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Saaster

Welcome-home huckleberries to Guthrie McLean, the University of Montana student who was released last Sunday after almost a week in a Chinese detention facility, and to Montana’s congressional delegation for working diligently on his behalf. U.S. Sen. Steve Daines in particular deserves acknowledgement for using his Chinese connections to negotiate McLean’s swift release.

McLean was arrested in Zhengzhou on July 17 after confronting a taxi driver who had gotten into an argument with his mother. The driver claimed McLean shoved him, causing injury, and the police reportedly demanded money from his mother to “settle” the case. Daines, who lived in China for several years while working for Proctor and Gamble, and who has been working with Chinese authorities more recently to lift the 13-year-old ban on U.S. beef, and his staff worked around the clock to keep the lines of communication open between U.S. and Chinese officials and the McLeans – and helped speed along an agreement to secure Guthrie McLean’s prompt release.

Chokecherries to the painful cuts felt across state agencies this week. State revenues have fallen $75 million short of projections, triggering a law passed by the Montana Legislature this year to reduce funding for various departments. The cuts are expected to cost at least 20 state employees their jobs, as well as severely reduce certain state services and end some programs altogether. School districts may have to tap local levies to make up for the loss in state support, and the Department of Corrections will reduce its contracts with pre-lease and treatment providers.

But perhaps worst of all, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, facing a $14 million cut, will end a program to create more openings in nursing homes, leaving more than 500 people on a waiting list. The department is also planning to cut funding for case management for those with severe health issues, and decrease reimbursements to already underpaid Medicaid providers by nearly 3.5 percent. These cuts are certain to cause immediate, far-reaching hardship for some of the state’s most vulnerable residents – and take Montana in the wrong direction.

Heart-shaped huckleberries to Missoula for being named Montana’s first Purple Heart city. Purple Hearts are given to U.S. military members who are killed or wounded while serving their country, and Purple Heart cities earn that distinction by taking extra steps to recognize and support injured combat veterans. The Montana chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart awarded the University of Montana similar recognition in 2015, and has been working with the city of Missoula for the past couple of years to increase opportunities for wounded veterans in the community.

High-priced chokecherries to the steep fee increase for a senior pass used to access national parks and other federal recreational lands. The America the Beautiful-Senior Pass is a lifetime pass available to those age 62 and older. For more than two decades, it has cost just $10 – and prior to 1994, it was free. But on Aug. 28, the price is increasing to $80 thanks to legislation passed by Congress last December. That’s still a bargain, but more low-income Americans may find it difficult to scrape together enough money to purchase a lifetime pass now. Fortunately, the National Park Service plans to allow those 62 and older to buy an annual pass for $20 each year for four years, and then exchange them for a lifetime pass if they wish.

Wheels of huckleberries going ‘round and 'round to the new bus standards for Montana school districts approved well in time for the beginning of the 2017 school year. The Board of Public Education has already approved the new standards, which clarify policies regarding video monitoring and require more training hours for drivers, among other changes, and the Montana Office of Public Instruction released the new rules this past week. The updated standards take effect Oct. 13 and include provisions regarding transportation for students who are homeless or in foster care as specified in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, as well as emergency evacuation equipment for students in wheelchairs. Overall, the new standards are a measurable improvement to the state’s public school transportation policies.

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