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New West Daily Roundup for Feb. 23, 2017

Today in New West news: Montana GOP chairman sounds alarm on all-mail ballot proposal, Senator Tester proposes expanding Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, Utah oil and gas regulation bill “gutted,” and Boulder-based software startup raises $6.7M.

A few months ago, we reported that U.S. Representative Ryan Zinke (R-MT) had been tapped to serve as Interior Secretary in the Trump administration.

Although Zinke has not been confirmed yet, Montana political parties are prepping for his likely departure from Congress, which will necessitate a special election 80-100 days after Zinke resigns from his seat. With candidates unannounced, state senators are debating how to conduct the special election, specifically whether to make it an all-mail ballot—a move that’s prompting alarm from at least one prominent Republican.

According to the Billings Gazette, Montana GOP Chairman and Billings senator Jeff Essmann wrote an email to party members warning against an all-mail ballot election. The reason? It could give Democrats, per Essmann, “an inherent advantage in close elections due to their ability to organize large numbers of unpaid college students and members of public employee unions to gather ballots by going door to door.” From the Gazette:

The warning evoked responses that Essmann, who is also a state House representative from Billings, is trying to suppress the vote.

“This latest email from Jeff Essmann is deeply troubling and shows their party’s desire to suppress the voices of Montanans in this special election,” said Nancy Keenan, Montana Democratic Party executive director. “The Montana GOP should realize they’re going to need all the help they can get if their leading contender is failed gubernatorial candidate and New Jersey multimillionaire Greg Gianforte.”

Gianforte, the only Republican to lose a statewide election last fall, is one of several GOP hopefuls vying for the party’s nomination for U.S. House.

“I’m not trying to take away the ability to vote by mail,” Essmann said. “Everybody should have the ability to do that. I do that myself. The issue is whether the ability to vote at the polls should be taken away from the people who want to vote at the polls. I don’t think it should.”

Essmann said that early voting by mail benefits Democrats and that voters uninclined to vote sometimes do when pressured by Democrats who go door to door collecting ballots to turn in. Republicans have for years accused Democrats of only turning in ballots after confirming by interview that voters chose Democratic candidates, which is something Democrats deny.

County election officials from across the state testified in Helena this week about the financial benefits of mail ballots. The special election is expected to cost upwards of $3 million. The price would decrease if counties didn’t have to open and staff physical polling places.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, testified there was no merit to concerns about Democrats benefiting disproportionately. Many local government elections are mail-only elections and Great Falls Republicans still win, Fitzpatrick said.

Other critics of an all-mail election include Representative Sharon Stewart-Peregoy (D-Crow Agency), who said the bill would disproportionately harm Native Americans’ ability to cast their vote.

The bill has a short timeline going ahead. Unless the Senate votes on it and transfers it to the House by March 1, it will be eliminated by the “transmittal deadline for non-revenue bills.”

Keeping with Montana, according to the Missoulian, U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D) has proposed legislation that will establish new biking and snowmobiling play areas in the Blackfoot-Clearwater region while expanding Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex by approximately 79,000 acres:

“Monday of next week we’ll be introducing the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act,” Tester told a crowd of about 125 people at Rich’s Montana Guest Ranch, which borders the 1.5-million-acre wilderness area.

The bill would designate 2,200 acres as the Otatsy Recreation Management Area for motorized winter activity and 3,800 adjacent acres as the Spread Mountain Recreation Area where mountain bikers want to develop a trail system. The two management areas grew out of compromises with the region’s horse outfitter community, snowmobilers and traditional wilderness advocates.

Those groups all backed federal wilderness protection of several other areas along the edge of the Bob Marshall and adjacent Mission Mountain wildernesses. The bill would add 39,422 acres to the North Fork Blackfoot-Monture Creek landscape north of Ovando, another 27,392 acres to the adjacent Scapegoat Wilderness, 7,784 acres to the Grizzly Basin and front of the Swan Range east of Seeley Lake, and 4,462 acres to the West Fork Clearwater addition on the east side of the Mission Mountain Wilderness.

“Twelve million guests came to visit Montana last year – that’s 12 guests for every Montanan,” said Lee Boman of the Montana Wilderness Association. “They didn’t come here to see our Walmarts. They came to Montana to experience the magic of Montana, and the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project helps ensure the magic of Montana will remain strong forever.”

Down in Utah, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, a bill that would have undercut cities and counties ability to regulate oil and gas development within their jurisdictions has been pulled from consideration—after the oil and gas industry pressured the Legislature to table the bill. Per the Tribune, industry officials cited pressure from Utah cities and counties over the potential ramifications of such a bill:

Sponsored by Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, SB189 states regulation of oil and gas operations is of statewide concern and state authority “occupies the whole field of potential regulation.”

But fears of unintended consequences prompted the bill’s proponents to rethink the legislation, which had passed out of committee and is now cued up on the Senate floor, according to James Owen, legislative liaison for the state Division of Oil, Gas and Mining.

“They intend to spend the summer working on bill language and collaborating with cities and counties,” Owen told the Utah oil and gas board Wednesday.

The bill would expressly reserve oil and gas regulation for the state, but would allow political subdivisions to enact local measures that regulate surface activity if the regulations are “commercially reasonable,” do not “effectively prohibit” oil and gas operations and are not otherwise preempted by federal or state law.

No Utah city or county has tried to regulate drilling, but in other states local governments have passed ordinances restricting fracking, a method of extracting natural gas.

While it would be appropriate for local entities to regulate surface impacts, such as air emissions, wastewater handling, dust and noise, Utah Petroleum Association executive director Lee Peacock, a key mover behind the bill, said, down-hole operations are best left to state regulators who have the relevant expertise.

The Utah Association of Counties said they agree with the state’s ability to regulate down-hole drilling, but, according to government affairs director Lincoln Schurtz, “we have concerns with our land-use regulatory authority being preempted.”

Finally, over in Colorado, according to the Denver Business Journal, Boulder-based SlamData, an “open source analytics company for modern unstructured data,” has raised $6.7 million courtsy of Menlo Park-based Shasta Ventures. According to the release, SlamData will use part of the funds for new hires, including a new senior vice president of engineering, Sreeni Iyer.

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