The low water levels on the Mississippi River as well as higher diesel costs are also driving up shipping costs on the river which is a significant issue for agriculture. Barge rates are up 246% compared with rates from just a decade before and 282% more than they were in 2020. Lack of rain upstream in the Midwest is impacting Mississippi River levels. Long-term forecasts from the National Weather Service have the river continuing to drop to 10 feet below its normal stage through Nov. 3. The river’s main shipping channel is maintained at a depth of 9 feet from St. Louis to Baton Rouge, La., and 45 feet at Baton Rouge to the Gulf of Mexico, which allows cargo ships to go upriver. 

Dear Editor,

During a legislative session, there are over a thousand bills, amendments and motions a single legislator will vote on over a course of 4 months. It’s our job to accurately represent you, the people of Montana with each vote. However, our Montana Constitution provides for another way for the people’s voice to be heard. That is through a ballot initiative.

There are times when an issue of such great importance arises that the people should weigh in directly. LR 131, “Adopting The Born-Alive Infant Protection Act” is one of those issues. This referendum will be on your ballot this November and the choice is simple. A YES vote for LR 131 will do exactly what the title states – protect all infants that are born alive.  This is different from the abortion debate.

This law only affects medical providers intentionally allowing children born alive to perish. Opposition suggests this would require doctors to try miraculous efforts to save terminal babies. No, LR 131 would not require that a hospice infant be taken from its family. Directly in the language of LR 131, it states health care providers must take “medically appropriate and reasonable actions to preserve the life and health of a born-alive infant”. Hospice care is appropriate, and it is disingenuous of the opposition to misconstrue and belittle the hospice line of healthcare.  Medically appropriate and reasonable healthcare is the treatment you and I expect when we visit our medical provider. Why would we not afford this same care to infants? 

 This vote should not be a political vote. Regardless of your party affiliation or politics, living infants deserve protection. In 2002, Republican President Bush signed into law the national Born Alive Act (but without reporting requirements or penalties that LR 131 has added). Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., called the bill unnecessary but said he and other Democrats would support it anyway. “A baby born alive is a baby, a human being under the terms of the law in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. This bill merely restates this.” (  Has so much changed in 20 years that we can’t agree that born alive infants deserve appropriate medical care?  LR 131 only affects medical providers that would intentionally allow an infant to die. 

 This November we have a choice. Are we going to be a state of compassion for these infants or are we going to be a state that leaves the potential for the horrific measure of infanticide? I have faith in the hearts and the compassion of the people of Montana. Vote YES for LR 131 and make clear the protections of infants born alive. 

 Rep. Matt Regier, HD4

Montana’s Albertsons stores will soon be Kroger’s. Kroger announced plans in mid-October to acquire Albertsons 4,500 stores in 48 states in a nearly $25 billion deal.

The expectation that shoppers will move to buying more private label and generic brands is part of what made Albertson’s a desirable acquisition, according to  Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen.  “A lot of supply chain savings will really be helping improve freshness of product because we’ll have warehouses closer to the stores and you’ll be able to take a day or two out of the cycle for those fresh products as well. … When I look at their (Albertsons’ private label) brands, they’ve done a great job. … Between the two companies, we have an amazing portfolio.”

Kroger is quoted in the company’s announcement that they looked closely at Albertsons’ O Organics house brand when it created its own SimpleTruth label that is now a $3 billion brand. Private label or house brands are expected to be key tools in attracting and retaining customers as more shoppers turn to generic store brands to offset the cost of inflation. Combined, Kroger and Albertsons sell $43 billion in private-label products a year.

Kroger does not believe that customers will be greatly impacted by the new ownership.  Job cutss are not part of the plan, although there is a possibility that some Albertson stores will eventually be closed. The expectation is, rather, that the company will be doing more hiring.

“It does give us national scale, and we’ll be able to leverage technology and other things (using that) larger scale. … (Although) they run smaller stores better than what Kroger does,” said McMullen.

While Kroger expects to cut $1 billion in combined operating expenses, most of that is expected from improved sourcing (buying power) and more efficient manufacturing and distribution. In a complementary acquisition, there tends to be fewer overlapping functions and fewer resulting job cuts. Still, thousands of associates wouldn’t join Kroger because potentially hundreds of stores will be spun off to mollify antitrust concerns of regulators.

The acquisition mostly expands Kroger into territories where it has a thin presence or has no stores at all.

Besides Kroger stores, the Cincinnati-based grocer operates several regional supermarket chains in 35 states, including Fred Meyer, Harris Teeter, Ralphs, Mariano’s, Fry’s, Smith’s, King Soopers, QFC and others. The company has nearly 2,800 stores and employs 420,000 workers. The deal would add the Albertsons, Acme, Safeway, Vons, Jewel-Osco, Shaws and other regional names. It would give Kroger stores in five New England states, New York and Pennsylvania, among others.

The deal isn’t expected to close until early 2024 after regulatory and antitrust review.

Governor Greg Gianforte recently shared elements of his health care agenda for the 2023 legislative session and the year ahead, emphasizing the need to increase access to affordable, high-quality health care.

“Creating greater, and better, access to health care and lowering Montanans’ costs for care are core pillars of our health care agenda for 2023,” Gov. Gianforte said. “I look forward to working with legislators, patients, doctors, providers, and hospital administrators to develop more meaningful, innovative solutions that improve Montanans’ health and their access to care.”

At the Montana College of Osteopathic Medicine, the governor highlighted the importance of recruiting and retaining medical professionals to expand access to care.

“With an increasingly aging population as well as our growing population, demand for health care providers continues to rise in Montana, and our supply can’t keep up. This has been a growing issue that we’ve faced for many years. We’re coming to the table with more solutions in 2023,” the governor said, before outlining his plan to make it easier for qualified health care providers to practice medicine in Montana by reducing unnecessary barriers they face.

“Imagine if you’re a doctor who’s registered to practice medicine in another state and are in good standing there. You move to Montana. You shouldn’t have to jump through burdensome hoops to start treating patients in your community here,” the governor continued. “We must reform our licensure regime to reduce those barriers.”

Addressing the substance use crisis and shortage of mental health providers, Gov. Gianforte highlighted programs his administration has implemented, including the HEART Fund and the Angel Initiative, to increase access to treatment and recovery for those struggling with addiction.

Building on those successes, the governor addressed a plan to improve access to mental health resources, saying, “Montana should enter into a behavioral health compact to reduce barriers that qualified providers face. By taking that step, Montanans will have better access to mental health care.”

He also credited Rocky Vista’s Montana College of Osteopathic Medicine, the first medical school in Montana, as a key part of the solution in meeting the demand for medical professionals.

Acknowledging the federal government has a larger role in lowering health care costs, the governor emphasized the state must do what it can to lower costs, including increasing medical billing transparency.

“What if, before a procedure, you knew what you would pay? What if your provider and your insurer provided you with a cost estimate? We must ensure Montanans have access to important pricing information prior to receiving services,” Gov. Gianforte said. “With greater transparency on costs in advance, Montanans can better make health care decisions that work for them and their families.”

The governor began his remarks by acknowledging Montana’s health care workers and the important work they do.

Last Sunday, a patient entered the Billings Clinic emergency room and attempted suicide before law enforcement intervened.

“What happened Sunday was troubling and traumatic. It’s a reminder that our health care workers are on the frontlines, every day, serving our communities. They see patients, as well as their friends and family, at their most vulnerable, and it takes a toll on them,” the governor said.

“No nurse or doctor or provider should fear for their well-being simply by showing up for work and doing their best to care for patients,”

Federal planning requirements, passed down to local governments, have for a number of decades pursued what’s called “traffic calming” strategies aimed at making driving less desirable and pressuring citizens to abandon their personal vehicles. Often tied to qualifying for federal transportation funds, the federal efforts, have more recently, been elevated, but they have encountered a problem according to Axios Richmond: “While the city considers dramatically rolling back parking requirements to encourage denser, walkable neighborhoods, an unseen force is still quietly demanding developers build big parking decks.” Banks ! Banks almost always require developers to build a minimum number of parking spaces — often well above the requirements set by the city, complain centralized planners. Banks and developers are responding to consumer demands. They are also speculating that it will be a good investment, all the more so, because of the escalating emphasis of most municipal planning and regulators to eliminate the availability of on-street or public parking. The planners worry – even though it is not their money — that in ten years all those parking spaces will be a “financial albatross,” said Axios.

By Casey Harper, The Center Square

The U.S. Department of Labor proposed a new rule in mid-October that would overhaul how independent contractors like freelancers and drivers for ridesharing apps are classified, potentially upending the gig economy that has exploded in growth in recent years.

The DOL said in its rule proposal that it would change how the federal government determines who is a freelancer and who is an employee.

How exactly contractors will be determined remains to be fully worked out, but it is expected that many freelance positions could become classified as regular workers.

“The Department believes that this proposal, if finalized, will provide more consistent guidance to employers as they determine whether workers are economically dependent on the employer for work or are in business for themselves, as well as useful guidance to workers on whether they are correctly classified as employees or independent contractors,” DOL said.

The DOL says the new rule will provide more benefits and protections for workers.

Critics, though, argue this will put major costs on businesses. Small businesses in particular can rely on an assortment of independent contractors to help keep their business afloat before they can afford full time hires.

“The modern workplace is more complex in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said National Retail Federation Senior Vice President of Government Relations David French “Retailers, along with countless other employers, maintain a wide range of business relationships with independent contractors, including billing, facility maintenance, data analysis, delivery, marketing and other critical services.

Other critics said many workers prefer the freedom and flexibility of contract work, or the “side hustle.”

“The DOL is out-of-touch with the modern economy and how people want to work, as evident by its proposed independent contractor rule,” said Karen Kerrigan, president and CEO of the Small Business Entrepreneurship Council. “Moreover, an independent contractor’s cherished flexibility could be taken away. These are all outcomes that will exacerbate the weakening economy and harm America’s small business ecosystem.”

Many Americans started side businesses that provide services to other businesses during the pandemic. Under this new rule, those business relationships could become illegal.

“More people are starting businesses because they have access to modern tools and platforms that make it simple and affordable,” Kerrigan said. “Overwhelmingly, they want to be their own boss and want control over their own time. The proposed DOL rule is a massive step backwards, as it resurrects an outdated approach that works against flexibility and regulatory certainty.

“The proposed rule will create uncertainty, higher costs and complexity, and snuff out countless innovative ideas and entrepreneurial dreams in their infancy.”

French said the rule would also drive up costs for consumers.

“The current rules clearly define the difference between employees and independent contractors, providing much-needed legal certainty for employers, employees and independent contractors alike,” he said. “The changes being proposed by the Labor Department will significantly increase costs for businesses across all industries, and further drive already rampant inflation.

“This decision will only foster massive confusion, endless litigation, reduced innovation and fewer opportunities for employees and independent contractors alike,” he added.

ExxonMobil  has sold its 63,000 bpd Billings Refinery to Par Pacific Holdings, Inc. in a $310 million sale that included associated marketing and logistics assets from ExxonMobil Corporation and two of its subsidiaries.

The sale includes Exxon- and Mobil-branded service stations network, supplied through long-term brand agreements. ExxonMobil has operated the refinery since 1949 and currently employs 300 people. 

The deal is expected to close in the second quarter of 2023.

Par Pacific Holdings, Inc. headquartered in Houston, Texas, owns and operates energy, infrastructure, and retail businesses. 

A Par Pacific spokesman said that they are looking at renewable fuel opportunities to supplement the refinery’s conventional fuel production and utilize its existing market position in Washington to reduce the carbon intensity of its fuel sales in accordance with the recently enacted Washington low-carbon fuel standard.

ExxonMobil’s president of Product Solutions, Karen McKee, explained that Exxon is focused on investing in facilities “where we can manufacture higher-value products such as lubricants and chemicals.”

Par Pacific’s strategy is to acquire and develop businesses in logistically complex, niche markets. “This acquisition will significantly enhance our scale and geographic diversification and underpins our focus on pursing strategic growth initiatives,” said William Pate, President and Chief Executive Officer of Par Pacific. “We look forward to welcoming the dedicated and highly skilled Billings employees to our team. This acquisition expands our fully integrated downstream network in the western United States.”

Par Pacific expects to fund the acquisition with cash on hand and availability under existing credit facilities, based on liquidity of approximately $495 million on September 30, 2022. Hydrocarbon inventory is expected to be financed by a new working capital facility. The transaction is expected to immediately begin adding to Adjusted Net Income and Free Cash Flow per share.

The 63,000 bpd Billings refinery is a high-conversion, complex refinery, which processes low-cost Western Canadian and regional Rocky Mountain crude oil grades. Par Pacific is evaluating renewable fuels opportunities to supplement the refinery’s conventional fuel production and utilize its existing market position in Washington to reduce the carbon intensity of its fuel sales in accordance with the recently enacted Washington low-carbon fuel standard.

In addition to the refining assets, the transaction includes a 65% interest in an adjacent cogeneration facility and an expansive PADD IV & V marketing and logistics network. The logistics assets include the wholly-owned 70-mile, 55,000 bpd Silvertip Pipeline, a 40% interest in the 750-mile, 65,000 bpd Yellowstone refined products pipeline, and seven refined product terminals. Total storage capacity across the refinery and logistics locations totals 4.1 MMbbls. The acquisition also includes a long-term ExxonMobil-branded fuels marketing arrangement to supply approximately 300 retail locations.

Par Pacific owns and operates 61,000 bpd of combined refining capacity, related multimodal logistics systems, and 29 retail locations.  Par Pacific owns one of the largest energy networks in Hawaii. In the Pacific Northwest and the Rockies, Par Pacific owns and operates 29 retail locations as well as 46-percent of Laramie Energy, LLC.

By David Beasley, The Center Square

Gov. Greg Gianforte’s plan to provide more relief from the state’s business equipment tax could attract more businesses to Montana, according to one small business advocacy group.

The governor said earlier this month that he wants more reforms to the business equipment tax when the legislature convenes next year. In 2021, lawmakers raised the tax exemption from $100,000 to $300,000, which provided 3,400 businesses with tax relief, according to the governor’s office.

“Taxing critical business equipment makes it harder to grow a small business and is a wet blanket on job creation,” Gianforte said in a statement. 

“In 2023, we want to build on that success, further reforming the business equipment tax so small business owners can grow their operations and create more good-paying Montana jobs,” he added.

The price of equipment needed to operate businesses has increased with inflation, according to Ronda Wiggers, Montana state director for the National Federal of Independent Business.

“If you are a store owner who buys cabinets, or a farmer who buys a combine, or you buy freezers and refrigerators for your restaurant, in the state of Montana we tax those,” she told The Center Square. “We put a taxable value on that, and we tax them. Although the taxable value depreciates over time, you don’t just pay it once. You pay it every year. It’s an ongoing tax.”

When the state eliminated the first $100,000 of value from taxation a few years ago, “that took care of a lot of our small businesses,” she said. “Most of the stores, for example, probably don’t have over $100,000 worth of display cases.”

Since local governments obtain revenue from the equipment tax, the state last year covered any losses they might incur from raising the exemption to $300,000, Wiggers said.

Gianforte has not yet detailed what his proposal will be for raising the exemption this year, although there has been some speculation he may support increasing it to $500,000, according to Wiggers. 

A higher exemption could attract more equipment-intensive businesses like in the manufacturing sector, Wiggers noted.

“When you are trying to attract those kinds of businesses to the state, they are looking at the bottom line,” she said. “Having an equipment tax in one state and not having it in another would very much affect something like manufacturing.”

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has temporarily blocked President Joe Biden’s plan to cancel billions of dollars in federal student loans. The action is in response to a petition from six Republican-led states that sought a pause on the proposed student debt relief while the court rules on their request for a longer-term injunction.

The lawsuit by the six Republican-led states—Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, and South Carolina—is before the appeals court after a lower court judge rejected the suit a day prior.

The states argue that the debt relief program bypassed Congress and poses a threat to the states’ future tax revenues, as well as money earned by state entities that invest in or service the student loans. But U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey in St. Louis determined that while the six states had raised “important and significant challenges to the debt relief plan,” their lawsuit lacked the necessary legal standing to pursue the case.

Biden’s student debt relief program, announced in August, seeks to cancel up to $10,000 to borrowers who earn less than $125,000 per year (or $250,000 as a couple per year), or $20,000 in debt relief to Pell Grant recipients who meet similar income standards.

Applications opened on Oct. 14. Nearly 22 million borrowers had applied for the debt relief program since —  about half of the more than 40 million Americans that the Department of Education expects are eligible for some amount of debt relief.

After five years of planning, the preliminary plans for a multi-use recreation center for Billings have been released.

The proposed $98.7 million facility would be located adjacent to Amend Park at the corner of King Avenue East and South Billings Boulevard, on property that the city acquired through a tax increment finance district. The plans call for a 177,000 square-foot facility that would include an ice sheet for hockey and skating, a leisure and activity swimming pool, a 50-meter competition pool, four sports courts, open fitness and activity areas and an indoor running track.

A facility with that price tag will require multiple sources of funding according to city officials. Besides funds from the South Billings Boulevard Tax Increment District, it will require community contributions and a bond request from the voters.

Funding a project of that size would require cash from multiple sources, including tax increment finance dollars, philanthropic support and most notably a voter-approved bond.

A&E designed the facility after gathering broad community input.

Planning was based on “a statistically valid survey” done in 2019 and repeated this spring to determine the highest priorities of the community.

Projections estimate that the facility would cost $3.4 million to operate annually while bringing in $2.5 million in revenue, a cost recovery rate of about 74%. The $901,000 gap would be filled by the city and would cost the average Billings homeowner roughly $12 to $15 a year.