Why is Yellowstone County not participating in the plan to develop passenger rail service through southern Montana? The question was posed to Yellowstone County Commissioners by Keith Lavacheck during a recent discussion meeting.

A group has organized and several counties have joined an effort to “resurrect the Hiawatha Passenger Line”. The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is urging a federal study of the feasibility of re-establishing the defunct Amtrak line that once carried passengers between Chicago and Seattle via Billings, Butte and Missoula. It was abandoned in 1979.

Lavachek asked the commissioners to be “forward looking,” and at least support the study to explore the feasibility and cost-benefit possibilities. “I think it is a good deal,” he said, “Shouldn’t we learn more about it“? The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is hopeful that federal funding for a study will come from Congress’ infrastructure funding bill passed over a year ago. Democratic Montana Sen. Jon Tester worked to include language in the infrastructure bill that set aside $15 million for a nationwide study.

Actually, re-establishing passenger rail service is not just a focus in Montana. Federal government websites states that “over the next 15 years, Amtrak’s vision for expansion will connect up to 160 communities throughout the United States by building new or improved rail corridors in over 25 states.”

Besides nostalgia for a by-gone era, there is hope that a southern rail passenger service would be a boon to the economy by encouraging greater tourism. It is also pointed out that in Montana’s far-flung open spaces there is a need for public transportation services that a passenger rail service would meet.

Although asked several times over the years, Yellowstone County has refused to join other Montana counties in support of the vision. Commissioner John Ostlund told Lavachek that their refusal has to do with being fiscally responsible with tax dollars. When they first considered the idea 13 years ago, said Ostlund, the estimated cost was a billion dollars. Since then, he suspects the cost would be at least $2 billion. “Passenger rail service doesn’t make money,” said Ostlund.

Lavachek said that signing on as a supporter of investigating the possibilities wouldn’t mean Yellowstone County would be committed beyond the feasibility study. Ostlund seemed to think it might.

Ostlund also pointed out that there would be other negative impacts of adding a passenger line such as slowing down freight lines.

Commissioner Mark Morse said, “We have finite resources and a lot of places to spend it.”

Lavachek suggested in an email sent to Yellowstone County Commissioners and the Billings Mayor that “We should not assume that this is going to cost $2, 3 or 10 billions until we see the study.”

Ostlund pointed out the Amtrak route has never made a profit and is hugely subsidized by federal dollars, and Montana’s Northern route is among the worst. Montana’s Amtrak route, called the Empire Builder, passes through Havre and the Flathead between Seattle and Chicago.

Initial research in a feasibility study reports that restoration of the route across Montana and six other states would generate more than $270 million in economic benefits and carry an estimated 420,000 passengers each year.

Nationally, Amtrak carried 22.9 million passengers in 2022, concentrated primarily in Eastern states. Montana’s portion of the route carried 433,000 passengers in 2022.

During COVID, even though Montana’s Amtrak was provided $1 billion in additional federal subsidy, Amtrak rail service through the Hi-line was dropped to three days a week.

Despite much reporting on proposals regarding the resurrection of passenger rail service throughout the country, there is scant mention of how much rail service is subsidize in the US. Prior to COVID, information from the Department of Transportation states that Amtrak received appropriations of about $1.5 billion in 2017 and $1.9 billion in 2018 to subsidize “intercity passenger rail services,” which of course does not include the cost in Montana. Amtrak’s capital spending in 2017 was $1.6 billion and its operating expenses totaled $4.2 billion.

Another report analyzed in 2018 a savings to the federal government of $20 billion should it eliminate funding for Amtrak.

Ostlund’s concerns about shifting the cost to local governments may not be unfounded. The same report about savings, noted that Amtrak subsidies were first authorized in the 1970s, as a temporary measure. Subsidies “were intended to help Amtrak become self-supporting.” It went on to suggest that “…states or localities that highly value the subsidized rail or air services should provide the subsidies.”

The Montana Department of Transportation website reports that in 2008 Amtrak estimated the capital and up-front costs “…to exceed $1 billion, annual operating cost would exceed $74 million, resulting in a $31 million annual operating loss.”

Manufacturing & International Trade Day recognizes titans of industry – manufacturers and exporters. This biennial event invites organizations to showcase their business and products at the Trade Show. Solution oriented seminars, tailored to specific manufacturing and trade issues, take place during the day.  Held during the legislative session, lawmakers are invited to an evening reception with vendors and seminar attendees.

The event is March 16, 12 pm to 7 pm, in Helena at the Delta Hotel by Marriott Helena Colonial, 2301 Colonial Dr.

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.

Approximately nine out of 10 metro markets registered home price gains in the fourth quarter of 2022 despite mortgage rates eclipsing 7%, according to the National Association of Realtors’ latest quarterly report. Eighteen percent of the 186 tracked metro areas registered double-digit price increases over the same time period, down from 46% in the third quarter of 2022.

Compared to a year ago, the national median single-family existing-home price rose 4.0% to $378,700. Year-over-year price appreciation decelerated when compared to the previous quarter’s 8.6%.

“A slowdown in home prices is underway and welcomed, particularly as the typical home price has risen 42% in the past three years,” NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun said, noting these costs increases have far surpassed wage increases and consumer price inflation of 15% and 14%, respectively, since 2019. “Far fewer metro markets experienced double-digit price gains in the latest quarter.”

Among the major U.S. regions, the South saw the largest share of single-family existing-home sales (45%) in the third quarter, with year-over-year price appreciation of 4.9%. Prices grew 5.3% in the Northeast, 4.0% in the Midwest, and 2.6% in the West.

“Even with a projected reduction in home sales this year, prices are expected to remain stable in the vast majority of the markets due to extremely limited supply,” Yun added. “Moreover, there are signs that buyers are returning as mortgage rates decline, even with inventory levels near historic lows.”

The top 10 metro areas with the largest year-over-year price increases all recorded gains of at least 14.5%, with seven of those markets in Florida and the Carolinas.

Half of the top 10 most expensive markets in the U.S. were in California.

Roughly one in 10 markets (11%; 20 of 186) experienced home price declines in the fourth quarter of 2022.

“A few markets may see double-digit price drops, especially some of the more expensive parts of the country which have also seen weaker employment and higher instances of residents moving to other areas,” Yun added.

In the fourth quarter of 2022, housing affordability was exacerbated by elevated home prices and mortgage rates which roughly doubled from the beginning of the year. The monthly mortgage payment on a typical existing single-family home with a 20% down payment was $1,969. This represents a 7% increase from the third quarter of last year ($1,838) but a major surge of 58% – or $720 – from one year ago. Families typically spent 26.2% of their income on mortgage payments, up from 25% in the prior quarter and 17.5% one year ago.

Once again, first-time buyers looking to purchase a typical home during the fourth quarter of 2022 encountered challenges related to housing’s growing unaffordability. For a typical starter home valued at $321,900 with a 10% down payment loan, the monthly mortgage payment rose to $1,931, about 7% more than the previous quarter ($1,806) and an increase of almost $700, or 57%, from one year ago ($1,233). First-time buyers typically spent 39.5% of their family income on mortgage payments, up from 37.8% in the previous quarter. A mortgage is considered unaffordable if the monthly payment (principal and interest) amounts to more than 25% of the family’s income.

A family needed a qualifying income of at least $100,000 to afford a 10% down payment mortgage in 71 markets, up from 59 in the prior quarter. Yet, a family needed a qualifying income of less than $50,000 to afford a home in 16 markets, down from 17 in the previous quarter.

As Mother’s Day approaches so does the 42nd Montana Women’s Run.

For 42 years, tens of thousands of participants have filled the streets of downtown Billings the Saturday before Mothers Day, wearing the uniquely designed Montana Womenâ Run t-shirt.  This year downtown Billings will once again be a sea of women in jewel toned purple shirts. 

This years artwork features a Bitterroot flower and a butterfly in flight. Billings graphic designer, Jim Heins, states that the butterfly in flight symbolizes the nature of the Womesn Run with the butterfly representing springtime, transformation, life and hope.

The Bitterroot flower has of course been a constant for the Women’s Run as Montana’s state flower, representing the beauty of the state.

Registration is now open for the 42nd annual run, which will be held on May 13 starting at 8 am in downtown Billings. Proceeds from the event benefit charitable organizations in Billings that contribute to women’s health and wellness. 

 The Montana Women’s Run began in 1982 with 200 registrants and celebrated last year with over 4,600 women participating virtually around the world. Today, the race is recognized as the largest running event for women in the state of Montana, and one of the largest all-women’s races in the country. To date, the Montana Women’s Run has donated more than $1,637,500 to local organizations that promote women’s and children’s health and fitness.

The major sponsors of the 2022 Montana Women’s Run are Billings Clinic, ExxonMobil, First Interstate Bank, Graphic Imprints, The Planet 106.7 and KTVQ.

To keep up with news and other related Women’s Run events, visit the Montana Women’s Run Facebook page or the Montana Women’s Run website. To register for any of the events, visit www.womensrun.org.   

Sixteen attorneys general – including Montana’s —are urging members of Congress to modify, clarify, and rescind an emergency-use authorization authority still being used by federal agencies to mandate coronavirus-related policies.

The letter sent to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and House Committee on Energy & Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rogers, both Republicans, relates to curtailing the authority of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Food and Drug Administration.

The AGs have requested that Congress override existing emergency-use authorization policies still in effect and to conduct rigorous oversight to establish what mistakes were made related to current and past implementation of the federal authority. They also asked Congress to “consider revising the liability protections provided by a prior Congress, and confirm what President [Joe] Biden has admitted and what the American people in their sound judgment know: any valid grounds for claiming a state of medical emergency due to COVID have ended; normalcy and the rule of law must be restored.”

Nikki Dolan has been named the Food Insecurity Program Coordinator for the Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools (EFBPS). Dolan takes the newly created position to lead the BackPack Meals, Teen Pantry and Elementary Pantry programs that operate for Billings Public Schools students in need. Dolan started the position in August 2022, training with Dr. Ginny Mermel who started the food programs in 2007. Mermel ran the programs under the Foundation to benefit BPS students as a dedicated volunteer for 15 years. Upon her retirement, the Education Foundation created the Food Insecurity Program Coordinator position. Dolan has a degree in Business Administration/Marketing from the University of Montana. Her previous experience is working as the Special Events Coordinator at Billings Clinic and as an Account Executive at an Advertising Firm. “We’re thrilled to have Nikki on staff to lead these programs,” shared Kelly McCandless, Executive Director for EFBPS. “She has tremendous passion for ensuring the kids in our District facing food insecurity receive the nutritional support they need.” The EFBPS Food Insecurity Programs are currently responsible for feeding approximately 700 students each week. The program demand has grown significantly over the last two years, and the addition of a staff position to manage the programs is critical to the continued ability to care for students in need. “There are passionate people at every level of Billings Public Schools attending to needs far beyond academics for students,” explained Dolan. “I’m thrilled to be part of programs offering stability and certainty for kids who would otherwise face hunger.”

It is time once again to register for the 31st Annual Job Service Employer’s Committee (JSEC), Jobs Jamboree at MetraPark in the Montana Pavilion on March 15, from 11 am to 6 pm.

This is an opportunity to showcase your business at Montana’s largest job fair. The event is offering 3+ Premier Sponsorships (2/15/23 deadline) among the basic registration and event sponsorship.

The Jobs Jamboree is a valued event by both employers and job seekers; 100+ employers and over 1,100 job seekers attended the 2022 event. It’s an opportunity to interact and connect with qualified job seekers and network with fellow employers in one location.

This year the Billings Job Service Employers Committee (JSEC) has partnered with the Employer Support of The Guard and Reserve (ESGR) to offer Jobs Jamboree to Montana Guard and Reserve members, military spouses and veterans. Event proceeds go toward scholarships. Over the years, JSEC has used these funds to award 37 scholarships to apprentices and college students worth $29,500. JSEC is offering a convenient option of online registration and payment. All registrations are online, if you need assistance, contact Samantha Hensel 406-655-6061 or Brittany Lane 406-655-6057. To reserve a booth, register online at www.jsecbillings.org. Lunch will be provided for up to two representatives. Additional meals can be purchased for $10 each.

By Chris Woodward, The Center Square

Montana’s population grew 1.5% in 2022, according to new annual state population estimates released by the U.S. Census.

That’s a net increase of 16,640 from July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2022. Montana’s total population is now an estimated 1,122,867, up from 1,106,227 in 2021, and 1,084,197 in 2020. 

Montana ranked among the top 10 states for percentage growth behind Florida (1.9%), Idaho (1.8%), South Carolina (1.7%), Texas (1.6%), and South Dakota (1.5%). 

“Eighteen states experienced a population decline in 2022, compared to 15 and D.C. the prior year,” said the Census Bureau. “California, with a population of 39,029,342, and Illinois, with a population of 12,582,032, also had six-figure decreases in resident population.” 

In 2023, the bureau plans to release 2022 population estimates for counties, cities, and towns. Information on demographics such as age, race, and sex are also expected.

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.”