he argues for 500 words that meth is, indeed, a problem. He concludes by saying that now is the time to raise awareness.

I suppose that last 5% of awareness is always the hardest. Still, one cannot help but think of other issues Sen. Daines might address, including the massive, secret, and extremely controversial health care bill his caucus is currently trying to ram through the senate. That bill might be why Daines keeps holding telephone town halls instead of regular ones. He hasn’t been back to Montana in a minute, and he lobbied to cancel the August recess. With all the flags-are-good and drugs-are-bad rhetoric coming out of his office right now, he’s starting to look like he might be trying to duck the issue. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll probably be talking about Daines more in the near future, since he introduced that single-payer amendment he doesn’t actually support. Start working on your goblin jokes, and we’ll meet back here tomorrow for Friday links.