Watered Down

For two weeks now, there’s been a gusher of television advertising promoting the so-called Montana Water Rights Protection Act

By Dave Skinner

For two weeks now, there’s been a gusher of television advertising promoting the so-called Montana Water Rights Protection Act, Senate bill S-3019. The ad footer explains they are “paid for by the Montana Business Leadership Council.”

Who? I did some poking around and quickly learned MBLC has been registered with the Internal Revenue Service since 2007 as a 501(c)6 nonprofit corporation, to which businesses can contribute and claim same as a business expense – anonymously, of course.

Officially, MBLC’s “primary purpose [….] is to educate the public on important business issues, enable citizens to make informed, educated decisions, and improve the overall economic climate in Montana.” Fine, but who is MBLC and who is paying for all these ads?

Don’t expect MBLC’s website to inform or educate. It was anonymously registered through Dreamhost LLC on January 21, 2020. What about MBLC’s Fakebook page? Oh, that was dormant from mid-2017 until an “office hours” update two days after the website was registered.

Why dormant? Well, nonprofit tax returns posted to Guidestar and Charity Navigator show in 2016, MBLC took in a whopping $2,500. 2017 featured record revenue, a whopping $9,500, from which $6,980 was paid to “independent contractors.” 2018? A thousand bucks! Wow, big time!

The IRS forms also reveal MBLC has had the same board of directors and leaders since 2013. Two are real-estate developers I’ve never heard of, Don Sterhan of Billings and Don Cape, Jr. from Bozeman.

The others I have heard of: Directors Chuck Denowh, Erik Iverson, and executive director Shelby DeMars. Chuck, an acquaintance, is a top-rank Montana GOP operative, including a stint as campaign manager for former Congressman Rick Hill and Montana GOP executive director. Erik also ran Montana GOP, and was chief of staff for Dennis Rehberg. Shelby? She’s worked on any number of Montana Republican campaigns and also served for a while as Ryan Zinke’s spokesperson.

MBLC president? None other than the Senate Majority Leader for the 2018 legislative session, Fred Thomas (R-Hamilton) who also voted to approve SB-262, the 2015 bill that kicked the Compact up to the U.S. Congress for final approval.

Bottom line is MBLC is basically a vessel of convenience run by the top tier of Montana’s Republican establishment “machine.” Now, MBLC has cash flowing from gosh knows where (and we voters will never be “informed and educated” on the source), used for a flood of pure, unadulterated Astroturf, watered down to five simplistic bullet points that are half-truths at best. For example, there’s no explanation of how the Compact “saves taxpayers over $400 million.”

What the ads will never say is, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes has filed, or is threatening to file, somewhere around 10,000 claims of “time immemorial” senior water rights, not merely on the Flathead Indian Reservation, but anywhere they may have hunted, fished and gathered prior to 1855 – pretty much everywhere in Montana from Havre to Great Falls down to Bozeman west to Idaho.

The tribes might not get all those claims, but fighting it out will drag out for decades, wasting millions, with all non-tribal water rights, everywhere in Western Montana, totally up for grabs.

When one compares “everyone else” both rural and urban with the relative handful of upper Flathead irrigators whose current water rights will still be subject to call as junior rights, yet not confiscated, and the roughly 2,500 mostly non-tribal irrigators on the reservation whose “water rights arising under state law” are no longer assured, the math is pretty clear, even to some Republicans.

It’s simply cheaper to throw a lucky few under the bus rather than lay everyone open to the expense and misery that CSKT leaders seem perfectly willing to inflict on their neighbors if the Compact isn’t passed soon.

Trouble is, Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines still need to convince Congress to pay off the Tribes – conveniently not with state funds, but with billions of other people’s money (federal), and it turns out, other people’s land (federal) in the form of the bison range and the federal replacements for state lands within the Reservation. Ad blitz aside, that’s still a darn hard sell.

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