Despite economic setbacks imposed because of COVID-19 concerns, Montana has remained financially resilient, with adequate reserves to meet this year’s fire season, according to Governor Steve Bullock. 

State Government ended the fiscal year under budget which allowed the transfer of $46. million to the fire fund. This puts the fire fund at its statutory maximum of $101.5 million, or 4% of fiscal year 2021 appropriations, for the first time in history, enough to cover nearly five average years of state wildfire suppression costs, said the Governor.

Additionally, the Budget Stabilization Reserve remains at its statutory maximum, which is $114.2 million or 4.5% of fiscal year appropriations. This represents the second year in a row that the Budget Stabilization Reserve has been funded to its statutory cap and it is available to sustain the budget should revenue collections or expenditures vary from projections.

The balances of the general fund, the fire fund, and the Budget Stabilization Reserve total $620 million as the 2021 fiscal year begins.

The Billings Yellowstone County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) is seeking public input regarding six feasible alternatives to the downtown Billings traffic system that were identified by a recent study. Public input is being collected on the alternatives in an online survey; the deadline to participate is September 15, 2020. Public input will be used to steer future planning efforts. (The MPO is the same as the Policy Coordinating Committee)

The feasible alternatives being posed for public consideration include:

*North and South One-Way to Two-Way Conversions – Converts remaining north and south one-way streets between Division Street and North 24th Street to two-way operation and provides potential bicycle facilities consistent with the City’s Bikeways & Trails Master Plan.

*2nd Avenue N & 3rd Avenue N One-Way to Two-Way Conversions – Converts the one-way segments of 2nd Avenue N and 3rd Avenue N between Division Street and North 22nd Street to two-way operation and provides potential bicycle facilities consistent with the City’s Bikeways & Trails Master Plan.

*Montana Avenue Road Diet (Division Street to 18th Street) – Reduces Montana Avenue from three lanes to two lanes from Division Street to North 18th Street, provides potential bicycle facilities consistent with the City’s Bikeways & Trails Master Plan, and maximizes on-street parking.

*6th Avenue N Road Diet (Main Street to North 13th Street) – Reduces 6th Avenue N from five lanes to four lanes from Main Street to North 13th Street and provides a potential bicycle facility consistent with the City’s Bikeways & Trails Master Plan.

*13th Street Road Diet between 6th Avenue North and 1st Avenue North – Converts North 13th Street to a two-lane roadway with or without a center turn lane and provides potential bicycle facilities consistent with the City’s Bikeways & Trails Master Plan.

*Broadway Street Seasonal Closure – Creates a festival street by seasonally closing Broadway Street to vehicles between 1st Avenue North and 2nd Avenue North.

Members of the public are encouraged to participate in an online survey available at https:// dowl. mysocialpinpoint .com/ downtown- billings- traffic- study.

The site offers the opportunity to provide specific feedback on the proposed alternatives through an online survey, a budgeting tool to help prioritize how funds are allocated, and a digital bulletin board for other thoughts and perspectives. A link to the full Downtown Billings Traffic Study document and general project information are also available.

Following the public feedback deadline, the findings will be documented in a report and presented to the MPO and community leaders.

Direct comments, questions, or concerns to Lisa Olmsted at or by calling (406) 869-6329.

From Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation 

In 2019, nonresident travelers spent $3.77 billion throughout Montana, a 5.4% increase from the previous year. Over 12.6 million nonresidents visited in 2019.

Research by the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research reveals a different story in 2020. Nearly all of the second quarter was shut down to travelers this year due to the pandemic, creating a jolt to that yearly injection of money and visitors into Montana’s economy. The second quarter generally accounts for a bit more than 20% of annual traveler spending in the state.

Additionally, the latest available statistics by the National Park Service show big visitation declines in June in Montana’s Glacier and Yellowstone national park. Glacier was down 62% during June 2020, and Yellowstone was down 32% in June compared to that month a year ago. July figures are not yet available for Glacier, but Yellowstone actually experienced a 2% increase in visitors when compared to July 2019.

In general, when the two national parks do well, Montana’s tourism does well. As travelers drive to the parks, they spend extra time in Montana just to get there.

“What we expect to see, however, is a change in nonresident spending patterns for 2020,” said Jeremy Sage, ITRR associate director. “For example, with nervousness about dining in, we expect higher spending in the grocery and snack categories and less in restaurants and bars.”

Fuel always has been a high expenditure by nonresidents visiting Montana, but this year gasoline prices are lower than they have been in the past 20 years.

“The conundrum for fuel spending is that the pandemic actually encourages people to drive around more for sight-seeing while on vacation and spend less time stopping at museums and other attractions because they are either closed or people are uncomfortable being in indoor settings,” Sage said. “So fuel spending could be on par with other years in terms of average daily spending in that category.”

Accommodations, as well as restaurants and bars, are taking a big hit in 2020, ITRR Director Norma Nickerson said.

“A recent survey of tourism-related business – the fourth in a series of surveys – is showing that accommodation owners are still seeing cancellations and fewer reservations compared to the same months last year,” she said.

Seventy-eight percent (121 respondents) of the accommodations owners in the survey reported decreased reservations for August, with an average decrease of 52% compared to August last year.

Similarly, declines in September reservations average 61%, and winter reservations are down 66% compared to the same time last year.

“In general, however, visitors are waiting to make last-minute decisions on travel as they watch the number of COVID-19 cases go up or down and their comfort level of traveling changes based on those numbers,” Nickerson said.

Campgrounds are an exception to the general decrease in accommodation business. Nationally, there are reported spikes in recreational vehicle sales and rentals. Campground respondents in the ITRR tourism business survey basically agree. Twelve of the 14 campground owners (85%) said inquiries are up or have stayed the same.

“So it’s business as usual for the camping industry, except, of course, for the extra cleaning, mask-wearing and social distancing,” Nickerson said.

In normal years, Montana’s six travel regions and 16 of the counties with the highest levels of nonresident spending have shown that visitation and spending is widespread throughout the state and that all regions benefit.

In the most recent 2019 figures from ITRR, the Yellowstone and Glacier travel regions received 34% and 31% of all nonresident spending, while Gallatin and Flathead counties, located within those regions, accounted for 25% and 16% respectively of all nonresident spending in the state.

How different will these numbers be in 2020?

The Glacier and Yellowstone regions, home to Montana’s two iconic national parks, receive the majority of nonresident travel spending, according to Kara Grau, the ITRR assistant director of economic analysis.

“In 2019, both those regions received over 30% of traveler spending,” Grau said. “We expect those regions to continue to lead the state in nonresident spending in 2020 but realize that overall traveler spending will take a big hit this year due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, closures in the parks and consumer hesitancy in travel.”  

By Dr. Katarina Lindley, The Center Square

The consequences of keeping children cooped-up at home far outweighs the risk of the virus. While the chance of a school-age child dying of COVID-19 is less likely than being struck by lightning, isolation is eating away at the mental health of our youth and even pushing some to do the unthinkable. Last month, an El Paso teen tragically took her own life; her mother noted pandemic-induced isolation was partly to blame.

It’s not a standalone event. CDC Director Robert Redfield commented in July, “there has been another [lockdown] cost that we’ve seen, particularly in high schools. We’re seeing … far greater suicides now than we are deaths from COVID.” Suicides in Chicago are up 13 percent compared to this time last year, while cities like Fresno, California, have experienced a 70 percent jump.

It’s obvious the consequences of at-home learning and skipping out on extra curricular activities are not limited to failing to grasp long division or missing out on kicking the winning field goal. Given the stakes, even Dr. Anthony Fauci recognizes getting kids back in the school setting should be the default position for community leaders. The stance is also supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, National Academy of Science and CDC.

But keeping classrooms on lockdown and suspending youth athletics is only the tip of the iceberg. COVID-19 has been used as a tool by governors and local leaders to trample basic liberties. If left unaddressed, the continuing breaches of individual rights will further sabotage our children’s future.

Examples are chronicled in the news on a daily basis.

A gym owner in New Jersey was recently arrested because he dared to open his business. A Kentucky couple was put under house arrest and forced to wear ankle monitors because they refused to sign self-quarantine documents. In Nevada, up to 500 people can gamble in a casino, but church congregations are limited to 50 via government edict. And most recently, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti authorized the city to shut off the water and power to homes hosting large gatherings.

These events remind me of my challenging childhood in Yugoslavia – which was characterized by government control and the suppression of individual freedoms. Sadly, the U.S. is inching in that direction with every additional pandemic rule and restriction. I wake up every morning wondering how many rights we will lose today in the name of fighting COVID-19.

Benjamin Franklin famously commented, “those who give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Perhaps state and community leaders should revisit that thought and begin to reverse course. The future of the country, and our children, depend on it.

Katarina Lindley, D.O. FACOFP, is a physician in Texas and a partner of the Job Creators Network Foundation.

By Greg R. Lawson

In one form or another, the new school year is or is about to be underway. Teachers, students and parents across the country face tough questions, challenges, and uncertainties amid the ongoing pandemic and its perplexing disruptions. And ready or not, the school bell rings.

With back-to-school plans ranging from teaching students anywhere from the classroom to the family room, this school year likely will require more flexibility than any other in modern history.

The School Choice Now Act, provides some of that flexibility by including bold proposals by U.S. Sens. Tim Scott, R-SC, and Lamar Alexander, R-TN, that can help families and educators navigate these uncharted waters. The legislation extends critical support to states, families and schools nationwide looking to get back to school.

In several ways, the act builds upon the concept of federal education savings accounts – or ESAs – that give parents greater authority to use their tax dollars on education-related materials and services, such as computers, textbooks, tutors and online classes. The Buckeye Institute has long-advocated state and federal ESAs, and with only 38 percent of Ohio’s public school students going to go back to school full-time, millions of families facing hybrid remote learning environments and looking for alternatives to public education need all the help and options they can get this year.

The School Choice Now Act provides that financial help and makes educational options more affordable.

First, the legislation provides one-time appropriations to support non-profit “scholarship-granting organizations” in each state. These non-profits receive qualified contributions from individuals and businesses to create scholarships for eligible students to attend qualified, non-public schools. Scholarships funded through the act also may pay for direct educational and home-schooling expenses – a key flexibility considering how many students will be learning from home rather than on K-12 campuses.

As with ESA funds, parents may use School Choice Now Act scholarship dollars for tuition at private schools and for remote learning resources and tutors. Significantly, the act also makes clear that any private, religious or home school educators may participate in such scholarship programs without fear of federal bureaucrats monitoring their every move.

Second, the proposal lays the foundation for expanding school choice opportunities down the road with a permanent dollar-for-dollar federal tax credit for individuals and corporations that contribute to scholarship granting organizations. As scholarships become increasingly popular with parents surveying the educational landscape for the best opportunities for their children, such a tax credit will foster more school choice programs and encourage states to design their own tax credit scholarships for education better tailored to meeting student needs.

The School Choice Now Act should be part of any federal COVID-19 relief package designed to get America back to work and school safely. It offers immediate financial support to families and schools facing unexpected educational expenses and challenges, and it lays the groundwork for long-term opportunities that will strengthen academics and learning in this country for generations to come. Given all the upheaval and uncertainty facing our students and families, America needs school choice now and later.

Greg R. Lawson is a research fellow at The Buckeye Institute

By Evelyn Pyburn

The official status of COVID in Montana, as of last weekend was 7,063 confirmed cases and deaths hit 100 with 242,875 people having been tested. That means that of those people who have tested positive with the disease 98.6 percent have survived, but what is the survival rate of all the people who have actually contracted the disease?

The number of cases is, without doubt, much higher – maybe very much higher – even though not much is being said about it anywhere.

Given the pressures that are being brought to bear on citizens, assessments of their likely reactions should probably consider the nature of those citizens – ie. the nature of human beings. One must realize that just as much as human beings would want to avoid the negative impacts of getting the virus, so they would want to avoid the adverse impacts of “the long arm of the law.”

And, as much as the media and political blitz has served to obscure the fact that most people survive the illness, most people see beyond the programming and know that the disease is not a death sentence for most – so to become ill, if they are not in a high risk group, does not send them into a panic. And, because they do not want to deal with the county health department or be the cause of hardships for their fellow workers, friends and family, they do not get tested.

As one said, “Who wants to be responsible for putting their employer out of business? Who wants to lose their job or be responsible for putting their friends out of work?”

People with greater income security or who are unware that actions have consequences, will probably react differently, but necessity will force a more pragmatic reaction from the other half of the world, so common sense says there are more people than those being counted who have had the virus. At least one case for each official case, and the ratio is undoubtedly greater than that.

One must believe that “officialdom” knows that this is going on but say nothing about it, although County Health Officer John Felton, at one press conference, hinted that the process of contact tracing is made difficult because people do not answer the phone when they see that it is the County Health Department calling.

This too is an example of typical and natural human behavior, especially for human beings who are used to the idea that they have the right to live life on their own terms.

But that can be changed, the bureaucrats, health experts and officialdom have been heard to strategize. It’s just a matter of getting people used to it and they will eventually acquiesce, especially the young ones.

That there is resistance to the Governor’s edicts shouldn’t be surprising, but apparently the Governor himself is surprised. Whether true or not I am unsure, but I was told by one individual who was in a meeting with the Governor, that the Governor expressed surprise, saying, “It seems like there are people who are refusing to wear masks simply because I told them to.”

If he is truly surprised, then one has to conclude that his bubble has left his arrogance intact and his understanding of “commoners” exists not at all.

Whether it’s avoiding contracting a disease or having to deal with government bureaucrats, most people do what is in their best interests to do, that is why coercion was never necessary and persuasion would have worked better – but persuasion requires respecting “commoners.” That our leaders had no interest in that approach says all that needs to be said.

NFIB, the nation’s leading small business advocacy organization, has presented its most prestigious legislative recognition, the Guardian of Small Business Award, to Montana U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte.

“The NFIB Guardian of Small Business Award is awarded to lawmakers whom small businesses can truly count on,” said NFIB Vice President of Federal Government Relations Kevin Kuhlman. “These Members of the United States House of Representatives are dedicated supporters of the key issues that our members are concerned about and have proven themselves to be real champions for small business. Our policy positions are driven by our members, and we report NFIB Key Votes back to our membership. We are proud to recognize the elected officials from the 116th Congress who earned this distinction by taking pro-small business votes supporting financial assistance programs and tax relief and opposing new regulations and increased labor costs. Small business owners across the country need their support now more than ever during these unprecedented times, and we are grateful to these lawmakers for their leadership.”

Added Riley Johnson, NFIB’s Montana state director, “At no time in recent history has small business needed more reliable and steadfast friends in Congress and state legislatures, and without a doubt, Congressman Gianforte has been one. The mom-and-pop enterprises of Montana’s Main Streets are grateful for the support Congressman Gianforte has given them.”

NFIB’s Guardian of Small Business Award is reserved for lawmakers who vote consistently with small business on the key issues identified by small business owners. Those who voted with small business on key issues 70% or more of the time during the 116th Congress earned the NFIB Guardian of Small Business Award. NFIB informs lawmakers in advance which votes will be considered NFIB Key Votes and asks lawmakers to support the consensus views of our members. We also remind them that the results will be reported back to the NFIB membership. 

From Oil Patch Hotline

The North Dakota State Supreme Court last week backed up the contention of mineral owners along the edge of Missouri River near Williston that the state wrongly grabbed their mineral ownership and the result could be a huge payout.

The State does not have any claim or hold title as sovereign lands to any minerals above the Ordinary High Water Mark of the historical Missouri riverbed channel, the court said about the  William S. Wilkinson case brought against the ND Dept. of Trust Lands, Statoil, Brigham Oil and Gas and others.

“I t’s a historic win for North Dakota mineral owners/landowners against the State, said attorney Josh Swanson.  “The Supreme Court categorically rejected all of the State’s arguments, affirmed the fact that the Wilkinsons own the minerals, and is allowing the Wilkinsons to go back to the district court to pursue money damages against the State.”

As much as $1 million could be distributed to 14 mineral owners on 286 acres on the edge of Missouri River.

The Missoula International Airport has seen over 1,000 plus more private planes land at the airport as  compared to July 2019.

The owner of Whiskey and Lace Clothing Boutique, located at 23 W. Main St.,  Bozeman, is Lee Ann Anthony.  The business began two years ago as a fully-online clothing store

The Ruh Building, located at 605 N. 7th Ave., in Bozeman is set for completion in December. The building occupants will include a brewery, 16 apartments and 5,000 square feet of retail space. The building is owned by Bill and Karen Ruh. Last Best Place Brewing, will fill the building’s brewery space.

Montana’s unemployment rate decreased for the third straight month, dropping by 0.8 percentage points to 6.4% in July. Montana’s unemployment rate is 3.8 percentage points below the national rate of 10.2% for July 2020.

The Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, has announced the cancellation of  the 11th annual Great Northwest Oktoberfest scheduled for this fall has been canceled.  The event takes place in downtown Whitefish on the last weekend of September and the first weekend in October.

According to a new analysis from industry group Airlines for America, Montana experienced the smallest percentage decline in passenger flights out of any state in the country when compared to July of last year. Montana saw a 25% reduction in scheduled flights from July 2019 to July 2020. The national average was about a 50% decrease, and New York, the state with the most significant drop-off, saw flights decline by 70% compared to the same time period last year.

Rapid Clean Car Wash, a new Bozeman car wash, will have a 160-foot wash tunnel and 17 car vacuums.  Rapid Clean plans to hire up to 22 employees when they open. The planned for  detail shop and large vehicle wash openings will hire 3 or 4 more employees..

A huge expansion costing between $35 million and $40 million, that will more than double the capacity of the Dakota Access Pipeline to 1.1 million BOPD, was proposed by Energy Transfer Partners. Work will be completed by February 2021. The company said it is anticipated that crude oil production out of the Williston Basin will increase between 350,000 to 450,0000 BOPD over the next five years, with current production exceeding 1.3 million BOPD. The 36-inch crude oil pipeline runs 1,172 miles from Stanley, ND to Patoka, IL. The pipeline has reached its maximum capacity of 600,000 BOPD. (From Oil Patch Hotline)

Hess Corp is building a $155 million expansion of its gas processing plant at Tioga, ND.  The turnaround at the plant will take place next year along with the new tie- in to expanded NGL pipelines. Total capacity will be at 265 Mmcf a day.

Montana’s fire fund will be adequate to handle the fire season, according to the Governor. The fire fund has doubled to its statutory maximum, said Gov. Steve Bullock, and the state is well equipped to manage the COVID uncertainty with budget reserves of over $600 million. He said, “We are well equipped to handle two concurrent challenges with a fire fund that can cover nearly five average wildfire seasons and the reserves to sustain critical services and manage through the pandemic.” On August 15, $46.7 million was transferred from the general fund to the fire suppression fund, putting the fire fund at its statutory maximum of $101.5 million, or 4% of fiscal year 2021 appropriations.

Construction crews are widening Highway 287 north of Three Forks to 4-lanes, which will help improve stopping and sight distance for drivers.  The 7-mile stretch of highway in Broadwater County between I-90 and Toston will connect the existing 4-lane sections to help with safety and design standards. The Montana Department of Transportation says with the increase in traffic throughout the area this project will help improve visibility.  

Gallatin County’s residential real estate market saw increases in closed sales, pending sales and median sale prices in July, while the inventory of available homes decreased in both the single family and condo/townhome markets compared to last year. The median sales price increased 5.8%, from $462,250 in July 2019 to $489,000 in July 2020. Closed sales increased by 21.4%, from 192 to 233, and pending sales jumped 73.3%, from 150 to 260. The inventory of available homes decreased 40.5% compared to last year, from 504 to 300, and the month’s supply of inventory decreased 40.5%, from 3.7 to 2.2. The number of new single-family listings increased 2.3% compared to July 2019, from 213 to 218. The average days on market increased 4.4%, from 45 to 47. Sellers received 99.2% of their list price last month, up slightly from 98.9% last year. Closed sales on condos increased 38.1%, and sale prices in the condo/townhouse market increased 6.8%, from $323,000 to $345,000.  

Research activity at UM has grown substantially in recent years. This fiscal year, UM reported $104.7 million in research expenditures to the National Science Foundation’s Higher Education Research and Development (HERD) survey. This is a 16% increase over the previous high of $90.6 million in FY2018 and a 90% increase from FY2014.morbidities

Protect Our Care Montana was joined by Reps. Debo Powers and Dave Fern, Executive Director of Flathead Community Health Center, Mary Sterhan, and Kalispell City Councilman Kyle Watermen on an a call to discuss the new healthcare navigator grant program during a meeting that recognized the third anniversary of Senator John McCain’s thumbs-down vote to that would have repealed Affordable Care Act. 

 Speakers spoke with elected leaders supporting ongoing efforts to eliminate the Affordable Care Act in court. They said that the stakes have never been higher to protect the Affordable Care Act and Montana’s Medicaid, given the current concerns about COVID-19. 

 Waterman, councilman for Ward 3 in Kalispell, called upon his experiences working with Montanans facing health challenges, “Medicaid expansion has allowed us to expand services in our community and move care upstream for issues like mental health.”

Discussing Montana’s Medicaid program and the change it’s brought to the Flathead area, Sterhan emphasized the impact Medicaid expansion has had on the state. She pointed out that programs like Montana’s Medicaid allow healthcare providers, like her, to approach health holistically and begin working with patients early instead of having to provide emergency or critical care later. 

 Sterhan also applauded Governor Steve Bullock’s announcement of $1 million health coverage Navigator grant program in the state. She confirmed Flathead Community Health currently has two navigators working with the public and the patients and will be applying for grant funds to increase that outreach. 

 Reps. Powers and Fern lauded the impact the ACA has had in their community and stressed what they believe would be the unintended impacts of repeal, including economic hardship for nearly 90,000 as they struggle to find healthcare.