Speaking up for us?
Flowers sees opportunity to champion local causes in
In 2018, Big Sky residents will help elect three legislators representing this community on both sides of the Gallatin-Madison county line. The race for Montana Senate District 32—which includes parts of Bozeman and Belgrade and extends south to include Gallatin Gateway, Big Sky and West Yellowstone—has attracted the interest of Democrat Pat Flowers, who will likely match up against incumbent Republican Jedediah Hinkle.
Hinkle beat Democrat Frankie Wilmer for the seat in 2014, but lost in Big Sky’s 64B precinct by 32 votes. The final tally of total votes gave Hinkle a 810-vote edge and next year he could try to build on this favorable margin by touting his work as vice chair of the Montana Senate Fish and Game Committee. That sets up an interesting race between two candidates familiar with the concerns and priorities shared among the hunters and anglers who live and vote in Big Sky.
Flowers came to Montana in 1977 to attend forestry school and built a career with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, rising to become a regional supervisor. While with FWP, Flowers initiated a collaborative effort to develop and implement river recreation rules for the Big Hole and Beaverhead Rivers. He was the chairman of the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee for grizzly bear recovery and he was part of a collaborative group of landowners, sportsmen, state and federal agencies that developed solutions for elk management in Madison Valley.
In retirement, Flowers currently serves as the president of the Bridger Ski Foundation Board of Directors and is the interim executive director.
Reflecting on his life and career, Flowers said, “I raised two girls in Montana with my wife, Hedvig, who passed away in 2007. In 2014, I remarried. My wife, Melissa, and I now share four daughters who are either pursuing college degrees or their professional careers.”
Flowers now looks ahead at his latest pursuit—a seat in the Montana Senate.
Lookout: Why throw your hat in now? Why not binge on hunting and fishing in retirement?
Flowers: Like many of us, I was frustrated over the last year at the apparent dysfunction in our state Legislature and at the federal level. Rather than just complain, I wanted to do more. I have a strong personal belief in the importance of public service, and serving as the senator for Senate District 32 will allow me to continue my commitment.
I met with a Montana State University student recently to better understand campus issues. She shared her frustration with baby boomers that express an attitude that boomers have done their part, and today’s problems must be addressed by the millennial generation. I think her frustration is justified. Us baby boomers have helped create the current challenges we face in society and in government, and we should continue to contribute to the solutions.
I enjoyed the freedom over the last three years to spend more days on the rivers, and in the field with my dogs chasing sharptails and pheasants. I also appreciated a fuller freezer of antelope and elk. Despite that satisfaction, I continue to feel the need to contribute my expertise and experience to help solve the state’s most challenging issues at the legislative level.
Lookout: How might your experience in natural resources (forestry, fish and wildlife) help the Big Sky community navigate future natural resource challenges?
Flowers: During my career I have had the good fortune to manage some of the most incredible natural resources in the world. Managing the state forests and then the fish and wildlife of Southwestern Montana was full of challenge and reward. Those experiences required me to not only focus on the science, but also the people who value our natural heritage for both a livelihood and enjoyment.
We are now faced with the daunting task of trying to maintain the health and quality of our natural resources, while facing the pressures posed by growth and change in our communities. The only way to address both ends is to engage the variety of interests in the community and scientific professionals in evaluating options, and finding solutions together. That is often a difficult and time-consuming process as you engage wide-ranging opinions and values.
My experience is that it is time well spent. Citizens who contribute are distinctly heard, and final solutions are more broadly supported by the community. Most importantly, solutions identified through this type of process are more effective and enduring. The recent efforts in Big Sky focused on wastewater treatment are a good example of applying a community effort to solve a tough problem. Based on my background, I can effectively support those efforts as your state senator to ensure you have the freedom and backing to pursue local solutions that are well founded in science and social needs.
Lookout: Does the Legislature need to do more to protect hunter and angler access in Madison and Gallatin Counties?
Flowers: Montanans enjoy outstanding access to our rivers and streams and public lands. All of us who enjoy that access have to remain vigilant that those opportunities are not diminished. As Montana grows and develops there will continue to be attempts to erode our stream access rights. Our state Legislature must stop any future efforts to limit the public’s rights to access our rivers and streams.
There will continue to be attempts to cut off the opportunity for the public to gain access to public lands. The Montana Legislature needs to provide any needed support to counties and our federal partners to make sure they can resist any efforts to limit public access. Some in the Legislature have suggested that we should encourage the transfer of federal lands to state ownership. Such a shift would make the current federal lands much more vulnerable to privatization, which would then result in a loss of hunter, angler and general recreation opportunities. As your state senator, I would vote against any attempt to support a wholesale shift of federal lands to state ownership.
Lookout: Talk about your work in and around Big Sky.
Flowers: In my work with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, I met many times with Big Sky residents to discuss wildlife management issues, mainly related to big game hunting seasons, wolves and bison. Big Sky sportsmen and women, outfitters and landowners shared strong opinions on all of those issues. Those opinions helped shape wildlife management in the Big Sky area. I think it is important to continue to
apply that type of passion to other issues in Big Sky in order to sustain and further support the community you desire. I look forward to being a part of those discussions.
Lookout: Lone Peak High School is a high achieving small school—How will you protect its interests and public education across Senate District 32?
Flowers: One of the Legislature’s most important responsibilities is to provide adequate funding for public schools. That funding was threatened in the 2017 Legislature by efforts to divert public school funding to charter schools. That diversion could be a great loss to small schools like Lone Peak High School.
I will oppose similar efforts that I expect to see in the 2019 Legislature. There is substantial research that shows the significant value of high quality pre-kindergarten education, and yet Montana is one of the few states that does not provide any state support. I would like
to see that change during the 2019 session.
Lookout: Fewer than 20 percent of the people who work in Big Sky live in Big Sky. How would you assist local efforts to create more affordable housing?
Flowers: Affordable employee housing is essential to the health and safety of employees, and for all of us that regularly drive the Gallatin Canyon. The challenge of affordable, employee housing in Big Sky is primarily a problem that must be addressed locally, but there also may be ways that the Legislature can help support those local efforts.
Some type of public/private partnership seems like the best approach to address this housing challenge. My understanding is a 1 percent increase in the local resort tax has been put forward as part of the solution. Before that increase could go on the local ballot, the Montana Legislature would have to increase the current cap on local resort taxes from 3 to 4 percent. I want to work with the Big Sky community prior to the next legislative session to ensure we share an understanding of the issue and possible solutions. With that understanding, I can provide the appropriate legislative support for the housing solution.
Lookout: What did you take away from the special budget session this year and how does it factor into your run for the Montana Senate?
Flowers: The special budget session was triggered largely by unmet revenue projections and high wildfire suppression costs resulting from a severe wildfire season. We cannot predict precisely when severe fire seasons will occur, but we do know they will occur periodically. We should maintain an adequate reserve fund to help offset high suppression costs when they occur, and thereby avoid breaking the budget in those tough years.
My understanding is that revenue projections were poorly crafted in the past session and were unrealistically high. Those projections are the foundation for the budget agreement that follows. We can do a better job with future revenue projections. They should be somewhat conservative and based on the best collective wisdom of the Legislature and governor’s budget analysts. The most important job of the Legislature is to agree on revenue estimates and pass a sound budget that funds important government services. This work should come from the careful deliberations that occur in the regular Legislative session, and should not be handled in a special session with stopgap budget measures.
Lookout: Healthcare and tax cuts: There are big changes afoot at the national level. What do Montanans need to pay attention to leading up to the next legislative session?
Flowers: The 2015 Montana Legislature voted to support expanded Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act. That decision allowed for more than 70,000 Montanans to get enrolled in healthcare insurance, and avoid the financial devastation that can come from treatment following accidents and diagnosis of costly chronic illness.
Like many of us, I have faced the huge costs of healthcare in my family, and recognize how overwhelming those costs can be without the support of health insurance. Pending any future changes in the Affordable Care Act at the federal level, the expanded Medicaid coverage approved in the 2015 Legislature must be re-authorized in the 2019 Legislature or it will sunset. As your state senator, I will fully support that re-authorization to ensure 70,000-plus Montanans continue to have health insurance coverage.
The impact of the recent federal tax restructuring on our state budget is unclear at this point. I heard an estimate that it could result in an additional shortfall in the state budget of $70–100 million. If that estimate is true, it further supports the need for the Legislature to explore alternative revenue sources for the 2019 session in order to maintain essential government services.
Lookout: When in Big Sky, do you have a go-to restaurant, bar or coffee shop that you always visit when passing through?
Flowers: The Bugaboo is our convenient and delicious breakfast go-to in Big Sky, and we like to stop in at the Corral for a great burger. My wife and I also like to celebrate special occasions with a weekend and dinner at the Rainbow Ranch. The setting and the food are tough to beat!
Lookout: What was it like watching The Rut this year?
Flowers: One of my daughters ran The Rut this year at Big Sky. It is a really well organized, amazing endurance event, and it was great fun to be a part of the festivities, even as a spectator. It was also painful to watch—Wow, what a brutal course and my hat is off to all who ran it.