Montana’s Republican governor pulls pandemic payments – is he for real?

Greg Gianforte says the financial assistance program is doing more harm than good. You know, Governor, Covid isn’t over yet? Greg Gianforte’s plan is to cut the $300 a week payment and give people a one-time $1,200 ‘return-to-work’ bonus. But that simply does not compare. Photograph: Thom Bridge/AP The coronavirus pandemic – heard of it? It’s famously still going on! Though national case numbers are finally starting to drop and recent regional outbreaks in the midwest have begun to subside, there were still about 50,000 new Covid-19 infections recorded in the US on Tuesday and just over 700 new virus-related deaths. But Greg Gianforte, Montana’s governor, has other priorities: he’s been talking about a “labor shortage” in a cynical attempt to cut public assistance. The Republican governor released a statement on Tuesday announcing his state will stop participating in the federal program that has given unemployed workers additional unemployment payments since the start of the pandemic – in an apparent attempt to get Montanans back to work, and he plans to give those who choose to do so something he calls a “return-to-work bonus”. Here’s why it won’t work: The “return-to-work” bonus is not a replacement for added unemployment benefits. Thanks to the additional unemployment payments of $300 a week, out-of-work Montana residents receiving assistance currently get between $351 and $810 weekly, in enhanced unemployment benefits. Gianforte’s new plan will cut out those additional payments starting 27 June, and “incentivize Montanans to re-enter the workforce” with a single “return-to-work” bonus of $1,200 after one full month of work. Now, I’m no high-falutin’ big city math-e-ma-tician, but a one-time payment of $1,200, which will only go to the first 12,500 workers to claim it – a tactic which, by the way, has huge “while supplies last!!” vibes – simply does not compare to $300 a week for the duration of the pandemic, ie, the foreseeable future. Who knows how long that could be? Only about a third of Montana residents are vaccinated, according to the New York Times, and infections have risen approximately 8% over the past 14 days. The pandemic is not over yet. What could “labor shortage” be another term for? Although Montana’s unemployment rate fell to 3.8% in April, which is about at pre-pandemic levels, the state’s labor commissioner, Laurie Esau, says its labor force is approximately 10,000 workers smaller than it was pre-lockdown, a drop that Gianforte assumes is to do with lazy people who, given their new found pandemic benefits, don’t want to work any more. And according to Montana department of labor estimates, nearly 25,000 people are currently filing unemployment claims, a good chunk of whom the governor is eager to push into the state’s 14,000 or so job openings. But this means there aren’t enough job openings for the number of people unemployed; even if the governor’s plan succeeds in filling those vacant positions as intended, there will still be over 10,000 people without jobs to apply for, forced to subsist on less. It is also wildly reductive to assume that because there are fewer people working, it must be the result of a lack of will. People had jobs, and those jobs were taken away, either through mass layoffs or government shutdowns of businesses. That kind of disruption takes time to recover from. People could now be working out childcare arrangements again; finding out where they fit in a new jobs market; or worried about returning to work until the coast is clear. Workers also aren’t to blame for making more on unemployment than they would at their jobs. The basis of the governor’s claims are that enhanced unemployment benefits have incentivized out-of-work Montana residents to stay unemployed. He says that the extra $300-a-week payments are now “doing more harm than good”, which is a strange way to view an intervention that is hopefully keeping people housed, clothed, and fed, but OK, sir! You’re the governor! But let’s analyze the logic of whether benefits that make your life livable stop people from wanting to work. Last year, a study by economists at Yale found the enhanced unemployment pay authorized by Congress did not disincentivize Americans from seeking employment. And if “a bunch of Yale economists” aren’t convincing enough, how about the labor secretary, Marty Walsh, who told the AP that there’s no evidence of Gianforte’s claims to the contrary. Even if there are some people choosing to stay home rather than go back to work because their enhanced unemployment benefits pay them more than their jobs (which again, no proof that that’s happening!), the argument that the alternative is preferable should be reconsidered. Full-time workers earning minimum wage in Montana earn about $346 a week – far less than MIT estimates an average single Montanan needs to live. For those living with children, even the enhanced unemployment benefits wouldn’t cut it. Nearly two-thirds of Americans have been living paycheck-to-paycheck since the pandemic hit stateside. So if I were a governor and wanted to, say, prevent an already-mounting housing crisis from mounting any further, want to give my residents enough to live on. But maybe that’s far too simple. • This article was amended on 6 May 2021 to correct the spelling of Marty Walsh’s first name.

Top general says he no longer opposes proposal to change sexual assault prosecutions

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and senior military adviser to the president, said Monday he is now open to a proposal that would take decisions on sexual assault prosecutions out of commanders' hands, AP reports.Why it matters: Failure to address sexual assault has dogged the military for years, and it became a national issue after Vanessa Guillén's death last year. Milley's comments will likely add weight to the call for change.Stay on top of the latest market trends and economic insights with Axios Markets. Subscribe for freeWhat he's saying: The proposed changes Milley referred to were recommended by an independent review panel. Though he did not endorse them, he said the military's issues surrounding sexual assault have persisted for too long."We’ve been at it for years, and we haven’t effectively moved the needle," he said. "We have to. We must."Part of his shift in opinion is due to junior service members' lack of faith in the fairness of sexual assault case outcomes, he said, though he noted he is reserving final judgment until military leadership has reviewed the recommendations."That’s really bad for our military if that’s true, and survey and the evidence indicate it is true," he said. "That’s a really bad situation if the enlisted force — the junior enlisted force — lacks confidence in their chain of command to be able to effectively deal with the issue of sexual assault."The big picture: The commission delivered its initial recommendations to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last month. He is expected to give service leaders roughly a month to review and respond, per AP.For certain special victims crimes, including sexual assault and sexual harassment, designated independent judge advocates should report to a civilian-led office of the Chief Special Victim Prosecutor to decide whether to charge someone and if that charge should proceed to a court-martial, the panel said.Top military leaders like Milley have vehemently opposed such a move for years, arguing that the authority to discipline service members should lie with commanders, AP reports.Over 20,000 service members said they experienced some type of sexual assault in 2018, according to AP. Only a third of those members filed a formal report.Like this article? Get more from Axios and subscribe to Axios Markets for free.

Montana Governor Fights to Reform ‘Broken’ Judicial Nomination Process

Montana Governor Greg Gianforte, the first Republican to hold the seat in 16 years, does not want to miss a rare opportunity to reform his state’s judicial process. In Montana, judges are chosen by voters — Supreme Court justices serve eight-year terms, and district judges serve six-year terms — and incumbents usually win. But in the case of a vacancy, the governor has the power to appoint someone to serve out the remainder of the term, after they are confirmed by the state Senate. Now, Gianforte and state Republicans want to fix what they think is a “rigged” system of filling judicial vacancies. Last month, Gianforte signed Senate Bill 140 into law, ending the current “Judicial Nominating Commission,” which since 1973 has had the sole power to recommend a list of vacancy candidates to the governor. “In practice, it was stacked with trial lawyers,” Gianforte said of the commission. “The governor could only appoint interim judges from a list that, in practice, was just three names, and they only produced liberal trial lawyers. So we worked with the legislature to put a fair process in that actually matches the way we appoint judges at the federal level for the Supreme Court.” Both the Montana Trial Lawyers Association and the Montana Defense Trial Lawyers Association oppose the disbandment of the commission, which is made up of seven members who serve four-year terms: four lay members, appointed by the governor; two attorneys chosen by the state Supreme Court, and one district judge selected from among his peers. Critics of SB 140 have called Gianforte’s move controversial for removing a “nonpartisan” check on the governor’s authority. But according to Lieutenant Governor Kristan Juras, the commission has a clear partisan bent. “When I gave my testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, I pointed out that the current seven members of the Commission have made political donations over the past 20 years — less than one percent of their contributions were to Republican candidates,” she explained. “They hide behind this ‘nonpartisan’ fiction, when in fact they’re very partisan, when in fact they do not get to the governor the sorts of people that Governor Gianforte is interested in.” SB 140’s status is currently in limbo after critics filed a lawsuit with the Montana Supreme Court on the grounds that it violates the state constitution. But the court may have a conflict of interest:emails obtained by the Montana Attorney General’s office show that the state Supreme Court administrator petitioned all state Supreme Court justices and district judges to take a position on SB 140 back in January. Chief Justice Mike McGrath, who had already recused himself from the case after saying he personally lobbied Gianforte to oppose it, chose District Judge Kurt Krueger as his replacement. But Krueger said earlier this month that he would also recuse himself, after the emails showed he “adamantly opposes” the law. Though the state legislature has now subpoenaed the Supreme Court for more records, so far the remaining six justices have refused to recuse themselves, saying they were not polled. The court also sided with Beth McLaughlin, the court administrator, after she appealed to block the release of her emails — though she admitted that she had deleted the results of a judicial poll on SB 140 and other pending legislation, which was circulated by the state’s judicial lobbying organization. “The behavior we’ve seen out of the Supreme Court here recently, with their emails, and prejudging legislation, and open communication, just shows how broken the current system is and this is why we need to have a more objective process for selecting judges,” Gianforte said. Juras, a transactional attorney by profession, says that the “unconstitutional” claim falls flat when compared with language of the 1972 state Constitution, which states that, in the case of judicial vacancies, “the governor shall appoint a replacement from nominees selected in the manner provided by law.” “It’s very clear from the comments of the delegates to that convention, they did not — they could have, but they chose not to — put into the Constitution a judicial nomination commission. They left it to the legislature to determine how exactly the governor would make these appointments,” Juras explained. Since its initial formulation in 1973, Juras said the commission has been “amended numerous times since then,” as “the legislature has constantly tried to tweak it.” In its current form, she explained, the closed-circle nature inherently limits the pool of candidates. “Most transactional attorneys would say, we didn’t stand a chance of getting through the Judicial Nomination commission, why even apply?” she stated. “Some very highly qualified candidates, including an experienced defense attorney out of Billings Montana who served on the Board of Regents, highly respected, she didn’t make it through the Judicial Nomination commission process.” Gianforte says the track record of Montana’s courts shows that the current process is not working — he points to the decision last year by the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule the Montana’s Supreme Court in the Espinoza case, which declared Blaine Amendments unconstitutional, as one example. “We don’t want a conservative court. We don’t want a liberal court. We want a court that’s going to opine on the law, not make law,” he stated. “And the current system we have in place does not make that possible.”