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.

Why is there a Confederate monument in Helena, Montana?

The Confederate Memorial Fountain in Helena—photo by Thom Bridge

The state of Montana did not participate in the US civil war. Montana didn’t become a state until decades later, in 1889, and even then it was about as far north of the Mason-Dixon line as states get. Although somebody in the Montana territory probably traveled south to fight on the side of the Confederacy, the war is only a part of this region’s history indirectly, in the same way as, say, the Boston Tea Party. There’s no statue of Sam Adams in Helena. Yet there is a memorial to Confederate soldiers, given to the city by The Daughters of the Confederacy in 1915.

In a letter to city commissioners, eight members of the state legislature’s American Indian Caucus recently asked that the fountain be removed. Helena Mayor Jim Smith opposes this idea. In his own letter, reported by Holly Michels in the Helena Independent-Record, he writes, “Fundamentally, I believe we ought to be very careful before we start obliterating history. That is what totalitarian regimes do.”

Let’s talk about what constitutes history, then. The notion that statues and fountains somehow stand between us and the “obliteration” of history is fatuous. I defy you to show me someone who only knows about the Civil War from a statue. And what information about history does the fountain in Hill Park convey? If you did not know anything about the past, all this monument would tell you is that there once existed a group called The Daughters of the Confederacy, and it dedicated a fountain in 1915.

That fountain is less a piece of history than a monument to one group’s understanding of it. The distinction is  important. The D of the C built this monument 50 years after the Civil War ended. That’s an astonishingly short time, like erecting a monument to the Wehrmacht in Paris in 1995. But it is still two generations after the Confederacy ceased to exist, and the fountain cannot meaningfully be called a relic of Civil War history. Instead, it is a monument to the City of Helena’s endorsement of the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1915.

That moment is also part of history, but it is not important in the same way as the Civil War. I don’t think anyone considers it a significant part of the story of Helena. It has purely symbolic importance, and what it symbolizes—then and now—is not something the city should support, even if only by inaction.

The Daughters of the Confederacy was founded to sponsor burials of Confederate veterans, erect monuments to them, and influence schools to teach Civil War history in ways that reflected favorably on the South. Its membership increased dramatically during the first two decades of the 20th century, going from 17,000 in 1900 to almost 100,000 by the outbreak of World War I. The fountain in Hill Park reflects the height of the Daughters’ influence. It also reflects a sympathy to their cause completely divorced from history.

Again, Montana played no part in the Civil War. If it had existed as a state, it would have almost certainly fought for the North. It had no historical ties to the Confederacy, in 1863 or in 1915. The fountain therefore suggests an affinity for some other aspect of the Daughters’ mission. It is hard to say what that could be other than white supremacy.

Many historians, including Princeton professor and Pulitzer Prize winner James McPherson, consider the Daughters of the Confederacy a stalking horse for white supremacy. It’s not inconceivable that some of the Daughters are lineal descendants of Confederates who only want to memorialize their ancestors, but that argument breaks down in Montana. The further we get, geographically and chronologically, from the Confederacy itself, the more structures like this fountain become monuments to the idea and not the history.

That idea is repugnant. Confederate soldiers fought a war of treason against the United States in defense of slavery. There are a lot of good reasons to study that war and remember it, to literally memorialize the history. But there are only two reasons to memorialize the ideas: either you like the notion of exploiting and disenfranchising black people by force, or you like the notion of betraying the United States and killing its citizens.

There is a third reason, of course: you recognize that Confederate monuments have some vague appeal to disgruntled white people, and you’re pandering. I hope that’s what Mayor Smith is up to. I would hate to think he is a slavemonger or seditionist. He has probably just performed the same calculus the city fathers did in 1915. Most of Helena is white, and saying yes to some cracker nonsense will alienate fewer voters than saying no. The next step in this process, probably, is to prove him wrong.

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!

Montana struck by earthquake; two-headed calf born; I get Best Writer as end draws nigh

Pretty cute but will not stop saying “he is coming”

That tremor Montanans felt last night was Norman Maclean rolling over in his grave. The well-intentioned maniacs who voted in this year’s Best of Misssoula poll have selected me as best writer over perennial winner James Lee Burke, strengthening the case that Indy readers are making fun of me. Burke has published more novels than I have visited states. He has received numerous professional awards, justly, and I suspect his being unjustly denied this one will escape his notice. I, on the other hand, am embarrassed. Thank you to everyone who voted in the poll, and thank you to the awesome power of selection bias.

I also got best journalist, which is the same bullshit that happened last year. You know who the best journalist in Missoula is? Derek Brouwer. It’s either him or Erika Fredrickson. Both of those people go out there and gather real information they fashion into news, while I stay home and pretend to be wrong about it. It’s an unjust system. But we must obey the Best of Missoula electoral college, which awarded me the win this year even though I lost the popular vote. You can read all about it in this week’s column, in which I make common cause with the president in our search for evidence to back our claims of fact. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to celebrate. Mark McGwire, Milli Vanilli, and the guy who accepted the Best Picture Oscar for Crash are all waiting for me at Dave & Buster’s.

Marijuana sales tax could swamp revenue dept. with cash

The Montana Department of Revenue (artist’s conception)

This spring, after Montana re-legalized medical marijuana, the legislature imposed a 4% sales tax. It is likely that much of the revenue from this tax will come in as cash. Because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, banks that operate across state lines are reluctant to do business with dispensaries. Many providers can’t accept credit cards, much less set up business accounts to wire money to Helena. The question of how they will transport quarterly cash payments to the Department of Revenue has exciting security ramifications. Perhaps more exciting is the question of what Revenue will do with that cash once it comes in.

Speaking to the Billings Gazette, Deputy Director Gene Walborn predicted business as usual. He said his agency would “maybe [get] some cash counters and that kind of thing.” Revenue anticipates bringing in about $750,000. That figure is based on an estimate of 11,877 medical marijuana cardholders across the state—the average number in 2016, under the old law, when providers were limited to three customers apiece and forbidden from turning a profit.

Since I-182 lifted those restrictions, the number of cardholders has risen to 15,564. That’s a 31% increase in six months, during a period when dispensaries were just beginning to open up again. After the state’s first attempt at medical marijuana legalization, before the patient and profit limits went into effect, the number of cardholders peaked at 30,000. It seems like the Department of Revenue could get a lot more cash than it expects. Its plan to do nothing might have more to do with what’s easiest than with what conditions suggest.

In this way, Revenue is continuing a tradition. From the legalization that triggered a statewide boom in the last decade to the restrictions that abruptly shut it down in 2011, Helena has consistently done what it would about medical marijuana and considered the consequences later. You can read all about our state government’s steadfast refusal to plan ahead in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent.

While you’re there, check out this piece about the final legal bill for acquiring Mountain Water. When it first embarked on this project in 2014, the City of Missoula estimated that the legal cost of purchasing the city’s water system through eminent domain would come to $400,000. The city took ownership last Thursday, and its final legal bill was $7.4 million. That’s 19 times the original estimate. But that kind of thing happens when you’re doing business. It’s like when you buy a car for 15 grand but, after taxes and fees, the final price comes to $285,000.

In other news, my mother is in town, so this is the last Combat! blog you’re going to see until Wednesday. That’s a long time, right? I sure hope nothing happens in the news between now and then.