On New Year's Day, The Billings Gazette editorial board looks forward to the opportunities and challenges in the year ahead. Continuing a practice started several years ago, we present a community agenda, a short list of issues that we believe deserve attention in 2013. We believe our state or our communities can take important steps to address each one. In the coming year, Gazette opinions will comment on progress or lack of it and encourage Montanans to work for positive change. Our five agenda items aren't listed in any particular order; all are important.
Better mental health care
Every day, an estimated 15 Montanans attempt suicide. In the two-year period of 2010-2011, at least 452 Montanans killed themselves, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. The state's suicide rate is double the national average and the highest among the 50 states.
Nine of 10 people who attempt suicide are suffering from untreated or ineffectively treated mental illnesses. Although many factors can contribute to suicide, lack of access to mental health care is a big problem in our state.
For starters, most Montana counties, including low-income populations in Yellowstone County, are designated Health Professional Shortage Areas by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration. Many counties don't have even one full-time-equivalent mental health professional. Populous counties don't have enough to meet needs. Just one full-time, practicing psychiatrist is based in Eastern Montana.
The stigma of mental illness also can be a huge barrier in a state where "toughing it out" is considered a virtue. Of course, nobody expects folks to go be so "tough" as to go without treatment for other illnesses, such as a heart attack or diabetes.
Suicide claims the lives of young and elderly in Montana. It is the second leading cause of death for Montana youth and young adults; only motor vehicle crashes claim young lives. Both are preventable. We Montanans can work in our communities, schools and in our government to reduce the toll of mental illness by making needed care accessible and acceptable to all.
Infrastructure for oil boom
In the third week of December, the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation permitted oil wells in Roosevelt, Teton, Richland, Fallon, Sheridan, Valley, Powder River counties. The region of Montana that had been losing population since the oil boom of the 1980s is booming again.
"The trend in oil permitting in Montana is strongly upward, although the permit counts surge to 120 in the second quarter of this year was not sustained" Patrick Barkey, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, wrote in the autumn Montana Business Quarterly. "Natural gas activity, on the other hand, has been held in check by low prices."
Responsible energy development is good for Montana. The Bakken oil play is creating good jobs for Montanans and revenue for business and government. But the demands of rapid growth aren't necessarily covered by the boom profits. Cities in Eastern Montana are struggling to upgrade sewer, water, roads and public safety services to meet skyrocketing demands. Jobs are plentiful, but housing is not, and rents are soaring. As far away as Billings, the oil boom is increasing demand for affordable housing and for services to people drawn to the Bakken area.
Community leaders from Sidney, Bainville and other Eastern communities will be lobbying the Legislature to provide access to the resources needed to respond to boom demands. State and local governments need to adjust the oil revenue stream to put oil boom infrastructure where it's needed.
Equitable taxation and revenue sharing policies will improve the quality of life for people of Eastern Montana. Montanans deserve to have their boom and livable communities, too.
Protecting kids and seniors
On the subject of an aging population, Montana ain't seen nothing yet. Since 1990, the 60 and older population of Yellowstone County has been increasing at nearly twice the rate of the overall population. The county's older adult population is boosted both by baby boomers here getting older and by older adults moving into Billings for excellent health care and other services, according to data from the Adult Resource Alliance of Yellowstone County.
The county's over-65 population was 20,858 in the 2012 census. It's expected to more than double by 2030. Montana's over-65 population was 146,742 in the 2010 census. By 2020, the state is projected to have the fifth-highest percentage of older adults among the 50 states.
Our aging residents will need many services, the most basic of which is safety and security. Exploitation of elderly Americans is on the rise, driven in part by the stagnant national economy. The officials and helping organizations concerned with older adults' welfare need good tools to detect abuse and exploitation and to prevent or stop it.
To than end, The Gazette supports common sense legislation that will protect elderly and disabled Montanans from financial exploitation as well as physical abuse.
Along with elderly, our children are among our most vulnerable residents. In Montana, the child welfare system documents more than 1,700 child victims of abuse or neglect every year. The most common cases involve neglect rather than abuse, and nearly one out of four children in the protection system have a parent whose alcohol or other drug abuse harmed the child.
The Gazette supports legislative changes that will give county attorneys the tools needed to prosecute those who abuse children. And we support providing the resources needed to give families support that will reduce the need for foster care and equip parents with the skills and treatment that enable them to be safe, sober, nurturing moms and dads.
Make every graduation matter
Montana has 143,000 K-12 public school students for which the state is legally and morally bound to provide a quality education. More than 16,000 of these students are in the Billings Public Schools.
There is no quality in education that fails to result in graduates who are ready to succeed in college and careers. Unfortunately, bigger doesn't necessarily mean better in education. The Billings public high schools had 261 dropouts from the class of 2011. The number of dropouts exceed the entire number of students in most of Montana's other school districts. Billings posted a graduation rate of 77 percent, substantially below the state average and below other AA districts.
On the other hand, Billings Public Schools graduated 1,054 students in 2011, far more than any other school district.
Montana's challenge is to meet the individual education needs of every student. This is imperative because Montana has a serious demographic problem. It is short of young adults in their 20s and 30s. Our rapidly aging state population needs every young Montanan to join our future workforce to keep our state economy moving. In the smallest schools and in the largest, Montana must foster educational excellence, provide safe, fully functional facilities, up-to-date classroom technology and the kind of positive relationships that depend on excellent educators having the time and resources to connect with every student. Montana needs every child to succeed.
The state, through the Legislature and Gov. Steve Bullock, must fulfill its constitutional mandate to fund quality public education. Montana can afford to do no less.
Invest in higher education
Student tuition and fees will cover 52 percent of the $42 million Montana State University Billings budget for the current academic year; state general fund support amounts to 46.5 percent of the budget.
Because Montana students and families already are paying the biggest share of state university costs, it's important that the burden not get any heavier. A tuition freeze would help Montana students complete the higher education they need for jobs Montana needs.
The University System must do its part by stretching dollars to deliver the highest value for the least funding. The Legislature must also do its part by recognizing that excellence in higher education demands adequate funding for faculty, facilities and student services.
Money spent in our state colleges and universities contributes to the state economy immediately and for the lifetime of its graduates who will have higher earnings. In 2009, for example, MSU Billings received $20 million in state general fund revenue and generated $36.5 million in state tax payments. Thus, the state got $1.80 back in taxes for every $1 appropriated.
Higher education must continually change to meet the changing needs of students. The proposed expansion and renovation of the MSU Billings Science Building should receive top-priority support from the 2013 Legislature.
The recently renamed City College is working to change its image and its services to meet broader needs for post-secondary education. Montana ranks last among Western states and 45th among the 50 states in the percentage of its population over age 25 who are enrolled in higher education.
Dean Marsha Riley recently said a college goal is to "improve services for busy adults balancing work and family while building their careers."
We look forward to seeing initiatives to reach that goal. Compared with the rest of the United States, Montana has tremendous untapped potential for two-year secondary education to connect its citizens to a lifetime of learning and higher earning.