Melissa Yackley has been promoted to Vice President, Branch Manager of Stockman Bank King Avenue. Her responsibilities include overseeing bank operations, management and employee supervision, and all lending activities.

Yackley brings over 15 years of banking experience to the position, which includes commercial lending and business development. She was previously vice president, commercial loan officer at the Stockman Bank King Avenue office. 

Yackley earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration and Management from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, North Dakota. She is active in the community serving on the Board of Directors for the Alberta Bair Theater and Family Services, as well as a member of the Billings Kiwanis Club.

She is located at 2700 King Avenue and can be reached at (406) 655-2728.

Yackley takes over for Tim Ludewig who was the previous branch manager of Stockman Bank King Avenue. Ludewig recently relocated to Missoula to serve as vice president, commercial lender for the Stockman Bank Missoula market.

The Tax Foundation has released the latest edition of its International Tax Competitiveness Inc. which shows that the US ranks only 21st in the developed world for tax competitiveness.

A well-structured tax code is easy for taxpayers to comply with and can promote economic development while raising sufficient revenue for a government’s priorities. In contrast, poorly structured tax systems can be costly, distort economic decision-making, and harm domestic economies, explains the Foundation. 

While the U.S. tax system has become more competitive in recent years, it still ranks in the bottom half of developed countries and behind what are often considered high-tax countries like Sweden (#7) and regional competitors like Canada (#18) due to several uncompetitive features:

* A progressive individual income tax with a top rate of 46 percent, including payroll and personal income taxes.

* A partial territorial system that doesn’t exempt foreign capital gains income (one of the most onerous international tax systems of any OECD nation).

* Among the strengths of the U.S. tax system is the allowance of full expensing for business investments in machinery; however, that is set to expire soon.

The Center Square

Only one in five of the 143 largest statewide public retirement systems in the U.S. are resilient, a new analysis published by the bipartisan nonprofit Equable Institute shows.

Public sector funding peaked in 2001, with nearly 3 out of 4 statewide plans 90 percent funded or better. By 2020, one in five statewide plans have a “resilient funded” status.

[Montana’s retirement funds for teachers and for public employees face a $4.5 billion shortfall, according to legislators serving on a special committee that met last January to discuss the problem in Billings. The Montana Teachers Retirement System (MTRS) and the Montana Public Employees Retirement System (MPERS) have reached this state of affairs primarily because of overestimating the rate of returns on the state investment fund from which future retirement benefits are paid. They said that they expect that the problem will have to be addressed during the next state legislative session.]

The report, “State of Pensions 2020,” analyzes trends in public pension funding, investments, contributions, cash flow and maturation of retirement systems that had more than $1 billion in assets through 2019.

The current estimated funded ratio for 143 statewide plans is 67.9 percent, near the lowest point in modern history. And five states – California, Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texas – account for more than 50 percent of unfunded liabilities.

The institute, which works with public retirement system stakeholders to solve complex pension funding challenges, found that nationally, public pension funding has been in decline since 2001. Despite the decade-long bull market, the recession following coronavirus shutdowns leave them in a worse position than the Great Recession did.

State and local public employee retirement systems in the U.S. manage over $4.3 trillion in public pension fund investments, according to Pew Charitable Trusts. Returns on these assets account for more than 60 cents of every dollar available to pay promised benefits, it found in a December 2019 report.

“About three-quarters of these assets are held in what are often called risky assets – stocks and alternative investments, including private equities, hedge funds, real estate, and commodities,” the Pew report said.

Research by The Pew Charitable Trusts found that since the Great Recession, public pension plans have lowered return targets in response to changes in the long-term outlook for financial markets. Pew analyzed the 73 largest state-sponsored pension funds, which collectively manage 95 percent of all investments for state retirement systems. The average assumed return for these funds was 7.3 percent in 2017, Pew found, down from over 7.5 percent in 2016 and 8 percent in 2007 just before the downturn began.

“The pension asset shortfall for statewide plans keeps growing,” the Equable Institute report states. “At the end of 2019, there was no net recovery from losses during the Great Recession and Financial Crisis.”

The institute estimates that unfunded liabilities will grow to $1.62 trillion in 2020, up from $1.35 trillion in 2019, and from $1.16 trillion in 2009.

“One of the most concerning findings from the report is a trend toward rapidly expanding net negative cashflows, as a result of plan maturation,” the report states.

“Although contribution rates have progressively increased (a positive trend from the perspective of plan funding), benefit payments are also growing steadily (because of increased retirements), resulting in a net negative cashflow of -$113 billion for 2019,” it continues.

Because the trend has steadily worsened since 2009, the institute says it will be increasingly difficult for governments to invest their pension plans back to health.

If assumed returns had kept pace with declining interest rates since 2001, the institute analysis says, average assumption in 2019 would have been around 5.1 percent. In 2020, the average assumed rate of return is 7.2 percent.

“We estimate the average investment return for statewide plans as of June 30, 2020 is -0.44 percent based on the most recent asset allocation reports from each plan,” the institute says. “This is 763 basis points below the average 7.19 percent assumed return for the fiscal year.”

The report also analyzed unfunded liabilities relative to state GDP and found that states with some of the most visible pension funding challenges, including New Jersey, Kentucky and Illinois, have the largest share of unfunded liabilities relative to their state’s GDP, topping 15 percent, respectively.

The Center Square

The U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 13 stopped the 2020 Census head count in response to a request from the Trump administration, handing a blow to a coalition of local governments and civil rights groups that filed suit.

The coalition sued to stop the census count from ending Sept. 30, which the Trump administration had planned in order to meet a deadline stipulated by law. U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh ruled that the count could continue through Oct. 31, which the Trump administration appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and won.

The administration argued the count needed to end immediately in order for the U.S. Census Bureau to have enough time to tally the numbers before a congressionally mandated Dec. 31 deadline. Counting and compiling all the data is necessary to accurately determine the number of congressional seats apportioned to each state based on population totals.

The U.S. Census Bureau argued before the court that it had already counted 99.9 percent of households in the U.S. in 2020. But census takers have raised concerns about the quality of the data being collected, and the American Statistical Association released a report Tuesday expressing similar concerns.

Their report, written by a task force of former Census Bureau directors and others, raises concerns about the shortened head count schedule, pending lawsuits and other issues. The task forces argues that outside experts should be given access to the data to help analyze its quality before it is used to determine congressional seats. They also recommended that federal law governing the census be reevaluated.

Results of the door-knocking phase of the 2020 census this year are similar to those received from the 2010 Census, Al Fontenot, an associate director at the Census Bureau, said in court papers. Nearly 24 percent of responses resulted from interviews with neighbors or landlords or someone other than the person living in the household that was being counted in both 2020 and 2010.

The 2020 Census, Fontenot said, is the first decennial census in which records from the IRS, Social Security and Medicare accounted for 13.9 percent of the information the Bureau collected about residents instead of receiving the information directly from them.

In addition to apportioning congressional seats, the population data calculated by the Census Bureau also determines how much of $1.5 trillion in federal money is allocated to states.

The state of Montana sold $52.2 million in bonds to continue financing infrastructure projects across the state and refinanced $32.4 million in bonds to take advantage of lower interest rates, which will save taxpayer dollars.

The Board of Examiners executed the Bond Purchase Agreement. The bonds sold will continue financing projects such as Romney Hall, expansion of the Great Falls College MSU Dental Hygiene Clinic, and the Montana Heritage Center.

Interest rates for the bond issuances were historically low and ranged between .7 percent to 1.8 percent.

Additionally, the Board of Examiners approved refinancing $32.4 million in trust land bonds as well as water pollution control bonds. Refinancing will save the state $7 million.

The Montana Legislature passed and Governor Bullock signed legislation in 2019 to fund sewer, water, bridges, buildings and other public works projects.

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), a business advocacy organization,endorsed Matt Rosendale for election to the US House of Representatives.

 “Matt Rosendale is a champion of small business issues in Montana, from deregulation to less government interference,” said Gary Selvy, NFIB’s Executive Director of State Governmental Relations. “He understands the issues our members are facing, especially during these difficult times. During his time in the Montana state Legislature, Rosendale has demonstrated that he knows Montana values and what is most important to our members. We have no doubt that he will be an excellent small business representative for our state in Congress and we are proud to endorse him today.”

 Matt Rosendale has served as the Montana State Auditor since 2017. Prior to that, he was a member of the Montana state Legislature for six years and served as the Senate Majority Leader for his final two years.

 “Matt Rosendale has a deep understanding of our members’ priorities and concerns,” said NFIB National Political Director Sharon Sussin. “We are confident he will be a strong ally for small business in Congress. That’s why we are pleased to endorse him today.”

The  endorsement comes from NFIB FedPAC, the organization’s political action committee. NFIB FedPAC is funded by NFIB member donations above membership dues.

Travelers who are comfortable taking a trip are making those plans at the last minute

As travelers begin to hit the roads again, many are making travel plans on a whim.

According to hotel booking data, domestic travel bookings show September was the strongest month of the year, but still down 12% compared to 2019. AAA Montana travel data also reveals:

* 49% of hotel bookings are within three days of travel, up from 31% in 2019.

* 65% of hotel bookings are within seven days of departure, up from 45% in 2019.

“Travel destinations around the world have made enhancements to their operations with safety in mind,” Aldo Vazquez, spokesperson for AAA Montana, said. “Would-be travelers should work with a travel professional who can help them research their destination to help determine their level of comfort before booking.”

Shorter, closer trips to home appear to be the new trend as travelers determine for themselves what they are comfortable doing when venturing from home.

These are the top hotel destinations according to data from AAA Montana through September.

1. Las Vegas, NV            

2. San Diego, CA

3. Reno, NV

4. Flagstaff,  AZ             9

5. Sacramento, CA       

6. San Francisco, CA

7. Los Angeles, CA

8. Phoenix, AZ

9. Monterey, CA

10. Salt Lake City, UT

*This list includes data from a seven state region including Northern California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Montana, Wyoming and Alaska.

AAA’s TripTik travel tool provides COVID-19 travel restrictions, including roadway checkpoints, border closures and confirmed cases at the state and county level. Travelers looking for hotel destinations can visit to search for lodgings with AAA’s Best of Housekeeping and Diamond designations.

 About AAA Montana AAA  is on a mission to create Members for life by unleashing the innovative spirit of 4,000 employees representing more than 6 million Members across Northern California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Montana, Wyoming and Alaska. In addition to legendary roadside assistance, AAA offers home, auto and life insurance, travel, and home security service

The MSU Billings Chancellor Search Committee has announced Stefani Hicswa, Ph.D., as the sole finalist for the MSUB Chancellor position. Hicswa currently serves as President of Northwest College in Powell, WY; a position she has held since 2013. Under her leadership, Northwest College has achieved the highest completion rate in its history, completed significant capital projects, and launched comprehensive strategic visioning, enrollment management, and facilities master plans. Prior to her service as President of Northwest College, she served for seven years as President of Miles Community College in Miles City, Montana.

“Stefani Hicswa is an outstanding finalist for this position,” said Deputy Commissioner of Higher Education Brock Tessman, who serves as chair of the Chancellor Search Advisory Committee. “She brings to the table a proven track record of stable and successful executive leadership, strong connections to Montana higher education, and a passion for connecting with students, employees, and the community.”

Hicswa holds a Ph.D. in Educational Administration from the University of Texas at Austin, a M.Ed. in Adult, Community, and Higher Education from Montana State University Bozeman, and a B.A. in Organizational Communication from the University of Montana Missoula. She is deeply familiar with the higher education landscape in Montana, including her time as President of Miles Community College, work as a consultant to Helena College, Flathead Valley Community College, Miles Community College, and Great Falls College, and a term as the Lincoln County Campus Director for Flathead Valley Community College. She has also held leadership positions with the Flathead Valley Community College TRIO and Upward Bound programs. Beyond Montana, she has faculty experience with the University of Wyoming, National American University, and the University of Illinois.

Doubling Montana Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund will provide significant relief for 43,000 Montana businesses

Montana’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund will receive an infusion of $200 million from federal Coronavirus Relief Funds, which effectively doubles the fund.

The increased funding will provide “significant relief for 43,000 Montana businesses,” said Governor Steve Bullock, since it will prevent an 85 percent spike in a tax rate that they would otherwise have to pay.

 “Montana businesses have already been hit hard once due to COVID-19 and its economic impacts. The last thing we want is to see them hit hard twice by significantly increasing unemployment insurance rates,” Bullock said. “Boosting the trust fund will have a real impact on the ground for tens of thousands of Montana businesses next year and for years to come and will play a key role in the state’s economic recovery.”

“Business owners in Montana are doing all they can to navigate the economic challenges presented by COVID-19,” Todd O’Hair, president and CEO of the Montana Chamber of Commerce, said. “Every bit of assistance helps, and this smart use of Coronavirus Relief Funds will bring some needed predictability to unemployment insurance rates as we emerge from the pandemic.”

By Dr. David W. Kreutzer

The first two debates have been hard to watch at times. But then again, politics can be ugly.

Among many statements, former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris both promised to rescue us with multi-trillion-dollar climate justice policies.  While novel sounding, it’s just a sad rerun of the failed promises made the last time Joe Biden was in office

Guess what?  The inspector general at the Department of Labor, as well as the analysts at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, evaluated both the stimulus plan’s job-training programs and the number of green jobs “created.” The programs were a dismal failure and the number of green jobs created was nowhere near the target. It turns out, these evaluations were so damning that further reports were cancelled under the guise of balancing the budget. 

To make matters worse, unconscionable grants and loan guarantees were given to the non-needy.  Financially and politically influential corporations like Chevron, Google, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, BP, Statoil were awarded billions.  

And that’s merely a glimpse of how lobbyists and special interests in Washington DC not only get rich, but richer.   

Since 1970, the inflation adjusted federal budget has grown by more than two-and-one-half times.  Along with that rise, the Washington, DC area has gotten much richer.  In 1970, three of the wealthiest counties in the country were suburbs of DC.  By 2019, the share grew to eight of twenty (nine if you count the independent city of Falls Church).  Over that same period, the entire Midwest went from six of the top 20 counties to zero.  No politician ever authored legislation whose title was “A Bill to Transfer Great Gobs of Money from the Heartland to the Capital.”  I suppose they’d say it was a coincidence that it worked out that way, that somehow the government – and Washington DC – magically grew and grew.

The big winners are the people who run the programs (and their consultants).  The wealthiest-county data are backed up by numbers on housing values.  From 1970 to 2018, the inflation-adjusted value the median house in the U.S. rose by slightly more than 100 percent.  Over that same stretch, the inflation-adjusted value of the median home in DC rose by more than 350 percent to $607,000.

Biden’s plan is to spend $2 trillion on his green-jobs plan.  There are 6.5 million families in poverty in the U.S.  If this spending were targeted at the poor, each of these families could receive more than $300,000.  They will not receive any significant portion of that amount.  That is not the way DC works.

One more factoid for those who doubt big spenders are focused on the poor.  Twenty-six of the top 27 richest congressional districts are represented by Democrats.

If ever-larger government programs are not the recipe for creating jobs, what is?  Cutting taxes, reducing unnecessary red tape, and unleashing bountiful, affordable energy seem to work pretty well.  Before the worldwide COVID19 pandemic cut the legs out from under the world economy, the U.S. employment picture was excellent.  The labor-force participation rate was growing, unemployment rates were falling to record low-levels for Hispanic and African-American workers.  Wages were rising and, for once, they were rising even faster for low-wage workers. And it sure wasn’t the government making this happen.

A multi-trillion-dollar green-jobs plan will tax productive economic activity and reward beggar-thy-neighbor political activity.  Experience shows this only enriches political cronies, but does not create good jobs.  A better strategy is to make investment pay by reining in bloated government and saying “no” to the swamp creatures.  Because when investment pays, investors pay workers. 

History offers little encouragement that Biden’s new green-jobs plan will be much different than it was in 2009.  Regardless of how high-minded and noble sounding may be the calls for legislation and justice, after the placard-carrying masses leave Washington DC to go campaign, the details are hammered out by the insiders – lobbyists and special interests.  Of course, the middleman takes his cut, too.

And that’s how lobbyists, instead of the poor, will benefit under Biden’s climate justice plan.

Dr. David Kreutzer is a senior economist at the Institute for Energy Research. A native of Fairfax County, Virginia, Kreutzer earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees from Virginia Tech and received the first Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. He taught economics for 23 years at James Madison University and for three years before that at Ohio University. He has published in peer-reviewed journals such as The Journal of Political Economy, Climate Change Economics, The National Tax Journal, Economic Inquiry, and Applied Economics