Helpful Tips for Covering Montana Politics

By Beacon Staff

Today is my last day writing for the Flathead Beacon, a four-and-half-year period which, not coincidentally, has been among the happiest of my life. As I head east for a reporting job covering power markets and energy development for SNL Financial, based in Charlottesville, Va. I turn over the political beat to the capable and talented hands of Myers Reece, my colleague since launching this paper. New hire Dillon Tabish will take over some of my other beats. Before leaving, I thought it might be helpful to pass on a few potentially helpful insights I’ve gained over the years into Montana politics, its language and idiosyncrasies. And since I thought readers might like a peek behind the curtain, I figured I’d just post them here rather than emailing them. Adios, all.

Any time a politician whose party was defeated in a recent election tells you the public agrees with their ideas, but their party just didn’t communicate those ideas well enough, that person’s party has clearly lost a major argument based on its ideas.

Any time a political spokesperson calls legislation a “commonsense solution,” that legislation nearly always describes a partisan piece of policy about which reasonable people can disagree.

Any time a political spokesperson (aka “flack”) begins a sentence in a press release with the word, “unfortunately,” what follows will be an inaccurate portrayal of their boss’s opponent’s position.

Reducing the level of increased spending, or funding, is not the same as cutting spending or funding. Along those same lines, any politician who claims to want to “cut government spending” but fails to name specific areas they would cut other than “wasteful bureaucracy,” should not be taken seriously.

Any Montana politician who calls for a balanced state budget, counts that among their priorities, or touts a balanced budget while they held office is attempting to capitalize on something over which they have no choice. A balanced, two-year budget is mandated by the Montana Constitution and remains the only real obligation of the Legislature.

In Montana, campaign finance reports are proof of the fundraising strength of candidates at the top of the ticket. But due to the state’s contribution limits, they can be more useful further down the ballot in legislative races for learning who has the support of party activists and local bigwigs. Check the website of the Commissioner of Political Practices, the National Institute on Money in State Politics and OpenSecrets.org.

Turn your cellphone ringer off before meetings.

Like almost every other beat, the best political journalism ultimately illuminates the people involved: both the leaders and those aspiring to be leaders – and the regular people impacted by those decisions and policies.

Any time a public official describes a piece of legislation as “another tool in the tool box,” take a shot of Jägermeister from the bottle you keep with you at all times.

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