Montana’s unemployment rate dropped in February to 3.9%, after falling to 4.0% in January. The unemployment rate for the U.S. was 6.2% in February.

Yellowstone County is ranked 23rd among counties for the lowest unemployment rate at 4.4 percent, which is about .6 percent higher than a year ago. There are 76,274 people employed in the county which is 2400 less than last year.

McCone County has the lowest unemployment rate in the state at 2.3 percent which is -0.1 percent lower than last year, currently employing 954 people. Glacier County has the highest unemployment in the state at 10.2 percent, which is 1.7 percent higher than a year ago with 4,541 people employed.

Yellowstone County’s unemployment rate is higher than the 3.4 percent rate in Gallatin County. The rates in other urban counties are Lewis & Clark County, 4.5 percent, Cascade 4.8 percent, Missoula 5.2 percent, Silver Bow, 5.5 percent.

Nationally, Montana’s “bounced back” 8th best. South Dakota’s has bounced back the best and Hawaii’s the least best, according to

“Montana’s unemployment rate continues its downward trend, but too many of our businesses are struggling to find workers,” Governor Greg Gianforte said. “Getting Montanans back to work in good-paying jobs and improving access to trades education and apprenticeships are top priorities as we get Montana open for business.”

Governor Gianforte has worked with the legislature to address the growing skilled labor shortage in Montana by creating the Montana Trades Education Credit (M-TEC). A central element of the governor’s Roadmap to the Montana Comeback budget, the bill, H.B. 252, provides $1 million per year in 50-percent credits to businesses for their employees to learn a trade. The funding level will support as many as 1,000 scholarships annually. Under the program, employers and employees can decide on training that is best for the business and the employee.

“Expanding trades education in Montana and empowering our workforce are critical. I look forward to this bill getting across the finish line and to my desk,” Governor Gianforte said.

Total employment in February fell by 965, and the labor force shrank by 1,521 workers. Total employment includes payroll, agricultural, and self-employed workers. 

After updating January’s preliminary estimates, payroll employment was unchanged in February, remaining at 477,700 jobs. The manufacturing and accommodation and food services industries each added 500 jobs, which were offset by job losses in construction and financial activities.

The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) increased by 0.4% in February, driven by increases in gasoline prices and a rising energy index. Over the last 12 months the CPI-U has increased 1.7%. The index for all items less food and energy, referred to as core inflation, increased 0.1% in February.

Bethany Blankley, The Center Square

Red states are leading economic growth in the U.S., a new report by the U. S. Commerce Department shows, with South Dakota, Texas and Utah reporting the highest growth.

The report is based on 2020 fourth quarter gross domestic product (GDP) data and February 2021 unemployment rates.

Real GDP increased in all 50 states and the District of Columbia in the fourth quarter of 2020. Real GDP for the U.S. as a whole increased at an annual rate of 4.3 percent. The percent change in real GDP in the fourth quarter ranged from 9.9 percent in South Dakota to 1.2 percent in the District of Columbia.

Montana had a GDP increase of 3.6 percent.

The top three states in quarter-over-quarter growth were South Dakota (9.9 percent), Texas (7.5 percent), and Utah (7.1 percent). All three have Republican trifecta governments, with Republicans controlling the governor’s offices and both chambers of state legislatures.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, pointing to the report, tweeted, “The Texas economy expanded at a rapid pace of 7.5 percent in the last quarter of 2020. That means more jobs & more prosperity for Texans. Only one state – and no large state – had better economic growth than Texas. The Texas economy is fire.”

Eight of the states in the top 10 are all Republican-led states. The two in the top 10 that are Democratic strongholds are Connecticut, reporting 7 percent growth, and Delaware, reporting 5.8 percent growth.

Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds pointed to Iowa’s growth of 6.3 percent, tweeting Iowa is “The #1 state for opportunity,” with a “GDP growth faster than the national average,” and it “had kids back in school since August.”

On March 26, the New York Federal Reserve “GDP Nowcast” model, which estimates real-time economic growth, said that while the U.S. economy grew at 6.1 percent in the first quarter of 2021, it will only grow at 0.7 percent in the second quarter.

Fed analysts attribute the “negative surprises from personal consumption expenditures, manufacturers’ shipments of durable goods, and housing data” as contributing factors for the forecasted decrease. Their forecast for the entire year is roughly 6 percent growth or higher.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment rates were lower in February in 23 states and the District of Columbia, higher in four states, and stayed roughly the same in 23 states, with the national unemployment rate remaining at 6.2 percent.

States reporting the highest unemployment rates are Hawaii (9.2 percent) and California (9 percent). States with the lowest are South Dakota (2.9 percent) and Utah (3.0 percent).

The City County Planning Department is going through the process to approve a study regarding the feasibility of a rental program for the short-term use of bikes and scooters in Billings. It’s a service or business available in many cities across the country, which is meant to extend transportation options.

The City of Billings’ MET Transit is considering implementing such a program according to Elyse Monat, Transportation Planner for the City/ County Planning Department.

The $45,000 study was done under the auspices of the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) which for Yellowstone County and Billings is the Policy Coordinating Committee (PCC). The study requires approval of both governing bodies as well as the Montana Department of Transportation. All three agencies comprise the PCC board which must give final approval. 

The MPO (PCC) hired Alta Planning + Design, a multi-state company with offices in many states including Oregon, Utah, Colorado and California. The goal of the Billings Area Bike and Scooter Study, is to determine how a bike and scooter “share program” would have to be established in order to be successful. The program is a service or business model in which bicycles or scooters are available for short-term use, usually 15 to 45 minute trips. Often operated under contract with the municipality, the service allows a user to check out a bicycle or scooter from locations around the city, ride to their destination and then leave the bicycle at some point for someone else to use.

The service is designed to be “a cost-effective, environmentally-friendly, convenient travel option for shorter trips” …which “could serve as an extension of transit and help Billings community members and visitors get around more easily without using a car.”

According to Monat, the survey of 245 Billings respondents 53 percent said they are interested in seeing such a program, 24 percent are not interest, and 14 percent wanted more information. Others sid they like the idea of “bike share” but not “scooter share.” Concerns sited included safety, lack of bicycle infrastructure, and vandalism.

Study recommendations to the City is that should they implement the program it should be a hybrid that would include both bikes and scooters. Hybrid means a bike can be retrieved at and returned to a station which consists of a series of bike racks, or anywhere within the designated service area; bikes are typically referred to as “smart bikes” due to the on-board technology hardware; user transactions can occur through hardware on the bike, web, and/or smartphone application; may include manual bikes or e-bikes.

The business model recommended by the study would be for the city to hire an experienced company that owns and operates a turnkey system, which means the service would be publically owned and privately operated.

The City would rent equiment and contract with the company for the full range of operations support, including installation, operations, sponsorship, customer service, and maintenance. The company takes on the risk of funding and operating the program in return for generated revenues.

Additional funding was identified as possible from sponsorships, grants, or operational funding.

Things recommended to the city in order to provide greater assurances for a successful program included: enable safe, convenient personal mobility such as sidewalks, separated bike lanes, crossing treatments, speed limit reductions, lighting, etc. should be focused around large employers and key services, such as health care and quality food outlets.

Funding for the Billings Area Bike and Scooter Study came in large part from the federal government, with the city and other organizations providing 13.42 percent in matching funds.

The study will be considered by the PCC at its March 18, 2021 meeting, at noon at the County Commissioners’ office in the Stillwater Building.

The future USS Montana has been launched in Newport News, Virginia. The nuclear-powered fast attack submarine will be completed pier-side while crew training continues toward sea trials this year. The boat’s commissioning into the Navy fleet is likely in early 2022. Huntington Ingalls Industries announced that the 7800-ton Virginia-class submarine was launched into the James River at the company’s Newport News Shipbuilding division.

Captain Michael Delaney, commanding officer of USS Montana, has visited the state multiple times with crew members.

“Our exceptional young sailors want all Montanans to know that in their training and the fulfilling of their operational responsibilities, they are energized by the support they feel from Big Sky Country,” said Delaney about the launch. “The same will be true when they are eventually deployed aboard the USS Montana in defense of our nation.”

Delaney said that crew members who have visited various parts of the state to get to know her people, history, culture, and economy have been tremendously impressed by the Montanans they’ve met.

“We’re all committed to making Montana proud as we work toward taking the state’s namesake warship to sea for the first time later this year,” said Delaney.

Montanans are actively supporting the commissioning and crew of USS Montana through the USS Montana Committee, a Montana nonprofit corporation with a number of responsibilities. Included are building a support relationship between the crew and Montanans for the boat’s 30-year service life and providing certain enhancements to the warship, including an onboard Montana history and culture display being developed with the Montana Historical Society.

The Committee will be doing informational presentations around the state this year with a unique submarine-sized ship’s bell cast as a replica of the one aboard the first and only other USS Montana, an armored cruiser commissioned in 1908. The bell will be presented to the boat and its crew at the future USS Montana’s commissioning.

According to Huntington Ingalls Industries, until launch USS Montana had been in a floating dry dock following transfer from a construction facility in October. The dry dock was submerged, and the submarine was moved by tugboats to the shipyard’s submarine pier for final outfitting, testing and crew certification.

“For our shipbuilders, launching USS Montana signifies five years of hard work, commitment and dedicated service,” said Jason Ward, Newport News’ vice president of Virginia-class submarine construction. “We look forward to executing our waterborne test program and working toward sea trials and delivering the submarine to the Navy.”

Through the teaming agreement with General Dynamics Electric Boat approximately 10,000 shipbuilders, as well as suppliers from all 50 states, have participated in USS Montana’s construction since the work began in 2015. USS Montana is approximately 92% complete.

The Supreme Court will soon consider whether to accept New York State Rifle & Pistol Association vs. Cortlett, which challenges New York’s carry laws. One of the legal briefs has the backing of nearly half of the Attorneys General in the US.

In their brief, primarily written by the offices of Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich and Missouri AG Eric Schmitt, the AGs argue that the collective histories of the 23 responding states demonstrates that “subjective-issue handgun permit regimes, such as N.Y. Penal Law §400.00, are unconstitutional because they impose state-created, subjective conditions upon the exercise of a fundamental constitutional right.”

The Amici States emphasize two reasons that this case warrants the Court’s review. First, empirical data and the States’ experience with objective- issue regimes demonstrate that these subjective-issue regimes undermine the very public-safety purposes that they purport to advance. Citizens that receive permits are significantly more law-abiding than the public at large, and studies link objective-issue regimes with decreased murder rates and no rise in other violent crimes. Public safety is also increased at the individual level when citizens carry for selfdefense and respond to a criminal attack with a firearm; these defensive gun uses leave the intended victim unharmed more frequently than any other option and almost never require firing a shot.

Culminating years of work, a small satellite designed and built by Montana State University students  was launched on Feb. 20, aboard a cargo resupply rocket bound for the International Space Station.

The bread loaf-sized satellite, called by the acronym IT-SPINS, will dock at the space station until later this spring, then be propelled into orbit and commence a more than six-month mission of measuring the properties of Earth’s atmosphere at the edge of outer space.

Since the project kicked off in 2015 with a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation, more than 30 MSU students in MSU’s Space Science and Engineering Laboratory have been involved in developing the satellite, according to David Klumpar, SSEL director and research professor in the Department of Physics in MSU’s College of Letters and Science. The launch will mark the 12th time a small satellite designed and built by MSU students in SSEL has been sent to outer space.

“We give students the opportunity to take a lot of responsibility in developing the mission, designing and making the hardware, putting it all together and then testing it to make sure it’ll survive the launch and work in space,” Klumpar said. “It’s a really hands-on experience.”

Using a specialized sensor created by the nonprofit research institute SRI International, the satellite will measure ultraviolet light emitted by charged particles, or ions, in the upper layers of Earth’s atmosphere called the ionosphere and thermosphere. IT-SPINS stands for Ionosphere-Thermosphere Scanning Photometer for Ion-Neutral Studies. The study could lead to improved forecasting of “space weather” in which variations in solar ultraviolet and X-ray radiation cause the number and intensity of ions to increase, sometimes interfering with satellites and orbiting spacecraft.

Besides the sensor, the satellite — including solar panels, batteries, communications hardware and a variety of computerized controls — was almost entirely designed and built by students, mainly engineering and computer science majors, with the help of SSEL staff, Klumpar noted.

Nevin Leh, who earned his bachelor’s in computer science from MSU in 2016, worked on the project as a junior and senior. He programmed the software that sends commands to the satellite, tracks it in the sky and downloads the data it collects.

Recent months have been a scramble as Leh, along with other SSEL staff and students, went through the final rounds of testing to ready the satellite for launch. “After you send something to space, you can’t just go up there and fix it,” Leh said.

Part of the testing involved putting the satellite in a vacuum chamber at MSU and cycling the temperature between minus-20 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit, simulating the harsh sun and chilling shade the MSU creation must endure as it orbits the Earth 14 times per day. The MSU team included specialized materials and coatings in the design to help the device retain needed warmth while also radiating excess heat.

SSEL will be involved in monitoring IT-SPINS and downloading data when the satellite passes within line-of-sight of the MSU campus, which will happen a couple times per day, according to Klumpar. MSU researchers will be involved in analyzing the data using a software developed by the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, a collaborator on the project.

Calling to Reinstate Keystone XL Permit

Montana’s Attorney General Austin Knudsen led a coalition of 14 attorneys general last week calling on President Joe Biden to reconsider his unilateral revocation of the 2019 Presidential Permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and advised him that states are reviewing available legal options to protect their citizens and interests.

In letter, Knudsen and the attorneys general coalition reiterate the harms Biden’s decision will inflict on Americans: thousands of displaced workers, increased reliance on energy produced in Russia and the Middle East, and lost economic activity and opportunity.

“Your decision will result in devastating damage to many of our states and local communities. Even those states outside the path of the Keystone XL pipeline—indeed all Americans—will suffer serious, detrimental consequences,” Knudsen led the attorneys general in writing to Biden. “In Montana for instance, killing Keystone XL will likely cost the state approximately $58 million in annual tax revenue. Montana will lose the benefits of future easements and leases, and several local counties will lose their single-biggest property taxpayer. The loss of Keystone XL’s economic activity and tax revenues are especially devastating as five of the six impacted counties are designated high-poverty areas.”

The pipeline would run 285 miles through Montana crossing through six counties. Montana businesses, local governments, and utilities have made substantial investments in preparation for the pipeline, which are now rendered lost by Biden’s action. As a result, energy bills for some Montanans’ are likely to increase and schools and local governments in eastern Montana will lose out on much needed revenue.

Knudsen criticized Biden for failing to consult the State of Montana on the costs to consumers and economic impacts, setting a dangerous precedent for other permits and projects, and “virtue signaling to special interests.”

“Please be aware that the states are reviewing available legal options to protect our residents and sovereign interests. In the meantime, we urge you to reconsider your decision to impose crippling economic injuries on states, communities, families, and workers across the country,” Knudsen and the attorneys general wrote.

The letter was also signed by attorneys general from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and West Virginia.

The cost of workers’ comp in Montana will drop 14.6 percent as of July 1.

Commissioner of Securities and Insurance, Montana State Auditor Troy Downing, has approved a decrease in workers compensation loss costs. 

The overall average decrease, which goes into effect on July 1, 2021, is 14.6 percent compared to last year’s drop of 8.1 percent. This decrease is the largest since 2019 at 17.2 percent. The Montana State Fund and private insurers use the approved lost costs to assist in establishing the prices businesses in Montana pay for workers compensation insurance. 

“This is great news for Montana businesses already struggling due to the Covid 19 lockdowns and economic uncertainty. Lower insurance costs mean Montana businesses are more competitive nationally, can raise wages, and can pass savings onto customers.” Downing goes on to say, “My Administration is focused on reducing insurance prices across the board to help businesses, employees, and consumers prosper.”

The National Council on Compensation Insurance filed the 14.6% decrease, and Commissioner Downing has approved it.

Attorney General Knudsen Leads Coalition Calling on Biden to Reinstate Keystone XL Permit

Montana’s Attorney General Austin Knudsen led a coalition of 14 attorneys general last week calling on President Joe Biden to reconsider his unilateral revocation of the 2019 Presidential Permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and advised him that states are reviewing available legal options to protect their citizens and interests.

Knudsen and the attorneys general coalition reiterate the harms Biden’s decision will inflict on Americans: thousands of displaced workers, increased reliance on energy produced in Russia and the Middle East, and lost economic activity and opportunity.

Knudsen led the attorneys general in writing to Biden. “In Montana for instance, killing Keystone XL will likely cost the state approximately $58 million in annual tax revenue. Montana will lose the benefits of future easements and leases, and several local counties will lose their single-biggest property taxpayer. The loss of Keystone XL’s economic activity and tax revenues are especially devastating as five of the six impacted counties are designated high-poverty areas.”

The letter was also signed by attorneys general from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and West Virginia.

By Nicole Rolf and Rachel Cone, Montana Farm Bureau Federation

Between virtual technology and a new bill drafting system, the 2021 Montana Legislative Session is operating at a slower pace than we’re familiar with. The Legislative body has chosen to opt out of its traditional Saturday floor sessions, saving those days for business days at the end of the season. Montana’s legislature is allowed to meet for no more than 90 working days. ‘Saving days’ by not conducting a floor session on Saturday will lengthen this process, but it won’t cost taxpayers additional operating money, as they’re still only meeting for the allowed 90 business days. 

This matters because it has pushed the transmittal deadline – the day all non-revenue bills must be moved to the second house – back several days. This means we have slightly more time to introduce bills and get them worked through the process before they must be transmitted to the other chamber. Right now, it looks like the transmittal deadline will be the somewhere in the end of the first week of March. 

House Bill 108: Revise trespass laws regarding permission for hunting, introduced by Rep. Denley Loge (R), HD 14. Montana Farm Bureau member policy supports.

This bill was first heard in the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee and it was passed by the full House. This week the Senate Fish and Game Committee heard this bill and passed it in Executive Action shortly after. These amendments to current trespass statute regarding hunting makes the legal language more explicit and may make penalties more severe for failure to obtain landowner permission when hunting, trapping or retrieving game on private land.

This is an important bill to show support to private landowners who take trespass seriously. Under this amended legislation, a hunter who fails to obtain landowner permission and trespasses on private land may be fined a minimum of $135 (the current fine), or up to $500. This allows the legal body handling the charge to assign a penalty depending on the severity of the charge. It also requires any person convicted of trespass to forfeit any current hunting, fishing or trapping license issued by the state for not less than 12 months or more than three years. It also includes language to further penalize subsequent trespass convictions. This legislation sends a clear message that trespass is a serious offence in Montana. It’s important to note that this bill was brought forward by the Private Lands Public Wildlife (PLPW) advisory committee, with the intent of strengthening landowner/sportsmen relations. We appreciate this effort.

House Bill 187: Provide for local option sales tax, introduced by Rep. Dave Fern (D), HD 5. Montana Farm Bureau member policy opposes.

The concept of a “local option sales tax” has been brought to the legislative body in many forms, many times over the years. A local option sales tax would allow municipalities or city/county governments to implement a sales tax in their jurisdiction with the approval of a local electorate vote. This iteration of the idea would allow for up to 2 percent sales tax on retail goods, and it specifically notes that revenues could be used for property tax relief or for local infrastructure upgrades in the jurisdiction in which it is assessed.

While our farming and ranching members strongly support efforts to relieve property taxes, they are equally adamantly opposed to local option sales taxes. Here’s why: the funds raised by this tax are not evenly distributed throughout the state and essentially result in the redistribution or rural dollars to urban areas. Those of us who live in rural Montana know there are many supplies we have to go to larger towns to purchase. When a local option sales tax is in effect, we end up paying the tax in the city and leaving our money there. It exacerbates the transfer of rural dollars to more urban areas, essentially asking rural people to help relieve the property tax in urban areas or fund the infrastructure needs of that municipality. Rural people don’t benefit from this system.  

House Bill 14: Long-Range Building Bonding Program, sponsored by Rep. Mike Hopkins (R), HD 92; and House Bill 2: General Appropriations Act, sponsored by Rep. Llew Jones (R), HD 18.    

We’ve shared updates on these two appropriations bills before, but it’s important to note that these funding bills require long focus and diligence. We’re frequently monitoring their progress and show up regularly to voice our support for funding for specific parts of these bills.

In addition to providing bonding allocation for the proposed and much-needed new Veterinary Diagnostics Lab, HB 14 provides for long-term bonding to support a new Wool Lab and improvements at some of Montana’s Agriculture Experiment Stations, too. The Wool Lab is currently one of only two wool research and service laboratories in the country. It provides critical research and analytical services to a large region of sheep producers. Montana Agriculture Experiment Stations provide vital research for our state’s No. 1 industry, and innovations that support our livelihoods. Additionally, MFBF has gone on the record supporting the Department of Livestock and Department of Agriculture budgets, which are part of HB 2.