Gubernatorial candidate Mike Cooney
Montana 2020 Elections
Coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic in Madison County interrupted The Madisonian’s coverage of the 2020 gubernatorial race. But the primary elections are nearing and our election coverage returns. In January, we asked Madison County residents what issues they wanted gubernatorial candidates to address. A novel coronavirus has since changed life in Montana, as everywhere, and dominated the conversation. But the issues close to Madison County residents pre-COVID-19 remain. A dispute over Montana’s public lands continues, a shortage of affordable housing remains across many parts of the state, grizzly bear conflicts are on the rise and rural healthcare remains a topic of conversation amid the pandemic. The Madisonian’s gubernatorial candidate articles can be seen on The Madisonian’s website at www.madisoniannews.com.
Montana’s 36th lieutenant governor, Mike Cooney, is seeking election as Montana’s governor. Cooney graduated from the University of Montana with a bachelor’s degree in political science in between working on Max Baucus’ campaigns and being elected to the Montana’s House of Representatives for Silver Bow County. He was 22 years old.
“I was called to public service pretty young in life,” Cooney said. “I also knew how important it was that people should engage with their society and in their government.” Cooney grew up in Butte, playing drums in local bands and working at his family’s grocery store, Cooney Food Brokerage. He thought he wanted to be a news broadcaster but found the campaign trail suited him best. He and his wife, DeeAnn Cooney, moved to Washington D.C., where she graduated from Antioch Law School and he worked on Senator Baucus’ staff as executive assistant.
Cooney was elected to Montana’s Secretary of State in 1989, where he served for the maximum three terms. His first bid for Montana’s governor was 20 years ago, losing in the Democratic primary election. He served as Montana’s state senator 2003- 2010, and until he was appointed Gov. Steve Bullock’s lieutenant governor in 2016, Cooney was the Deputy Commissioner for the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.
“We’re going to be facing some very new challenges in the next administration,” Cooney said. “It’s going to take experience; it’s going to take leadership in order to make government work. Through all of that, in the end, I want to continue to make Montana something special, leave it in better shape than what was given to me.”
Cooney served on Montana’s Land Board during his 12-years as Secretary of State. If elected governor, Cooney will return to one of the board’s five seats. During his political career, Cooney has taken a consistent stance on Montana’s public lands. “I think it is a very important part of who we are and why we need to continue to fight like heck to make sure that our public lands are never under attack,” Cooney said.
Montana’s public lands are an economic driver for the state with its natural resources, recreation opportunities and tourist attraction. According to Cooney, the state’s public lands are a recruitment tool for Montana businesses because they improve quality of life. Cooney supports expanding access to public lands and state programs, like [i.e.], which work with private land owners to purchase easements.
Cooney believes that all Montanans benefit from expanding access to public lands. “Public lands are one of my major priorities, it’s always been and it will continue to be when I’m governor of this state,” Cooney said. “We need to continue to expand opportunity, we need to be sure to protect our public lands and I totally disagree with the concept that our public lands should be sold to the highest bidder. That will not happen on my watch, when I’m governor.”
Affordable housing is a national and community problem in the United States. Madison County residents earning Montana’s minimum wage of $8.50 would have to nearly triple their wages to afford a house in Madison County, according to the Madison County Housing Advisory Board. Cooney believes that there is room for the state to be a part of creative solutions to the housing shortage in Montana.
“I think a lot of people look at the housing problem as being an urban problem,” Cooney said. “I have not visited a single place in Montana – I don’t care how big or how small – that they won’t almost immediately identify housing as being one of the greater challenges.”
Cooney favored setting up a housing trust fund to combat the affordable housing shortage. Interest made from the money set aside could be designated to low-interest loans or assistance to communities. A housing trust fund could aid the affordable housing issue of the future but offers little to the present crisis. Cooney supports collaborative efforts from the public and departments, like the Montana Department of Commerce housing division, to address affordable housing. “It is a problem that needs to be address throughout the state,” Cooney said. “There is room for the state to be a part of that discussion.”
GRIZZLY BEAR MANAGEMENT
Lawsuits over delisting the Yellowstone Grizzly Bear from the endangered species list come to life in southwest Montana. Grizzly bear conflicts have increased in areas like Madison County. The Yellowstone Grizzly Bear population has dispersed into territories that it has not occupied since before their decline in the late 1800s. But a concern for the secure existence of grizzly bears and its benefits to the ecosystem question the idea of delisting them. “I think the state has tried to be proactive in dealing with the grizzly bear situation,” Cooney said. Yes, it’s a federal issue right now. There’s a lot of anticipation as to what may or may not happen as far as delisting is concerned.”
Gov. Steve Bullock and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks appointed a 12-member council in 2019 to help prepare Montana for state management. The council is a collective of perspectives in the state. “It brings people from all sides of the issue together,” Cooney said. “That’s what I really want to stress, this is not a one size fits all.” Cooney has an inclusive approach to addressing issues. He supports this process of preparedness but does not have a stance on the grizzly bear’s status as a protected species. “We need to see more of what the state council is going to come up with,” Cooney said. “But if that’s the ultimate decision that comes down, I think that the state will be very quickly prepared to the right steps to have a process in place to best manage the grizzly bear, to make a Montana solution.”
Rural healthcare has had its challenges before the COVID-19 pandemic. But Madison County’s critical access hospitals have a secure place in its communities. Critical access hospitals receive full cost-based reimbursement from Medicare and Medicaid, which is essential for continuing to serve the low volumes of rural communities.
Medicaid Expansion, which was approved for another six years in 2019, extends eligibility to the state and federal healthcare coverage to people, such as low-income able-bodied parents and low-income individuals with chronic mental illness. “One of the things I’m very proud of is the fact that I’ve been a part of an effort that we made sure the we passed Medicaid Expansion in the last legislative session,” Cooney said. “There’s no question that that has helped intact our rural healthcare structure. You look at other states whom have refused to take advantage Medicaid Expansion, those are the states where their rural hospitals are closing.”
Montana has not lost a critical access hospital since the inception of Medicaid Expansion, according to Cooney. His goal is for people to realize the critical benefits that Medicaid Expansion brings to Montanans. When reauthorization of the program comes up in six years, Cooney hopes it will be an obvious decision to continue it. Other aspects of healthcare have the lieutenant governor’s attention as well, such as the cost of prescription drugs and access to healthcare.
Telehealth is a healthcare tool that has been helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic. Montana’s lack of broadband internet speeds cripples its ability to take full advantage of telehealth. Broadband will have to expand to broaden the state’s healthcare structure with telehealth services. According to Cooney, Montana also lacks enough mental health providers to deal with Montanans’ needs. He wants to find ways to bulk up the mental health workforce in the state.
“It is an epidemic in many respects and the state needs to be focused on looking for ways to address the mental health issue in this state,” Cooney said. “The suicide rate is far too large in this state, we need to address that. We need to address some of the underlying issues that may lead to that, things such as sexual abuse, drug abuse, alcoholism.”