By Casey Harper, The Center Square

 Researchers analyzed nine U.S. cities that implemented vaccine mandates during the pandemic and found that those mandates had no real effect on the spread of COVID-19.

Now, those cities’ leaders are not responding to questions about their mandates and the economic impact they had on residents.

The study was conducted through George Mason University’s Mercatus Center and evaluated Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington D.C.

Those cities announced some form of city-wide vaccine mandate in 2021, leading to economic hardship for local businesses and lost jobs for those who refused to comply.

“Our findings put into question the efficacy of city-level vaccine mandates,” the report said. “Indoor vaccine mandates caused large disruptions for many individuals and businesses. New York City, for example, fired 1,430 city workers for failing to comply with its vaccine mandate (Fitzsimmons, 2022). A survey found that over 90% of NYC restaurants reported having customer-related challenges, such as losing customers who objected to the mandate, and 75% having staff-related challenges (New York State Restaurant Association, 2021). Those are just a small fraction of the disruptions caused by the mandates.”

Despite the economic hardship they caused, the study found no noteworthy slow of COVID-19. Researchers said this was in part because residents could simply travel outside city limits to participate in any activities banned in the city.

[Bear in mind that Montana’s major cities all made attempts at shutting down businesses and mandated stay-at-home policies for workers – often to the point of establishing their own enforcement agents to do so.]

“We find no evidence that the announcement or implementation of indoor vaccine mandates in the cities listed had any significant effect on vaccine uptake, COVID-19 cases, or COVID-19 deaths, and this is largely consistent for all US cities that implemented the mandate,” the report said.

The Center Square reached out to the mayor’s offices for all nine cities to present the findings and ask if their respective governments made a mistake but received no response.

“I think the more important thing is to find out what was in the minds of the people both at the federal level and at the state and local level who imposed these policies,” said Bob Moffit, an expert at the Heritage Foundation who served as a senior official of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Personnel Management during the Reagan administration.

“Because based on the data, these kind of comprehensive vaccine mandate policies, there is no other way to describe except as a stupid, ham-handed policy,” he added. “The economic consequences were awful.”

Vitor Melo, one of the researchers behind the report, told The Center Square his team was surprised by the results. They expected to find some benefit to the mandates.

“We were all surprised, and I think we were all surprised as we kept going with this how consistent the results were for all the cities,” Melo said.

The researchers hope this report impacts decision-making for these kinds of policies going forward.

“Public health restrictions and regulations were widespread during the COVID-19 pandemic, and so understanding their consequences is essential,” the report said. “The authors find that city-level mandates had smaller effect on vaccine uptake (and consequently on COVID-19 cases and deaths) than nationwide mandates – and thus failed to achieve their intended objectives.”

Warm greetings, Representative .

Thank you for allowing me to share a few critically important and objective facts concerning HB 284, aka, The Blackmail Bill.

I do not use the term blackmail loosely.  I chose it very carefully.  For indeed, if I were still sitting in one of my old seats on the House floor right now, I would be deeply offended over the false narrative being spun by certain Montana utilities in their attempt to resurrect acquisition preapproval from the graveyard of policy disasters (an ancient relic from Montana Power deregulation days.)  You have been threatened.  You have been fear-mongered.  You have been lied to and dishonored.  That should not sit well with you or with any of your fellow members – all of whom strive to base their votes on verifiable truth, not fiction. The utilities are replacing truth with fables and fiction.

You are being blackmailed into believing that unless you remove from these utility monopolies, all of the business risks and accountability associated with new projects and acquisitions — and shift all those risks onto the backs of ratepayers — there will be no new energy produced by these companies to meet Montana’s fast-growing energy needs.  No gas plants.  Not wind farms.  No solar arrays. No new acquisitions. No added base load production. Lacking the total protection from business risk they want, these public utilities will pick up their marbles, sit back and do nothing.  So they warn…

For at least two sessions now, the utility lobbyists have been telling the House Energy Committee that without locked-in preapproval, all of these generation projects would be “far too risky” for their monopoly companies to take on, despite having guaranteed markets, guaranteed customers and guaranteed profits. How plausible is that??  But wait. Those financial risks don’t suddenly disappear if we pass HB 284.  So where to they land?  Squarely on the ratepayer’s back, who has no control over any of this.

Listen carefully.  NWE and MDU are saying that If the legislature doesn’t comply, then prepare for energy shortages, wild market prices, forced conservation, brown-outs and worse.  Yes, even bankruptcy.  Why?  Because unless you give utilities the “free ride” they demand, they ain’t gonna buy and they ain’t gonna build.  Too much “risk.”  Montanans will be left in the lurch, and legislators will be responsible for the crisis.

If that’s not blackmail, I don’t know what is.  And as with all blackmail, it’s based on calculated intimidation and calculated misrepresentation. You are being hoodwinked.

Many of the falsehoods are discussed in an accompanying attached document, provided earlier to the committee. Please take the time to read this. I am offering a perspective of  8 years of first-hand observation of preapproval in action, while serving as an open-minded member of the Montana Public Service Commission.  Hysterical claims about “destabilizing markets”, “drying up capital investment”, “feeling the ravages of the energy marketplace”, “obstructing energy production,” etc., are very large red herrings, raised in the Northwest, and dragged across the trail of trusting legislators.

It is essential you know that there is absolutely no alignment between the reinstatement of preapproval (HB 284) and the amount of future energy produced in the state of Montana.  Preapproval and energy supply are totally unrelated — the blackmailing attempts notwithstanding. There is also no relationship (asserted by some) between preapproval and the types of energy fuels and technologies that will be used in the future.  (Some Republicans in particular have fallen for this false argument.)

Preapproval isn’t about any of this. Simply put, preapproval is about giving NWE and MDU grotesque, rate-increasing advantages by empowering them to buy over-priced major acquisitions at no risk.  Utilities are given free reign over their consumers because, once preapproved, the PSC is powerless to do anything about imprudent projects and acquisitions.  Their hands are tied through the designed purpose of preapproval itself — socializing risk while forcing evaluation of proposed projects when no economic and operational data are yet available.  The PSC is in essence made to “fly blind,” relying on nothing more than the optimistic predictions, projections and forecasts of self-interested utility “experts.”  Quite the set-up..

In HB 284, we end up substituting informed approval (through a traditional rate case) with uninformed preapproval. Because of how rate basing and return on equity works, the risk-protected utility monopoly can then take advantage of the perverse incentive to pay as high a price as possible for the asset.  The preapprovals of CU4 in 2008 and the hydros in 2013 are perfect examples of this ratepayer abuse. The acquisitions themselves may have been wise, but the preapproved costs were hundreds of millions of dollars higher than they should have been.  The results: Windfalls for NorthWestern Energy. Rip-offs of the ratepayers.  Weakening of the economy.  Weakening of the propped-up utility itself, that dodges its own market-based accountability, and the normal incentives of risk and reward that produce best practices and best performance. 

These are the inevitable outcomes of clipping the PSC’s wings through preapproval.

Representative, this is one of those bills that, at hearing, was bound to attract an overwhelming number of special interests and professional lobbyist proponents.  The voice of the average Montana consumer – who is most affected by this legislation — was completely drowned out.  The typical ratepayer was unaware of what was going on, knew nothing about the process of preapproval, and only knew that for some reason, they have been paying more and more for their energy and can’t figure out why.

You need to figure that out for them.  You need to be their voice. 

You need to vote NO on the HB 284 Blackmail Bill.  For them. 

Respectfully and sincerely, Roger Koopman

Public Service Commissioner, 2013 – 2020

Kampgrounds of America, Inc. (KOA) capped its 60th year of business with record revenue surpassing 2021, the company’s previous highest-grossing year, by 1.3%. Impressively, 2022 registration revenue grew by 34.3% over 2019, indicating that camping and outdoor hospitality have reached a new level of popularity since the COVID-19 pandemic.

 “To finish our 60th anniversary with record-setting revenues is monumental,” said Toby O’Rourke president and CEO of Kampgrounds of America, Inc. “The numbers point to the strength of our long-standing brand and the continued preference for KOA by campers. We appreciate the partnership with our franchisees, their confidence in our vision and the dedication and focus of our employees.” 

 Looking ahead, KOA’s advanced deposits at the end of the fourth quarter were 3.4% improved over this same time period in 2021. Advanced deposits are a key indicator of consumer appetite for camping, confidence in the brand and customer experience.

 “Especially with fluctuating economic conditions, it’s great to see another year of growth in advance deposits as we enter 2023,” said O’Rourke. “Camping, and KOA camping, continues to be a cornerstone of leisure travel for many North Americans.”

Samuel Stebbins, 24/7 Wall St, The Center Square

The United States has long been considered among the most innovative countries in the world – and America’s status as a global hub of innovation is partially attributable to public funding of research and development. The federal government spent nearly $138 billion on R&D in 2020 alone.

The private sector is also an engine of innovation, from companies on the Fortune 500 to small startups. Amazon, for example, spent over $62 billion on R&D in fiscal 2022.

Several key indicators can reveal how much of the innovation that takes place in the U.S. is concentrated in a certain place. According to personal finance website, WalletHub, which created a weighted index of 22 measures indicative of innovative capacity, Montana ranks as the 16th least innovative state in the country.

Montana’s ranking on the innovation index is reflected, in part, by employment in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields as a share of total employment. According to May 2021 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, STEM jobs account for 5.7% of all employment in the state, the 21st lowest share among states.

All innovation rankings in this story are from Wallet Hub’s report Most & Least Innovative States.

Addressing the Montana Housing Coalition at the State Capitol, Governor Greg Gianforte highlighted his administration’s efforts to increase the supply of affordable workforce housing in Montana, calling on the legislature to send pro-housing reforms to his desk.

“Housing is a top priority for Montanans. I hear it over and over from folks throughout the state,” Gov. Gianforte said to the coalition at the State Capitol. “To increase the supply of affordable workforce housing, we can’t keep doing the same thing we’ve done year after year after year. The state can’t. And local governments can’t. It hasn’t worked.”

Gov. Gianforte continued, “We must change our approach. I’m urging the legislature to get pro-housing reforms to my desk.”

In his remarks, Gov. Gianforte highlighted how the demand for more housing has outpaced homebuilding over the last decade in Montana. Between 2010 and 2020, Montana’s population grew by 9.6 percent, outpacing the state’s housing unit growth of 6.6 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The governor also pointed to rising prices, mortgage rates, and inflation as making it more difficult for Montanans to own or rent a home, as well as burdensome regulations.

Driven by increased consumer demand, rising inflation, and national supply chain breakdowns, the cost of building a new home has soared, with private residential construction costs skyrocketing 18.4 percent nationally between March 2021 and March 2022, according to the Census Bureau.

Regulations at every level of government drive up the price of newly built homes. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) estimated government-imposed regulations account for 23.8 percent of the final price of a new single-family home built for sale.

Last summer, Gov. Gianforte stood up a diverse, bipartisan Housing Task Force to provide recommendations to make housing more affordable and attainable for Montanans.

In line with one of the task force’s recommendations, the governor proposed the Home Ownership Means Economic Security (HOMES) Program in his Budget for Montana Families. Tied to conditions, including increased density, the program invests $200 million to expand water and sewer infrastructure and ultimately increase the supply of affordable workforce housing.

The governor has called on the legislature to send this bill and other pro-housing reforms to his desk.

“Working with the legislature, we’re making great progress to get these bills across the finish line, but we must continue to act with the urgency this situation requires,” said Gov. Gianforte.

The governor concluded, “Every day, I am focused on opening the doors of greater opportunity so more Montanans can thrive, prosper, and achieve the American dream. And every day, Montanans work hard to realize the American dream – to earn a decent living, to raise a family, to contribute to their communities, to retire comfortably, and to own a home. Working together, let’s increase the supply of affordable, attainable housing, and let’s help more folks achieve the American dream of homeownership.”

Billings Clinic and Logan Health, based in Kalispell, have signed a non-binding letter of intent to explore uniting the two non-profit organizations into one integrated, independent, Montana-based health system.

 A press release states, “Health systems across the country are facing unprecedented post-pandemic challenges, including increased expenses, workforce challenges, accelerating technology investment needs, and the urgent need to achieve health equity. By joining, the two geographically complementary organizations can be stronger together and better positioned to adapt to the rapidly changing health care environment, sustain and grow services, and meet the needs of local families.”

An agreement for the new organization is expected this spring with a goal to have all details and approvals finalized this summer.

The merger helps address the state of the industry across the country, which is facing unprecedented post-pandemic challenges, including increased expenses, workforce challenges, accelerating technology investment needs, and the urgent need to achieve health equity. The press release explained that “By joining, the two geographically complementary organizations can be stronger together and better positioned to adapt to the rapidly changing health care environment, sustain and grow services, and meet the needs of local families.”

Clint Seger, MD Billings Clinic CEO said that Billings Clinic and Logan Health share a commitment to providing high quality primary and complex care to patients across the rural frontier of Montana and northern Wyoming.

He said, “Our two organizations have a lot in common, as independent, physician-led health systems with deep roots in our communities and a commitment to rural health care. The health needs of our rural communities are unique, and we are excited to explore ways to serve our patients’ greatest challenges and raise the bar for health care in Montana and Wyoming together.”

Some aspects of the pending merger have yet to be determined but the two hospitals would be equal partners. There is no decision yet regarding what the combined organizations would be called nor where headquarters might be.

US Rep. Matt Rosendale commented on the news, “The combined health system that Billings Clinic and Logan Health will explore creating has the potential to address challenges facing health care providers and patients in rural Montana. Improving access to quality health care is critical for the well-being of our families and the success of our rural communities. While I am pleased to see that this merger aims to address this issue, we must also ensure that patient care is not compromised, prices do not increase, and the needs of rural residents are met.”

“Billings Clinic and Logan Health have a long history of serving our communities’ health needs. We are thrilled about our shared vision to create something transformative. We are looking forward to having conversations with our teams and communities as we focus efforts on delivering outstanding care for years to come,” said Craig Lambrecht, MD, Logan Health President and CEO.

Logan Health, founded in 1910, is a not-for-profit, 622-bed health system in Montana. While the main medical campus is located in Flathead County, Logan Health draws from a total service area covering 20 counties. The health system consists of six hospitals, more than 68 provider clinics and a host of other health care services, including the nation’s first rural air ambulance service (A.L.E.R.T.), which it has maintained for more than 40 years. Logan Health has more than 4,500 physicians, nurses, health care professionals and support staff.

Billings Clinic is Montana’s largest independent health system. A not-for-profit organization, Billings Clinic is governed by a board of community members, nurses and physicians. At its core, Billings Clinic is a physician-led, integrated multispecialty group practice with a Level II trauma center. It is affiliated with 18 hospitals and clinics in communities across Montana and Wyoming, along with four regional branch clinics. Billings Clinic is the largest trauma center and the first established and longest standing continually accredited trauma center in the state of Montana, and the only Comprehensive Stroke Center in Montana and Wyoming. Billings Clinic has more than 4,700 employees, including nearly 600 physicians and advanced practitioners offering more than 80 specialties. Billings Clinic is the first Magnet-designated health care organization for nursing in Montana. 

Each year the Billings Chamber of Commerce awards exceptional leaders whose impact and example are deserving of recognition—not simply for their accomplishments, but also for their character, their leadership, and their integrity. The 2023 Business Excellence Awards honor individuals and organizations for contributions that undoubtedly make Billings a better place to work and live.

The 2023 recipients are: Outstanding Business Person Dusty Eaton, A&E Design Employer of the Year Entre Technology Services Inclusion Award William Henry, Be Better World Customer Service Excellence Matt Hall, Midway Auto & RV NextGEN Exceptional Emerging Leader Bo Bruinsma, Billings Public Schools

“A community is only as strong as its people,” Chamber President/CEO John Brewer said of the annual awards. “We celebrate our employers, workers, innovators, leaders, visionaries and what they have accomplished in building our community. Billings is uniquely us because of the businesses they have created and the people they have touched.” Award recipients are selected through a scoring process by a committee of Chamber board members and committee leaders, following a period of public nomination submissions.

“The Business Excellence Award recipients represent the very best of what the Billings business community is doing with regard to leadership, innovation, and employee care,” Chamber Board Chair Julie Seedhouse said of the recipients and the prestige of the recognition. “Each of them fully embraces the Billings Chamber’s mission as catalysts for growth and creators of quality of place. We are deeply honored to recognize the essential work they are doing to make our community better.”

Recipients will be recognized at the 2023 Billings Chamber Breakfast, March 30, 7-9 am, at Alberta Bair Theater. The event will feature Captain Sandra Yawn (“Captain Sandy”) of the hit television show, Below Deck Mediterranean, as the keynote speaker. It is sponsored by by Nonstop Local and America First Response.

Tickets are at Alberta Bair Theater Box Office or through their website.

Maybe it’s because of the television show “Yellowstone,” but for whatever reason promoters of the air show in Billings that will feature the Blue Angels are discovering that Montana is really “hot.”

Everyone wants to come, says co-chair of the Yellowstone International Airshow board, Mathew McDonnell. Every performer invited to participate in the air show — and that includes some very top-notch entertainment — has said “yes.” So besides the Blue Angels, the many other acts that will be performing are the very best of the best.

Even the Blue Angels report that of the personal guests they are inviting, everyone is accepting – they all want to visit Montana.

The organizers are expecting 12,500 people per day for the two-day event, which will unfold on August 12 and 13 at the Billings Logan International Airport. Sponsors and volunteers will be putting on one of the biggest shows Billings has ever seen.

Even though Billings is considered a small town, it’s not going to be a small- town airshow, said McDonnell. The Blue Angels are committed to bringing the show that’s produced for big towns – those with populations of 500,000 or more.

There will be other military performers, about which specific information is classified, but they will include some of the fifth generation fighter jets, “that you don’t usually get,” said McDonnell. He adds that the shows line-up has even impressed “Thumper” – Kendall Switzer — a retired Brigadier General who is a past Blue Angel and has been part of many air shows. Switzer now lives in Bozeman and is helping in planning this airshow.

Tickets for the show are already on sale and the VIP tickets for Saturday are already sold out. So far they have sold about a fifth of the general admission tickets they expect to sell.

Tickets are $45 for general admission and $10 for children 10 and under. Buy four or more tickets and get free parking. VIP tickets for Sunday are still available at $125, which include private tent, private viewing area, parking, VIP pass, private food and beverage stations and private porta potty.

They have 50 chalet tents that are being sold as suites that accommodate 15 people per suite. At $15,000 each, about half are already sold, said McDonnell.  More information is available on the web site,

Also on the website are sites to submit requests to be a vendor or to operate a food truck, as well as to volunteer. A number of food trucks are already committed as are a number of vendors who will sell souvenirs or other air show related items. Others with tables and displays are military recruiters and non-profit organizations.

McDonnell offers one piece of advice to those attending the air show – “Come Early!”

McDonnell explained that there are many things to do and see before the planes fly.

There will be plenty of water and opportunity for shade, he advised, as well as numerous food trucks and beer booths. Patrons may bring in chairs and blankets, but umbrellas and coolers will not be allowed.

Parking in the peripheral or secondary areas will also not be allowed because of protocols for safety required by the Blue Angels.

Thursday and Friday will be hectic days of preparation and flying practice, which of course are not open to the public, but a special event will be held on Friday for disabled veterans, who are urged to register on the website so they can be notified and invited.

The airshow will also include a salute to 75 years of women in the military.

Volunteers have emerged from every corner of Billings, and even from other parts of the state. Each of the 25 or so board members have taken on a duty from managing the food and beverage vendors to lining up the motels and hotels, to planning the airport layout and parking for the event. The show is paying only two individuals— a coordinator from Salt Lake City and an “air boss” – everyone else are volunteers. McDonnell said that the Salt Lake City coordinator proclaimed that “this is the best board I have ever seen.”

Ticket sales and sponsors help to fund the $1 million or so that it takes to put on an air show.  The project is an expensive one, as they have to rent tents, porta potties, sound systems, fences, etc. They have to pay for the entertainment acts and for fuel, which is quite expensive, said McDonnell, who adds that they have gone all- out for lots of “flames and explosions”, which while adding to the cost, will make the show more exciting.

 Co-chairs of the airshow board, Matthew McDonnell and Jake Penwell, have been working on putting the airshow together for more than two years. It all started over breakfast at PAYS café, where the two old friends reminisced about their youth growing up in Billings and what they loved and appreciated about their hometown.  As Jake and Matt reminisced they talked about wanting to be able to “give back” to the community they loved, then suddenly they declared “why not!?” Why not try to bring the airshow back.

Penwell shared how impactful the former airshows in Billings had been for him. “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said, explaining that he had long been entertaining ideas of joining the military, but after seeing the airshow he enlisted in the Navy. Today, Penwell’s son has become the third generation of Penwells to serve in the Navy.

To inspire, motivate and educate young people about the military and their country is the purpose of the Blue Angels airshows.

The Blue Angels are a flight demonstration squadron of the United States Navy who fly Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets. Over the years they have performed for more than 500 million people. The squadron’s logistics support aircraft is the C-130J Super Hercules.

Founded in 1946 by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Blue Angel’s performances assist in recruiting and retention goals for the military services, enhance esprit de corps among uniformed men and women, and inspire and educate young people. The team is stationed at Forrest Sherman Field, Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, during the air show season. The squadron spends January through March training at Naval Air Facility El Centro, California.


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