Eleven communities across Montana are receiving $19,600 for Reimagine What is Possible Grants to support community development projects. Reimagining Rural is a program spearheaded by MSU Extension in conjunction with the Montana Community Foundation and other partners. The program provides small towns with opportunities and resources to shape their future.

Tara Mastel, the program lead of MSU Extension’s community vitality program, describes Reimagining Rural as an initiative aimed at boosting volunteer involvement in rural areas. “As we mark 4 years since its inception, we witness remarkable collaboration between local organizations, residents and the rise of leadership within these communities, as they actively shape their collective future. It’s impactful and inspiring work.”

Grants are provided through the support of the Montana Community Foundation. Since Reimaging Rural’s inception in 2020, $115,160 has been reinvested in small towns across the state through grants from the Montana Community Foundation and 53 communities have been through the program. This year’s grantees include:

* Big Timber – $2,000 to Sweet Grass Community Foundation to draw visitors downtown through better signage.

* Boulder – $2,000 to Boulder Chamber of Commerce to purchase and install banners on Main Street. 

* Choteau – $2,000 to MSU Extension – Teton County to create an online community wide calendar for residents.

* Cut Bank – $2,000 for the Cut Bank Chamber of Commerce to create wayfinding signage in and around Cut Bank.

* Ekalaka – $2,000 to the Carter County Geological Society to enhance Veteran’s Park with a community garden and convertible benches for visitors.

* Forsyth – $2,000 for MSU Extension – Rosebud and Treasure County Office to create a disc golf course at Riverside Park in Forsyth.

* Lima – $2,000 to the Town of Lima to create a community foundation, install a kiosk, and host a community event.

* Miles City – $2,000 to the Miles City Public Library for building revitalization in the form of a community mural.

* West Yellowstone – $1,600 to the West Yellowstone Foundation for town beautification initiatives and clean up challenges.

* Winnett – $2,000 to Winnett ACES, Inc to draw visitors downtown through better signage and the installation of banners on Main Street.

Six Montana businesses and agriculture producers are receiving federal funding to support “clean energy projects” planned for their businesses. Montana division of the USDA Rural development agency is making the grants through the Rural Energy America Program (REAP), which is aimed at helping agricultural producers and rural small business owners expand their use of wind, solar, geothermal and small hydropower energy and make energy efficiency improvements.

The awardees are as follows:

* Heberle Ford in Forsyth will use a $10,125 grant to make energy efficiency upgrades to the business. This project is expected to save this rural car dealership $1,743 in annual energy costs.

* Soundcolor Studios Inc. in Livingston will use a $17,200 grant to install a roof-mounted 6-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system with a 30-kilowatt hours battery. This film, music, and art studio operation is expecting to save $1,155 per year in annual energy costs and replace 100 percent of its annual energy consumption.

* West Paw Properties LLC in Bozeman will use a $37,237 grant to make energy efficiency improvements. The business, which manufactures dog toys and other products, expects to save $2,559 in annual energy costs.

* Highmark Properties LLC in Choteau is receiving $85,854 in grants to install a 74.205-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system at the Twin Peaks Assisted Living Facility. It’s expected this project will save $5,607 in annual energy costs and replace 82,427 kilowatts in energy use.

* Terri Kollman, a rural agricultural producer outside Joliet will use a $20,000 grant to buy and install a 9.84-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system. The project should save this producer $2,030 in energy costs and replace 14,877 kilowatt hours of electricity per year.

* Bart R. Bilden of Lavina will use a $49,797 grant to purchase and install a 29.1-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system. It’s expected this project will save $6,343 in annual energy costs and produce enough energy to replace 100 percent of the energy used per year to support their farm and ranch operations

A recent article published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, which serves several states including Montana, highlighted three points about the ability of Americans to deal with a “rainy day”:

* Fifty-four percent of U.S. households have emergency savings to cover three months of expenses

* Americans have exhausted accumulated pandemic savings, and the saving rate is lower than before COVID

* After-inflation earnings appear on-track with longer-term trends, but spending has settled significantly higher

By Jeff Horwich

Senior Economics Writer

The “rainy day fund” is a mainstay of personal finance columnists: Set aside enough to cover a few months of household expenses in an emergency. It is hard advice to follow. Economists have long recognized that many households at all income levels live hand-to-mouth, with most income going toward consuming goods and services and paying off debt. Even when people own considerable assets, many are locked in illiquid forms like housing and retirement accounts.

The COVID pandemic was a shock to our spending and saving. A surge of government financial support coincided with the sudden loss of many ways we typically part with our money—restaurants, concert tickets, leisure travel. For a while, more households looked ready for that rainy day.

New data confirm Americans are sliding back from our pandemic savings peak. The Fed’s latest Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking (SHED) finds that 54 percent of U.S. adults have enough savings to cover three months of expenses if they lost their primary source of income.

These results, gathered in October 2023, are down slightly from a year before and more than 5 percentage points off from the high-water mark in 2021. The downward trend is similar across education levels, racial groups, and other categories the SHED explored. There is some good news here: The proportion of rainy day–ready households seems to have stabilized. And we are still in better shape than the late 2010s, when the Fed began asking the question.

A complementary view comes from the personal finance website Bankrate, which recently found 2 in 3 Americans would be worried about covering even one month of living expenses if they lost their job. Per their survey in January, 51 percent of Americans would have to cut spending or borrow to pay a sudden $1,000 expense.

Seen through certain lenses, the current U.S. economy is remarkedly resilient. Consumer spending, corporate profits, and job growth have been sustained despite higher interest rates. Emergency savings and other pocketbook indicators tracked by the SHED provide another critical vantage for policymakers to understand financial well-being and resilience at the household level.

Economists at the San Fransisco Fed have tracked the rise and fall of “excess savings” accumulated during the pandemic—that is, savings above what we might have expected based on the pre-pandemic trend. These excess savings reached a peak of $2.1 trillion in August 2021—more than $8,000 per U.S. adult.2 According to the San Francisco Fed calculations, households finally exhausted them in March of this year. As of this writing, Americans’ cumulative savings are now slightly below where we would expect them to be if the pandemic had never happened.

The official personal saving rate published by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis also shows how American savings returned to earth after government stimulus payments in 2020 and 2021. As the economy reopened, so did wallets. Since early 2022, Americans are saving less than 5 percent of disposable income.

We are resuming a long-term story. Historically, the personal saving rate fell from the teens in the 1960s, ’70s, and early ’80s to less than 2 percent in the mid-2000s. In the 2010s, the saving rate rose a bit and settled around 5 percent. So far, since the pandemic, we are saving less than we did before it.

Saving for a rainy day is some combination of personal decisions and economic pressures—not least, the 18 percent increase in the overall price level in the four years since the start of the pandemic. To peer through the effects of inflation, it is valuable to look at real (after-inflation) patterns for a clearer view of what, if anything, has changed.

Let’s start with earnings. The real hourly compensation index from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows how the surge in real earnings early in the pandemic petered out through 2021 and 2022. While some American workers experienced big raises during this period, price inflation was faster.

After a wild, three-year ride of labor shortages, job quitting, and inflation, the average American worker has neither gained nor lost ground. Real compensation is back where the pre-pandemic trend would have projected.

However, this return-to-trend is out of alignment with the spending side of the household ledger. True, life has gotten more expensive because of inflation; in raw dollar terms, we would expect consumer spending to increase. Yet even after factoring in higher prices, spending by U.S. consumers remains more than 4 percent above the pre-pandemic trend.

In today’s dollars, Americans are spending about $2,300 more than what the pre-pandemic trend would project. Why we are consuming significantly more—even after inflation—is a fascinating question with no obvious answer.

In the meantime, the observation that real spending has settled at a higher level over the past three years seems a likely factor in the lower share of Americans with emergency savings.

At the same moment, Americans are feeling a steep rise in interest payments (which are not included in the spending data). As interest rates have increased on credit cards, car notes, and other personal loans, real per capita interest payments are almost double their pre-pandemic level.

U.S. credit card balances in early 2024 are 13 percent higher than one year prior. Credit card delinquencies are at the highest level since 2012.

These sticky increases in spending and borrowing—while compensation has fallen back to its long-term trend—help explain why emergency savings might be hard to build. Setting aside a rainy day fund is also harder for some than for others.

Notably, Black adults and people aged 45 to 59 were the only groups to show slight upticks in rainy day readiness in 2023. Younger adults and people without a college degree are substantially less ready to ride out a disruption in income. Black and Hispanic Americans, people in rural areas, and parents with children at home—many of whom are facing rising child care costs—are also less likely to have emergency savings set aside.

Games at the Laurel Dodgers American Legion stadium can be played under the lights again, thanks to equipment, material and labor donations.

NorthWestern Energy donated new light poles, removed the old lights and provided the equipment and labor for installation.

“The old light structures were at the end of their useful life,” said NorthWestern Energy Community Relations Manager Lisa Perry. “The Laurel Dodgers are a tremendous asset for the community of Laurel. We are honored to be able to contribute to the team.”

Ace Electric provided labor and some materials for the electric work for the lights. CED Billings donated materials. Midway Rental in Laurel donated the use of an 85-foot lift. Croell Inc. donated gravel to set the new poles. The city of Laurel recycled the old light poles and made sure the field’s sprinkler system worked.

“We have had the same lights and poles on the baseball field since the mid-80s, and to be able to upgrade, including to LED lights, will benefit baseball players in Laurel of years to come,” said Jon Knaub of the Laurel Dodgers. “Baseball has long been a summer tradition in Laurel and these businesses and organizations are helping keep that tradition alive, strong and bright.”

The Center Square

In a new analysis on state tax revenue trends, 18 states reported falling tax revenues, with California reporting the lowest. 

According to The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Fiscal 50 project, state tax revenue outperformed its long-term trend in 32 states, with Alaska leading all states by far. It collected more than 11 times, 1,041% more than, its long-term trend level, the report found. The states with the next-highest collections compared with their long-term trends were Wyoming (37.7%), New Mexico (32.5%), West Virginia (10.6%), and Montana (10%), the report found.

The analysis evaluated tax revenue trends, which measure the difference between recent state tax collections and a 15-year trend level, Pew explains. The data is adjusted for inflation and seasonality. “This approach provides a window into how current conditions compare with a state’s long-term trajectory over the previous 15 years and may paint a different picture than recent state forecasts and relatively volatile quarterly and annual percentage changes,” the report states. “A deeper understanding of long-term trends can help state leaders judge whether their budgets are on a sustainable path and allow for better-informed fiscal planning and policy formulation.”

When tax revenue in the second quarter of 2023 was compared with 15-year trend levels, adjusted for inflation and seasonality, California had the weakest tax revenue of -16.2%, followed by Minnesota (-4.9%), New York (-4.8%), and Connecticut (-4%).

“California’s underperformance is partially attributable to the recent delay in the income tax filing deadline for state residents, which pushed large sums of personal and corporate income tax payments from April to November,” the report notes.

Overall, the number of states performing below their long-term revenue trends shifted dramatically, from four in the previous quarter to 18, according to the report. Fifteen new states reported below their long-term revenue trend: Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington. Revenue in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin was already below trend, the report notes.

The long-term trend value is defined “as the 15-year linear trend of tax collections leading up to each quarter, after adjusting for inflation and seasonality,” the report explains. 

Overall, total state tax revenue growth was 1.2%, or $4.2 billion, in the second quarter of 2023, below its 15-year trend, according to the report. Additionally, it points out: “For the first time since 2000, no state had fewer than a month’s worth of operating funds in its total balances. Between fiscal years 2007 and 2021, 8 states ran long-term deficits, carrying forward costs of past services and government operations.”

Tax revenue remained strong in the two largest red states. Both Texas and Florida were among 32 states whose total tax collections outperformed their long-term trend. 

Among the 45 states that collect sales tax, Texas and Florida were among 40 whose sales tax revenue exceeded their long-term trend. 

Their growth “stands out especially since state tax collections across the nation were 1.2% below their long-term trend,” Alexandre Fall, senior associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts, told The Center Square. 

As of the second quarter of 2023, Texas’ tax collections soared 9.6% above its 15-year trend, bringing in an additional $1.9 billion. “The major contributor to Texas’s strong performance was above-trend sales tax revenue, which accounts for 62% of the state’s tax collections,” she said. “These revenues were up 8.5%, or $1.1 billion, above the state’s 15-year trend. Nationally, sales tax collections were 4.9% above their long-term trend.”

Over the same time period, Florida’s tax collections were also “notably strong, exceeding the state’s 15-year trend by 6.5%, or $983 million,” Fall said. “A significant factor in Florida’s growth was above-trend sales tax revenue, which the state depends on for 61% of its tax collections. These revenues were 8.9%, or $847 million, above the state’s 15-year trend. Nationally, sales tax collections were 4.9% above their long-term trend.”

Overall, Fall said, “Understanding long-term trends helps state leaders determine if their budgets are sustainable and supports smarter fiscal planning. It’s critical that policymakers consider why tax revenues are deviating from long-term trends—both overall and for specific revenue streams. This means looking at whether changes are due to policy shifts, external forces like demographic changes, or a mix of both. To ensure long-term fiscal health, lawmakers should also figure out if these deviations are due to temporary factors or if they signal a more lasting structural change that requires policy adjustments.”

By Evelyn Pyburn

I hate to say it but the court decision regarding the case of Held vs. Montana – kids suing the State of Montana for failing to provide them with a clean environment – was totally in keeping with Montana’s 1972 Constitution.

And I suspect we have more similar decisions to come unless we change the Montana Constitution.

Back in the day when people were all excited to approve the new constitution, as though they were getting a new car – – a small group of people I knew discussed what they saw as the most atrocious part of the new document, which was written based upon a “model” constitution provided to the delegates by the League of Cities and Towns (a very statist organization).Their concern was about such a glaring error that, quite frankly, I am surprised it has taken so long for the legal industry to take advantage of it.

Montana’s current Constitution states: “All persons are born free and have certain inalienable rights. They include the right to a clean and healthful environment….” With that declaration the crafters of the constitution set the stage for guaranteed injustices.

It’s a matter of understanding what the term “right” means as it is used in a Constitution. A right is not some “thing,” it is action. It is not a gift card, it is the opportunity to pursue a course of action.

When the word is used as it was in the Montana Constitution it demands an answer to the unspoken question: If a citizen has a right to a clean environment, then who has the obligation to provide it? Who by virtue of nothing more than having been born is inherently obligated to fulfill that right for that citizen? Who is to be that citizen’s slave?

Apparently, considering the recent court decision, it is business owners and market investors, as well as consumers and taxpayers, who are obligated to fulfill the Constitution’s mandate.

In the US Constitution, a “right” is used to allow the freedom to pursue an action. You are given the right to acquire a gun, not “to” a gun.

If the judge in Held vs. Montana were to be consistent, he would also conclude that someone, somehow is required to give every citizen a gun. Or provide them with a podium or air time to fulfill their “right” to free speech.

This use of the word “right” in such an incorrect way in the Montana Constitution is not an aberration. The state constitution also claims that every citizen has a right to an education. Again we must ask, who is responsible to fulfill that “right.” A free country – a free state – does not enslave one person for the sake of another; it provides an environment in which everyone is free to act to acquire that which they need or want. Indeed, everyone should be free to gain an education. But, if it is something that is our due, then President Biden isn’t so far off in paying off college loan debts, and it is somehow fair that other hardworking citizens should pay for it.

The US Constitution makes no mention of education – it was assumed to be no different than acquiring any other commodity and it never occurred to them that it needed to be itemized. Our forefathers would have been horrified at government providing education. It takes little imagination to know where that would lead – exactly as it has.

And, they undoubtedly never imagined we would all be condemned to live as though in a prison to “save the planet.”

Of course there are those who will insist that the claim on the wealth of others is “just” because there are people who need to be helped, or causes that are good and should be supported. While those aspects of reality do exist, so do the very many opportunities (especially in a free society which is what this issue is really all about) to VOLUNTARILY provide for them. An important word in that effort is “persuasion” – rather than using the force of government to achieve those ends, people persuade others as to their importance – whether it’s cleaning up a river or feeding starving children. In fact, during our era of freedom, Americans did more to help worthwhile causes than any coerced support from any government ever, and the US has one of the cleanest nations in the world, because people CHOSE to direct their wealth to achieve those things. No one had to confiscate it from them.

To have used the word “right” in the manner it was used in the Montana constitution is a disgrace. It reflects very little acumen; it is, however, a marvelous “make work” provision for lawyers and graft for carpetbaggers for decades to come.

There are instances in which the state constitution uses the term correctly. In fact, in the same paragraph in which it declares citizens have a right to a clean environment, the word is used correctly: “…and the rights of pursuing life’s basic necessities, enjoying and defending their lives and liberties, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and seeking their safety, health and happiness in all lawful ways.”

To believe that the Held vs. Montana case is an aberration would be a huge, huge mistake. As one attorney commented soon after that court decision, be assured attorneys are lining up with all kinds of cases to file in Montana because it will henceforth be quite profitable. What they don’t impose upon investors of Montana business and industry, the taxpayers will be required to pick up.

Just use your imagination, while looking at all the many ways they are attacking our means of survival and ability to produce in the name of preventing global warming. Each law and regulation and claim of calamity is a ripe opportunity for a lawsuit against the State of Montana and its now- obligated taxpayers.

And they will win every time because our state constitution says that some of us have a claim to the property of others, to have what we want because we want it, and the rest have been enslaved to provide it.

Sam Bofto thought he had achieved all the goals of his 28 years in law enforcement, a couple months ago, when he retired from the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s office as undersheriff – but such appears not to be the case. Earlier this month he accepted a new position – a new challenge – as the Director of the Youth Services Center, filling the position of Val Weber, who recently retired after serving as director for 28 years.

Beaming happily, Bofto said in an interview with Yellowstone County News, that he is having a good time – and learning a lot. In fact, he is looking back, and thinking that maybe he missed his calling. While he always wanted to be in law enforcement, he is thinking this is the road he was meant to be on.

This is the first time in 28 years he doesn’t have to wear a uniform every day, beamed Bofto, attired in a casual sport jacket and shirt. He bemoaned, however, about now having to buy his own gas. Bofto said that he passed through “it all” in law enforcement. “I did the streets for five years,” and then was a detective and county corner.

But, now he is realizing “I still have a few years to give.”

The Ted Lechner Youth Services Center  (YSC), at 410 S. 26th Street in Billings, is a secure detention facility that holds minors, up to age 18, who have allegedly violated the law, while their cases go through the judicial system. YSC also operates a shelter care facility that provides a temporary safe and secure “home” for children, who through no fault of their own, have nowhere else to go.

It’s nothing like law enforcement, said Bofto, who also served five years as commander of the Yellowstone County Detention Facility, before being named undersheriff eleven years ago.

In talking about the new challenge before him, it became clear that Bofto appreciates the opportunity to help the young people who pass through the Youth Services Center. “There are a lot of them who really need some help,” he said.

YSC has “a lot of needs”, explained Bofto, not least of which is more space. With the detention facility having been booked to capacity for many months now, the need to expand it is looming large and it is an issue that the county commissioners are talking about, said Bofto.

YSC serves a multi-county area, with the respective counties paying the daily cost ($235 a day) of security, room and board – -and education. They employ 35 people. There are only two other similar facilities in the state, one in Missoula and another in Great Falls.

The detention portion of the center has a maximum capacity of 24, and is currently occupied with 21 youth offenders. The current population is posing a unique problem in that many of them are all part of the same gang and are being held on related charges so they cannot be allowed to communicate with one another. The shelter portion of the center currently has four residents.

Bofto joins a team of dedicated professionals , who he very much respects and appreciates. Two of those individuals accompanied him to a meeting with Yellowstone County Commissioners, last week, to discuss the prospect of getting a grant that would bring one or two professionals to assist YSC, perhaps in cooperation with Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility, to help in redirecting the lives of “students” in the system.

Especially excited about the possibility of a multi –million dollar, 3 -year grant under the Project Encourage program from the University of Alabama, is Hank Richards, who has served as the counseling and education director at YSC for the past 18 years. He was joined by Terra French, who is Chief of Youth Court, which gives oversight to child protective services, monitoring  the well-being of children who come from conflicted homes, making sure they have a safe place to live and other treatments that may be needed.

Prior to the meeting Richards and French talked excitedly about news that two of their students had passed HiSet tests, achieving Montana High School Equivalency Diplomas.

The duo explained that Dr. Kristine Jolivette, at the College of Education at the University of Alabama strongly encouraged them to apply for the grant. They explained that they had worked with Jolivette previously, having received two past grants from university programs. This grant would provide the funding and oversight for one full time or two part time individuals, who would provide assistance in dealing with serious gang problems with juveniles. It would help determine if “our interventions are working,” said Richards.

French commented that the program is especially needed given the failure of School District 2’s mill levy that included the hiring of a gang specialist.

They explained to the county commissioners that while the University of Alabama would hire the educator(s), YSC and the county commissioners would vet the candidates and oversee the program locally. It would become effective this fall.

Bofto commented that there is a need to work with students to teach them about gangs — about how to get out of gangs – “how to keep from doing stupid stuff.”

Richards is cautiously optimistic about getting the grant – but all agreed that given the issue Billings is having with gangs it could be greatly beneficial.

Montana is among several states being threatened by an invasion of “super-pigs”, according to New Atlas.

The pigs have wreaked havoc in Canada and are on the verge of crossing the border into Montana, North and South Dakota and Minnesota. They have been seen 18 miles from the North Dakota border.

“The growing wild pig population is not an ecological disaster waiting to happen – it is already happening,” said University of Saskatchewan’s Ryan Brook, professor and lead researcher for the Canadian Wild Pig Project.

The US has been home to ‘normal’ wild pigs for decades, but super-pigs are bigger, faster and more destructive, although less aggressive.

Disease is also a big concern.

Saskatchewan scientists have found that super-pigs are expanding their territory by 9% each year, leaving a path of ecological and agricultural destruction in their wake, having spread rapidly across the country, from British Columbia to Ontario and Quebec, in just a few years.

The hybrid animals are more mobile than other breeds, and there’s not much to stop them. Most of the US-Canadian boundaries are continuous farmland or forested landscapes, which can be easily crossed.

 In the late 1980s, Eurasian wild boar was introduced for game farming  and fenced-in hunting, but when market demand for hunting changed, some were released into the wild. They bred with domestic pigs, evolving an ecological superpower to tolerate supreme cold and a high rate of reproduction, as well as an increase in size. They easily adapt to new environments, free of the habitat constraints and migration challenges that most animals face.

Their prolific breeding and destructive foraging is considered a potential catastrophe for agriculture and the environment.

“Wild pigs can cause soil erosion, degrade water quality, destroy crops, and prey on small mammals, amphibians and birds,” said Ruth Aschim, a PhD student who led the 2019 study. “One of the main problems is the rooting behavior; they upturn the soil because they like to eat the roots and tubers of vegetation. It’s essentially like a rototiller went through an area.”

What’s more, the super-pigs can breed in any season, and sows will have a litter of around six piglets annually. The young are sexually mature in four-to-eight months, and not even a harsh winter can slow them down, as they thrive in the snow, living in ‘pigloos’ underground. They’re also not fussy eaters, and will demolish crops such as corn, wheat, sugar cane and canola, as well as native insects, birds, reptiles and other, smaller, mammals. This is on top of the destructive ‘renovating’ they do by rooting around in the soil.

While it is believed the pigs typically weigh about 250 pounds, a team captured and weighed a pregnant sow to discover she weighed 683 pounds.

And while the super-pigs aren’t aggressive unless threatened, they do bring with them a sizeable pathogenic risk. Disease is a huge concern with wild pigs. They’re reservoirs of not only African Swine Fever, but 39 other viral and bacterial diseases, as well as parasites. They can be transmitted to domestic livestock, wildlife, and humans.