Uncommon Ground

Off the Rails

With halftime approaching, it’s left to the grownups of Helena to govern

By Mike Jopek

The Montana Legislature dove into dysfunction, veered toward the ditch, obsessively trying to gender-check your teenagers or allow university students to carry guns on campus. 

Last week the Republicans in the Montana House of Representatives voted to end the affordable housing program that Whitefish had established over the years and throughout decades of work incentivizing a small portion of new development. 

Every local in town knows that housing has reached crisis levels for workers and businesses. Helena enjoys little understanding for what’s happening in our towns.

The House passed HB 259 to prohibit planned unit developments from incentivizing a small percentage of homes as affordable to area wages. For small resort towns like Whitefish, it is the local police, firefighters, paramedics, teachers, nurses, bartenders, mechanics, tellers, lifties, landscapers, or cooks who are priced out of the market.

People from across the nation, from places like California and Texas, migrated to Whitefish. As the pandemic raged, our land values skyrocketed. The Legislature is working to entice more people to move here. 

In Whitefish the only homes built, outside the Legacy Homes Program’s limited inventory, cater to out-of-state wages. There’s spotty affordability, nothing close to the needs of a recreation-hub economy in Northwest Montana.

The House Republicans locked step, negated local control of housing needs and used the heavy hand of the state on the rapidly growing resort community. The bill left the lower chamber headed to the Senate for action.

Whitefish wrote in its council packet that “HB 259 prohibits inclusionary zoning and would eliminate the City’s Legacy Homes Program. The City adamantly opposed the bill …” 

The city acknowledged getting Helena to understand local issues was an uphill climb: “Unfortunately, the Builders Associations and Realtors Association came out in strong support to of the bill.” It’s also sponsored by the House majority leader, increasing chance of passage. 

Every Flathead House member in Helena, with the notable exception of Rep. Dave Fern, voted to end the worker housing program for Whitefish, a place where a million visitors pass through annually.

Let senators know via their legislative website portals about local needs. The Whitefish market consistently leads Montana, currently with double digit growth. Tabling HB 259 makes sense. It’s a local housing matter.

Flathead Republicans led a mean-spirited floor charge in the House on HB 257 to eliminate Whitefish’s local mask ordinance that slows the coronavirus and helps local businesses navigate a national tourism economy. 

Whitefish wrote “HB 257 would eliminate the City’s face covering ordinance. A recent amendment to the bill now makes it retroactive so any previously adopted ordinances would be unenforceable. The City opposes this bill.”

Earlier, Gov. Greg Gianforte reassured Montanans that local protocols could keep workers safe and businesses open. That message has yet to permeate into the third floor of the state Capitol. 

Thus far, the 2021 Legislative Session deviated into an ideological show of brute force with little understanding of actual local needs. A decade prior, Montana enjoyed national headlines as the Legislature tried repeatedly to nullify anything federal and enable hunting with spears.

Former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer called that Legislature “batcrap crazy.” Republican state Rep. Walt McNutt warned colleagues at the time, saying, “You are scaring the you-know-what out of them with this kind of talk. This needs to stop and stop now. Stop scaring our constituents and stop letting us look like a bunch of buffoons.”

A day after the House voted to ban worker housing in town, Whitefish council members seemed furious. The councilpersons expressed unanimously strong words toward Helena, “Shame on you,” “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” “Absolutely infuriating,” and “How dare they.”

Lawmakers rarely reveal to voters how kooky they may become once holding power. With halftime approaching, it’s left to the grownups of Helena to govern and give up on ruling.

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