By Chris Woodward, The Center Square

Mountain states rank among the “most free” in North America, according to a new report from the Fraser Institute.

Montana tied as the sixth most free state in the nation.

The Canadian think tank employs 10 variables for its Economic Freedom of North America 2023 reports and scores states based on categories such as government spending, taxes, labor market freedom, legal system and property rights, sound money, and freedom to trade internationally.

“Individuals have economic freedom when (a) property they acquire without the use of force, fraud, or theft is protected from physical invasions by others and (b) they are free to use, exchange, or give their property as long as their actions do not violate the identical rights of others,” the Fraser Institute says in its latest report, citing a definition from the 1970s by then Fraser Institute-authors James Gwartney, Robert Lawson, and Walter Block. “Thus, an index of economic freedom should measure the extent to which rightly acquired property is protected and individuals are engaged in voluntary transactions.”

Idaho came in fourth overall in North America for economic freedom and had the highest ranking of all the mountain states, scoring 8.05 out of 10. The Gem State graded well in government spending, labor market freedom, and sound money categories.

Montana tied for sixth with Utah, due in part to high marks on taxes and sound money, as well as Utah’s performance in labor market freedom and sound money.

Wyoming ranks 13th, followed by Colorado (15th) and Nevada (16th). New Mexico and Arizona came in 41st and 42nd, respectively.

The report  is based on 2021, because that year has “the most recent available comprehensive data,” according to the think tank.

Leavitt Great West Insurance, with office locations across Montana and an affiliate of the national brokerage firm, Leavitt Group announced a recent role transition at their Helena office.  Shelby Dangerfield, who has been with Leavitt Great West for over a year recently transitioned into the new role of commercial insurance advisor.

Doralyn Rossmann, a longtime faculty member in the Montana State University Library who has been serving as the library’s interim dean since August 2022, has been selected as the library’s new dean after a national search.

Montana has submitted an application to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for funding to build a sixth cottage at the Southwest Montana Veterans Home (SWMVH) in Butte. The SWMVH is a licensed and certified skilled nursing facility with five, 12-bedroom cottages currently home to 44 veterans and their spouses. A sixth cottage will increase the facility’s maximum capacity to 72 veterans. In its application to the VA State Home Construction Grant Program, DPHHS requested the sixth cottage, estimated at $5.7 million, be paid for with 65% federal funds and 35% state dollars. The governor secured $2 million in state dollars for the project.

The University of Montana Western was recently recognized as the #1 best college in Montana by The rankings take into account affordability, enrollment, retention, and graduation rates.

Bozeman Health has named Billings physician Dr. Chris Spoja as the health care system’s new chief medical officer. A Helena native Spoja currently serves as the chief medical officer of Inpatient Services at Intermountain Healthcare in Billings. In his new role Spoja will facilitate clinical affairs with physician and lead administrative leadership across the health system. Spoja will begin his new role on Jan. 2, 2024.

 Curt Rasmussen of Conrad was named the Northern Rodeo Association’s Announcer of the Year for 2023 recently. Rasmussen is the third generation of his family to become an award-winning rodeo announcer, following in the footsteps of his father, Will Rasmussen now of Salmon, Idaho, and his grandfather, Stan Rasmussen of Choteau. Curt Rasmussen lives and works in Conrad as a truck driver.

Teton County’s unemployment rate as of Sept. 30 stood at just 2.6% with 2,677 workers in the county, which lost 32 jobs over the past year, according to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry. Teton County ranked 32nd among the state’s 56 counties for its unemployment rate, tying with Flathead, Pondera and Ravalli counties. Gianforte recently announced that Montana reached its 23rd consecutive month of unemployment below 3%.

Among other things, the EPA is critizing the clean up plan for the Clark Fork River by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the state’s Natural Resource Damage Program. The EPA found fault with plans to leave more wastes in place along the river because of budget constraints.

The Missoula Valley Winter Market opened in the Southgate Mall on Saturday, Nov. 11. near the indoor entrance to Scheels. The market’s hours are 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. through Dec. 30. There will be over 40 local vendors selling food, beverages, arts and crafts.

 A new Mexican restaurant is in the process of opening at Missoula’s Southgate Mall. The team from the Pangea restaurant in downtown Missoula plans to open the new restaurant, called Elote, in the old Red Robin restaurant space. Opening  is scheduled for March of 2024. They’re hiring both full- and part-time employees.

A Norwegian battery materials company that secured local tax breaks. The company has announced  that it could be months longer before it chooses Butte, or a city in Washington state or Oregon as the site of its factory. Butte-Silver Bow commissioners approved millions of dollars in tax abatements for Cenate in June. Cenate — pronounced Sin-NAH-Tah — is developing silicon-based materials for higher-density batteries with faster and longer-lasting charges. Cenate says it would employ 100 to 250 people here and county officials estimate annual pay for the first 100 jobs at about $70,000, based on the job mix and average wages for such positions in southwest Montana.

The median home in Cascade County listed for $404,000 in October, down 10.2% from the previous month’s $450,000. Compared to October 2022, the median home list price decreased 7.2% from $435,500. These statistics pertain to houses listed for sale in Cascade County, not houses that were sold.

When the pandemic hit, Andrew Fountain began looking for a project he could do from home.  Fountain began counting glaciers. Fountain, a geology professor emeritus at Portland State University, and research assistant Bryce Glenn have released a revised inventory of glaciers in the American West that will soon be added to the U.S. Geological Survey’s national map. The new inventory by Fountain and Glenn shows that 52 of the 612 officially named glaciers are no longer glaciers because they are either too small, no longer moving or have disappeared altogether. In Montana, six named glaciers have been added to the “missing” list.

Fountain said their effort focused on the named glaciers across the western half of the continental United States because those were the most culturally significant. However, their inventory found that since the mid-20th century — about the time the USGS first started mapping the entire country — about 360 glaciers have either disappeared or become permanent snowfields. Fountain said the disappearance of glaciers shows just how much climate change is impacting the landscape across the American West.

Bozeman, home of Montana State University, has been named the No. 3 college town in America, according to the website The ranking points to the growth in the city’s population and the campus enrollment in recent years, “which means a bustling downtown and campus.” The ranking also notes the nearby natural amenities as key to making Bozeman a “paradise for outdoorsy students.” MSU’s enrollment set an all-time record this fall at 16,978, making it the largest university in Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas. Its incoming class was the third largest in history at 3,634.

Montana ranks #7 in the nation for interest in homeschooling (1.58 per 100,000 residents), according to Age of Learning. are

The Center Square

Voters have their eyes on their bottom line ahead of the 2024 election. The Center Square Voters’ Voice Poll, conducted in conjunction with Noble Predictive Insights, found that 48% of registered voters picked inflation as the top issue from a list of 18. That was followed by illegal immigration (33%), crime/violence (28%) and economy/jobs (24%).

Age of Learning reports that interest in homeschooling is escalating dramatically.

* Searches for “homeschooling online” went up 365% in the past year compared to the previous 12 months.

* Homeschooling interest is greatest in Portland, Atlanta, and Miami based on online search volume.

* 42% of parents felt more capable of homeschooling kids in elementary school, while 70% were least confident in their ability to homeschool high schoolers.

* Providing a safer environment is the No. 1 reason people want to homeschool their children.

Online learning has become integral in every level of education, and clearly, homeschooling is no exception. Tech is taking over schools across the world, and students spend increasingly more time using educational apps. Many parents are considering eliminating the hassle of taking kids to in-person instruction; current home educators already demonstrate how efficient and beneficial this lifestyle change can be.

About a third of parents are interested in homeschooling options. Interestingly the younger the parents the greater the percentage of interest in homeschooling. Twenty percent of Gen X are interested, while 34 percent of Millenials are interested and 47 percent of Gen Z are interested in homeschooling options.

* Montana ranks #7 in the nation for interest in homeschooling (1.58 per 100,000 residents)

* Montana residents are 327% more likely to search for homeschool info than Nebraska residents

* 77% of parents in the West believe homeschooled students should have to participate in state testing (more than any other region)

* Health, Grammar, and P.E. are the most popular homeschool subjects in the West

Wyoming was the state with the most residents searching online for homeschooling information, but the top five cities spread from coast to coast. According to search volume per 100,000 residents, the five most interested major cities were:

1. Portland, OR

2. Atlanta, GA

3. Miami, FL

4. Denver, CO

5. Las Vegas, NV

Considering the spike in internet searches for homeschooling-related terms over the past year, it’s no surprise that the majority of aspiring parents (59%) were more interested in homeschooling than in public or private schooling. The main factor for most parents when selecting schooling preferences was their kids’ ages. Almost half of the parents surveyed (42%) felt more capable of homeschooling kids in elementary school, while 70% were least confident in their ability to homeschool high schoolers.

Since high school curriculum is more advanced, it’s understandable that parents might be hesitant to take it on—but they don’t have to be. Support is available to ensure your teen gets the education they need. Many community colleges even offer courses to high school-age students, giving them a boost if they decide to pursue a degree. When asked about their reasons for looking into homeschooling, the most common responses of current parents were:

* Providing a safer environment (66%).

* Flexible schedule (56%).

* Preventing toxic socialization (55%).

Aspiring parents had similar reasons for considering homeschooling:

* Providing a safer environment (63%).

* Providing individualized instruction (53%).

* Preventing toxic socialization (50%).

School safety means different things to different people. Many parents are worried about their kids’ physical safety at school due to increased school violence in recent years. Parents are also concerned about how school social settings might affect their kids’ behavior and mental health. 

Kids spend over half of their waking hours at school, so it’s no wonder their school environment plays a big role in their mental and emotional development. That’s likely why more than half of current and aspiring parents were considering homeschooling to prevent toxic socialization. And while safety was a top concern, toxic socialization could be considered a safety issue. 

Current northwestern parents largely said they feel seven-hour daily curriculums are ineffective teaching tools. Midwesterners were most likely to name individualized instruction as the primary reason to consider homeschooling, and for southerners, it was the low ratings of their local schools. Meanwhile, westerners were most likely to associate it with their religious or philosophical beliefs.

The highest-earning foreign-born workers made at least $376,320 in 2019, compared with $279,079 for U.S.-born workers in the same percentile, according to recent research. Foreign-born workers account for nearly one-in-five of the top 1% wage earners in the U.S., new research shows. nt for nearly one-in-five of the top 1% wage earners in the U.S. Overseas-born workers declined slightly as a share of the U.S. workforce between 2005 and 2019. Still, their presence in the top 1% of wage-earners climbed to 19.7% from 13.4%, according to research recently published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Cyndi Johnson, a wheat farmer from Conrad, was re-elected as the Montana Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF) president during the organization’s 104th Annual Convention in Billings. Voting delegates from 30 county Farm Bureaus elected MFBF leaders during their Delegates Session where policy brought forward by the delegates was discussed and voted on. The 104th Montana Farm Bureau Convention ran from  November 8-11.

The delegates re-elected Vice President Gary Heibertshausen, a sheep rancher from Alzada, Young Farmers & Ranchers Committee Chair Nick Courville, a cattle rancher from Charlo and Women’s Leadership Committee Chair Carla Lawrence, a cattle rancher from Boyd.

New faces on the board include Beth Blevins, a purebred Angus breeder and large animal veterinarian, who was elected as District 1 Director from Ronan; Wayne Stahl, a farmer/rancher from Saco as District 7 Director, and Karl Christians, a cattle rancher from East Helena as District 9 Director.

Re-elected to the MFBF Board of Directors were District 3 Director Kris Descheemaeker, a rancher from Lewistown and District 5 Director Darcia Patten, a rancher from Broadus.

The Montana Farm Bureau is the state’s largest general agricultural organization with 20,000 members. Montana Farm Bureau is a grassroots organization dedicated to preserving and improving the agriculture and natural resource industries through member involvement in education, political activities, programs and services.

National Equity Fund (NEF), a nonprofit multi-family, affordable, real estate investment manager has expanded its reach in the west with the acquisition of the assets of Mountain Plains Equity Group, Inc. (MPEG), including the ownership of MPEG Acceptance Corporation (Acceptance Corp.).

Based in Billings, MPEG began operations in August 2003 as a small Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) syndicator and has been responsible for the development of affordable housing primarily in six states: Alaska, Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

MPEG Acceptance Corp. was created by MPEG to act as a project level investment entity and routinely serves as a special limited partner in LIHTC project partnerships. “As the need for affordable housing grows, NEF recognizes that we must continue to find innovative solutions that enable us to provide more safe and stable housing for individuals and families across the country,” said Matt Reilein, president and CEO of National Equity Fund. “The acquisition of Mountain Plains Equity Group allows us direct access to build a presence in states where NEF has not traditionally had a large market share. Now, we have an opportunity to support sponsors and investors in a new region and offer them NEF’s full suite of products and capabilities to support and create affordable housing.”

With the acquisition, NEF now manages six new private equity funds that hold a total of 49 LIHTC properties. All the properties are focused on serving residents and families who identify as low #income with some properties setting aside units for people with disabilities and aging seniors. “The mission of Mountain Plains Equity Group directly correlates to NEF’s mission to create and deliver innovative, collaborative financial solutions to expand the creation and preservation of affordable housing,” said Reilein.

“With our strong foundation and decades of experience in the LIHTC space, we are confident that this acquisition will help deepen relationships across the country and help keep rents affordable for our nation’s most vulnerable citizens.”

In 2022, NEF raised and deployed more than $2.1 billion in affordable housing investments, including more than $1.2 billion in LIHTC-specific investment. The addition of MPEG represents an extended reach that aligns with NEF’s strategic priority to grow its core LIHTC business through innovative partnerships.

For the past two decades, MPEG has been led by president and CEO Don Sterhan. Under Sterhan’s leadership, MPEG has created a major footprint within the mountain and western region by building strategic, impactful relationships with investors and sponsors.

 “After 20 years of serving as the president of Mountain Plains Equity Group, I’m honored to embrace our colleagues at National Equity Fund as we continue our journey together to provide housing for individuals and families in need,” said Sterhan. “MPEG has an outstanding commitment and reputation providing affordable homes to the western region, and now, with the backing of NEF, we can broaden our horizons to positively impact communities that were previously beyond our reach.” Sterhan went on to say “The sale transaction and partnership with NEF is based upon the ‘finance’ side of MPEG’s business, that being the syndication of LIHTC and the management of Investor equity funds. The staff and management of MPEG will nevertheless remain active and engaged in the ‘development’ side of the business. In this capacity, the MPEG personnel will redirect their focus and continue their efforts to develop affordable using properties under the name of CR Builders, LLC.”

First organized in 2011, CR Builders, LLC has successfully developed over 20 affordable housing properties in this market area. In restructuring the business and shifting emphasis, the company will now be devoting 100% of its time and resources to housing development activity.

 By Marilyn Bartlett and Christin Deacon

 Employer health plan costs continue to spiral out of control, threatening profitability, competitiveness, and employee wages. The Kaiser Family Foundation recently announced the average annual employer-sponsored family health plan premium reached $24,000. This cost, generally split between employer and employee, has increased by 50% over the last decade. 

 Employers need not passively accept these health plan cost overruns. They can draw on three pillars of federal healthcare price transparency policy to reverse these runaway costs and protect their employees and bottom lines. 

The first two pillars – the Hospital Price Transparency rule that took effect in January 2021 and the Transparency in Coverage rule that took effect in July 2022 — require hospitals, group health plans, and health insurers to publish their actual prices, including all their negotiated rates with insurance carriers. The third pillar is the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, which requires third-party administrators, insurers, and provider networks to share claims information with employer and union group health plans.

 This information can empower employers, who provide health coverage for nearly 160 million Americans, to choose affordable healthcare and benefit from competition. Armed with actual prices, employers can compare their health claims with hospital and health insurance prices to ensure they get the best pricing and care for their employees, and they can ensure they get what they are paying for.

For example, they can identify well-documented wide price variations for the same treatments and choose the best value. A forthcoming report by draws on employers’ claims data that reveal the price of a CT scan of the abdomen or pelvis ranges from $215 to $10,000, the price of a colonoscopy varies from $1,000 to $31,000, and the price of a vaginal delivery fluctuates from $1,800 to $24,000, depending on the employer and treatment location. By comparing their claims against actual posted prices, employers can avoid egregious billing, spread pricing, and other payment schemes responsible for runaway costs. 

 We’ve seen how access to all health plan prices and claims data is needed to dramatically reduce healthcare costs. In 2014, Marilyn was hired to direct Montana’s insolvent State Health Plan, which covers approximately 30,000 state employees, retirees, and their families. An analysis of the plan’s medical claims data revealed Montana hospitals were charging up to six times the Medicare rate for services, with significant price variation between providers. 

To overcome this egregious and highly variable hospital pricing, the plan contracted with hospitals in the state to pay rates slightly more than twice Medicare rates. This move increased plan reserves from a projected deficit of $9 million to a surplus of $112 million in three years, saving $121 million without cost-shifting or decreasing benefit levels.

 Chris ran New Jersey’s 800,000 life public sector health plan and likewise identified wide price variation and discrepancies in the state’s claims data which has led to ongoing investigations into the practices of some of the state’s largest vendors. The state launched a payment integrity program in 2020 that provided enhanced oversight of hospital billing and carrier payment practices to safeguard the plan and protect taxpayer dollars, saving more than $150 million in its first 20 months. 

 Unfortunately, these transformative pillars haven’t become a reality for American healthcare consumers. A recent report finds that only 36% of American hospitals are fully complying with the price transparency rule, including posting all negotiated rates by health plan. A new JAMA study concludes even posted hospital prices are usually very different than the prices hospitals offer over the phone. 

A recent Health Affairs paper reveals most employer health claims don’t match the prices in the insurance price disclosure files. This inaccuracy in pricing data makes it impossible to reconcile claims, identify overbilling, or shop for higher-value care. The study’s authors note, “the intent of the regulations that govern the body of price transparency policies cannot be accomplished with the current level of inaccuracies in the files.” 

 In addition, major employers and unions nationwide, including  Kraft Heinz, Owens & Minor Inc., and Bricklayers and Sheet Metal Workers unions, have recently been forced to sue their own health insurance companies to access claims data for their own health plan. They’ve paid billions to their carriers over the years and have alleged substantial overpayments and spread pricing facilitated by the opaque status quo. 

Even though these three pillars need reinforcement, employers can still follow our lead and others like us who have stood firm on them to reduce health plan costs. They can draw on their claims data, actual prices from hospitals, and the prices negotiated by carriers on employers’ behalf to make smart purchasing decisions and demand accountability. For now, they need to fight for this information. But the more employers who do so, the stronger the three pillars will become and the easier it will be to finally reduce outrageous health plan costs. 

Marilyn Bartlett, CPA, CMA, CFM, CGMA, is the former administrator of the State of Montana Employee Health Plan. Christin Deacon is the former Director of Health Benefits Operations and Policy and Planning for New Jersey.

Dr. Susan Gilbertz has been appointed the new MSU-B College of Business Interim Dean, with the retirement of Ed Garding, who retired as Interim Dean for the College of Business in June 30. He was former First Interstate Bank President.

A search for a new College of Business Dean was announced in October.

Gilbertz grew up on a ranch south of Gillette, Wyoming and attended small rural schools. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Wyoming in Communication and Conflict Management. Later, from Texas A&M University, she earned the PhD in Geography.

Gilbertz served at Texas A&M University for 18 years as: instructor of communication, coordinator of advising for a department, international studies faculty exchange instructor (Italy, France, Indonesia, China, Germany, Oman), and co-investigator on nearly $1,000,000 of research grants involving environmental conflicts.

In 2003, she took the position of Director of Environmental Studies at Montana State University Billings. In her twenty years with MSUB she managed the EVST program, taught a variety of courses. Before taking the Associate Dean position with the COB, she served in faculty leadership roles.

Gilbertz’s primary research interests have focused on the sustainability of the communities of the Yellowstone, the Clark’s Fork, Madison, the Ruby, the Milk and the St. Mary’s Rivers of Montana. She has overseen over $500,000 in research projects for MSUB, and has nearly 50 publications.

Gilbertz was recently enlisted by the USGS to serve as the co-chair/US representative to the St. Mary’s/Milk River Socioeconomic Technical Working Group of the Joint International Commission that oversees water sharing between Canada and the US.

Gilbertz remains involved in the management of three ranching business entities in Wyoming and is the sole proprietor of a small social entrepreneurship enterprise in Billings. 

The search for a new College of Business Dean was announced earlier in October and a full position description may be found at

Two College of Business alumni were given awards Oct 7, 2023 at the MSUB Alumni Awards Brunch. Jeff Cysewski, Class of 1985, Business Administration, received the Exceptional Achievement Award. This award recognizes the accomplishments of alumni who have demonstrated exceptional achievement in their chosen professions, made positive impacts on their communities, and are involved with MSU Billings.

Lee Humphrey, Class of 2003, Distinguished Alumni Award. This award honors alumni who have distinguished themselves through personal, professional, and civic contributions, while bringing a sense of honor, pride, and recognition to the university community.