A study conducted by the Montana Department of Commerce and Carroll College, projects that Missoula County will add 16,500 residents by the year 2035, for a total population of about 138,000. And, Gallatin County will add 42,000 in that same time. Montana’s population is expected to increase from 1,112,000 to 1,200,000 by 2035.

At the same time, a report from a Chapman economics professor shows that over the past two years California has lost 700,000 in population according to U.S. Census data from April 2020 to July 2022. Migration trends in California,  show that the net losses began in 2011 and the migration is gradually increasing.  The reasons given were high taxes, the tough business environment, and hefty environmental regulations.

by Samuel Stebbins, 24/7 Wall St

Roughly 1.3 million graduating high school students in 2022 – 36% of the total – sat down for the ACT exam. The ACT (formerly the American College Testing Program) assesses college readiness in English, math, science, and reading. Many colleges base admittance on a student’s ACT test results.

In recent years, an alarming trend has emerged, as ACT scores have steadily declined. According to ACT, Inc., the national average composite score decreased from 20.3 in 2021 to 19.8 in 2022 – the lowest average since 1991.

In a blog on the ACT website, CEO Janet Godwin noted that only 22% of the students who took the test met all four ACT benchmarks, or the levels at which the organization deems students stand a greater chance of success in higher education. Meanwhile, 42% did not achieve any of the benchmarks.

While ACT scores have declined nationwide in recent years, there is considerable variation in average ACT scores from state to state. In Montana, the average composite ACT score in 2022 was 19.3 out of a possible 36, the 16th lowest among states.

Of the four test components that go into the overall composite score, students in Montana scored best in the reading section, with an average score of 20.1. Meanwhile, the test category with the lowest average score in the state was English, at 18.0 points out of 36.

All data in this story is from Scholaroo, a global scholarship database.

Historically known for being technologically challenged, America is seeing an unprecedented surge in tech adoption among seniors in 2023. This includes wearable devices to monitor vital signs, smart home technology to make aging in place easier, and computer literacy for online banking, shopping, and video calls with grandchildren. Despite these advances, seniors in certain states are further ahead than others.

Seniorly released a study on the States with the Most Tech-Savvy Seniors using the latest data from the Census Bureau, Bureau of Economic Analysis, and the Department of Health & Human Services.

Key findings in Montana show 10.0% of seniors do not own a computer, 83.3% have an Internet subscription, 17.7% work remotely, 25% use telehealth, and an average of $453 is spent annually on technology.

The five most tech-savvy places are D.C., California, Utah, Arizona, Washington. The five least tech-savvy are West Virginia, Mississippi, North Dakota, Louisiana, and Arkansas.

Nationally, a record percentage of seniors are texting (82%), using smart phones (65%), shopping (63%), banking (62%), using wearable technology (11%), taking classes (9%), and working remotely (9%).

By Casey Harper, Center Square

President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Internal Revenue Service took a slew of tough questions from lawmakers on the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday as the agency he seeks to lead faces a series of controversies.

One of the biggest questions facing Biden’s nominee, Daniel Werfel, a former acting IRS commissioner, was how he plans to handle the $80 billion included in the Inflation Reduction Act. Biden made clear that money was meant to supercharge the agency’s auditing efforts by hiring about 87,000 agents who the president claims would more than pay for the investment with new revenue.

Werfel promised lawmakers the audits would target wealthier Americans.

“…the audit and compliance priorities will be focused on enhancing the IRS’ capabilities to ensure America’s highest earners comply with applicable tax laws,” Werfel said.

Critics have argued there are not enough wealthy Americans to audit to justify tens of billions of dollars for new auditors. The IRS recently seemed to contradict the spirit of Werfel’s comments by announcing a program to crack down on tip reporting from waiters and waitresses.

“Stop the presses. No need to raise the debt limit,” Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky, wrote on Twitter. “Biden is going after those billionaire waitresses’ tips,” he added, apparently referencing Biden’s call for a billionaires tax in the State of the Union.

But these aren’t the only issues for Werfel to tackle if he secures the position, which he is expected to do given the Democrats’ slim majority.

The IRS fell behind on tax returns in recent years in large part because it was saddled with distributing COVID-relief checks to millions of Americans. Then-Commissioner Charles Rettig raised concerns about the impact of this extra burden multiple times during his tenure.

Now, the IRS still has millions of suspended and backlogged returns to work through.

“Massive backlogs have left desperate families and small businesses waiting on much needed returns as they fight skyrocketing inflation,” U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said during the hearing.

The tax-collecting agency fell into the most significant controversy in years after news broke that the Biden administration was planning to have the IRS monitor bank transactions over $600. Bipartisan outrage followed, pausing but not altogether ending the plan.

The IRS announced in January it was delaying the need to report $600 transactions via services like Venmo for one year.

Other lingering issues are also plaguing the embattled agency.

Experts and lawmakers have also continued to push for answers after a Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration report from 2021 showed that the IRS destroyed roughly 30 million taxpayer documents, raising eyebrows.

So far, the agency has given little explanation for the destroyed files, which Americans may need for future audits.

“What specific documents were in the pile? Were any attempts made to contact affected Americans?” Americans for Tax Reform said in a statement. “Many Americans submitted forms only to be told by the IRS that they never did so. How will you compensate them for their lost time?”

Barrasso said all of these issues has diminished the credibility of the tax-collecting agency.

“Restoring the credibility of the agency is going to be a steep mountain to climb. When we visited I said this would be critical as part of your job,” Barrasso added. “The policies enacted by President Biden’s reckless tax and spending bill are really not going to be helpful in trying to regain the credibility of the American people for the agency.”

By T.A. DeFeo, The Center Square

While rail wrecks like the one in East Palestine, Ohio, garner the headlines and turn the national dialogue to regulations, federal data shows that such mishaps have declined over the past three decades.

Numbers from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics show that since 1990, rail incidents have accounted for about 5% of the more than 519,100 incidents involving hazardous materials. Most incidents (87.6%) were classified as “highway incidents.”

Between 2012 and 2021, the most recent numbers available, the BTS classified 5,432 incidents involving hazardous materials as rail incidents. That is down from 7,518 in the previous 10 years (2002-2011) and 10,786 in the previous 10 years (1992-2001).

“FRA data demonstrates declines in total train accidents for decades,” Benjamin Dierker, executive director at Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure, told The Center Square via email. FRA is an acronym for the Federal Railroad Administration.

“In the past 10 years,” he wrote, “hazardous materials have actually fared better than general rail movement, with the hazmat accident rate declining by around 55% while the general train accident rate declined by around 10%.

“Accidents like the one in East Palestine are very rare, in part because releasing and burning a hazmat payload is incredibly rare. Over the past two decades, fewer than 1% of all train accidents have resulted in a release of hazardous materials.”

Montana consumers reported losing $17,004,601 to scams last year

The Federal Trade Commission received 5,683 fraud reports from consumers in Montana in 2022, according to newly released data.

Montana consumers reported losing a total of $17,004,601 to fraud, with a median loss of $575.

The FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network is a database that receives reports directly from consumers, as well as from federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, the Better Business Bureau, industry members, and non-profit organizations. Reports from around the country about consumer protection issues—including identity theft, fraud, and other categories—are a key resource for FTC investigations that stop illegal activities and, when possible, provide refunds to consumers.

Across all types of reports, the FTC received a total of 9,197 reports from consumers in Montana in 2022.

The top category of reports received from consumers in Montana was Imposter Scams; followed by Identity Theft; Online Shopping and Negative Reviews; Prizes, Sweepstakes and Lotteries; and Banks and Lenders.

Nationally, consumers reported losing nearly $8.8 billion to fraud in 2022, up from $5.8 billion in 2021. Consumers reported losing more money to investment scams—more than $3.8 billion—than any other category in 2022. That amount more than doubles the amount reported lost in 2021. The second highest reported loss amount came from imposter scams, with losses of $2.6 billion reported, up from $2.3 billion in 2021.

The FTC received fraud reports from 2.4 million consumers last year, with the most commonly reported being imposter scams, followed by online shopping scams. Prizes, sweepstakes, and lotteries; investment related reports; and business and job opportunities rounded out the top five fraud categories.

Sentinel received more than 5.1 million reports overall in 2022. Of these, more than 1.1 million were identity theft reports received through the FTC’s IdentityTheft.gov website.

The FTC uses the reports it receives through Sentinel as the starting point for many of its law enforcement investigations, and the agency also shares these reports with approximately 2,800 federal, state, local, and international law enforcement professionals. While the FTC does not intervene in individual complaints, Sentinel reports are a vital part of the agency’s law enforcement mission.

A full breakdown of reports received in 2022 is now available on the FTC’s data analysis site at https:// ftc.gov/ exploredata.

The  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced $11,390,000 to the state of Montana from the federal governments  Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF). The funding  is meant to support Montana communities in upgrading essential water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure that protects public health and treasured water bodies. Nearly half of this funding will be available as grants or principal forgiveness loans helping underserved communities across America invest in water infrastructure, while creating good-paying jobs. 

The funding builds on previous funding provided for Montana communities for water and wastewater treatment through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, including $8.7 million for the CWSRF.  Projects already planned include places like Fort Smith, Montana, where Bipartisan Infrastructure Funds are contributing to a $7.5 million Wastewater System Improvement Project, including new collection systems, a central facultative lagoon away from the Bighorn River, and spray irrigation disposal.  These improvements are vital to a functioning sewage system for nearby communities, as well as the blue-ribbon, trout fishing industry on the Bighorn River.   

The Infrastructure Law makes over $50 billion available for water and waste water infrastruc -ture improvements across the country between FY2022 and FY2026.

Montana State University Billings student Teia Lackner has been able to complete her degree utilizing HyFlex courses while living an hour away from Billings and raising her daughter.

Lackner is originally from Valier, Montana, and was attending MSU Billings when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020. After classes moved online, she expected to return to a more traditional, in-person learning experience in the future. However, after welcoming her daughter in July 2021 and moving an hour away from Billings, HyFlex courses granted her the opportunity to continue her education on her own terms.

“If I didn’t have the option to take flexible courses, I probably wouldn’t be completing my education right now,” shared Lackner.

HyFlex courses allow students at MSUB to complete courses asynchronously, which means students can choose to come to class in person, complete their work on their own time and watch prerecorded lectures, attend a scheduled class virtually, or do a mix of all options. The flexibility of this option appeals to many students who work, raise families, or live outside of Billings.

Currently a resident of Hysham, Montana, Lackner was able to partner with the school in her community to complete her degree’s practicum hours without traveling to Billings and was able to attend many of her classes remotely or via HyFlex. Lackner also notes that her professors and advisors have been very supportive. “Everyone at MSUB has been so understanding and willing to help me find a way to make things possible,” says Lackner.

Lackner is currently completing her student teaching experience and expects to graduate from MSUB this May with a degree in elementary education.

By TJ Martinell|, The Center Square

A new federal regulation on healthcare price transparency could cost employers in Washington state and around the nation $100 a day if they don’t comply. Yet many Washington industry groups say they aren’t even aware the rule exists. 

Under the new regulation, health insurance carriers have to publicly disclose their in-network negotiated rates or the actual price versus “official” or retail price, along with other information via an online tool. The hitch is, employers are responsible to make sure it happens.

Those unaware of this responsibility includes the Association of Washington Business, or AWB. Communications Director Jason Hagey told The Center Square the group is “more heavily focused on the state level (regulations) than the federal level.” AWB has 7,000 members that employ 700,000 workers.

Also unaware of the new rule was the Washington Food Industry Association, according to President and CEO Tammie Hendrick. The association’s members employ more than 23,000 workers. 

Washington Retail Association Senior Vice President of Policy & Government Affairs Mark Johnson told The Center Square that his group was also unaware of the rule.

The new requirement is the product of Trump administration efforts to make health care prices more transparent. It was encouraged to do so by Talon President and CEO Mark Galvin, who told The Center Square that the cost of medical services can range widely depending on the provider and whether they’re in-network or out-of-network for a specific plan.

Founded nine years ago, Galvin’s Talon provides users with a variety of software services, including a smartphone app allowing users to compare health insurance plans. 

After a 2018 meeting between Galvin and President Donald Trump’s Domestic Policy Council, a new rule was enacted through the Affordable Care Act and was later codified and expanded upon in the 2020 No Surprises Act.

Galvin told The Center Square that he saw the Trump administration’s effort as a “rare opportunity to try and solve this problem.” He was also surprised to see that the Biden administration didn’t move to scrap the rule in progress. 

The main reason for the lack of transparency on medical bills is that healthcare costs aren’t disclosed typically until the patient is billed for services, Galvin argued. Legally, health providers don’t have to disclose them prior to treatment.

The new rule, Galvin said, brought the industry from “zero transparency to 100% transparency and allowed consumers that care to be able to find the prices. We got a huge success here. Federal government did something really worthwhile for consumers can get the information they need.

Industry was effectively screwing over consumers.”

“100% transparency” in theory.

The catch: The rule places the burden of enforcement on employers who offer health insurance to their employees and face a fine if they don’t provide transparency. Aside from successfully getting their health insurance carrier to comply, the only other available option is to switch carriers.

Fines of $100 a day per business for noncompliance, or $36,500 a year, may provide a financial spur for businesses to insist on this from their insurance providers in the long term.

“We have no way to force carriers to publish their negotiated rates, because it’s a private business,” Galvin explained. “They have a First Amendment right to keep it secret,” though perhaps a financial incentive to open up.

The rule took effect in January. All covered healthcare items like prescription drugs must be part of the carrier’s online transparency tool for plan years that begin on or after January 2024.

It may take a while for the fines to start being imposed, however, as it’s not clear which federal bureaucracy gets to issue the fines.

The rule involves three agencies: the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Labor, and the Department of the Treasury. It has yet to be decided which one will ask businesses to pay up.

By Chris Woodward, The Center Square

Affordable housing, wages, even an unwillingness to work are why experts say Montana businesses struggle to hire workers.

Montana is among the states where employers are struggling the most in hiring this year. Wallethub, a personal finance website, ranks Montana fourth out of all the states plus the District of Columbia. 

The list comes at a time when the labor force participation rate is only 62.4%, and in order to determine which states are ranked where, Wallethub examined the rate of job openings for the latest month as well as the 12 months. 

Tanner Avery, communications and outreach director for Montana-based Frontier Institute, says a major reason businesses are struggling to find workers is that “Montana’s most in-demand counties and cities frequently either outright prohibit or penalize affordable multifamily starter homes like duplexes.” As a result, the lack of housing has forced workers to leave their communities in search of affordable places to live.

“Fifty percent of zoned land in thirteen of Montana’s most in-demand counties either outright prohibit or penalize affordable multifamily starter homes like duplexes,” says Avery. “Among the major cities assessed in the Montana Zoning Atlas report, two-family housing is on average welcomed by-right on just 41% of zoned land, while 3+ family housing is on average welcomed on only 29%.”

National experts offer different takes as to why employers in some states are struggling more than others. 

“They are not offering high enough wages,” says Daniel Schwab, assistant professor of economics and accounting at College of the Holy Cross. “The relatively low unemployment rate makes workers confident they can find another job if they quit.”

Joelle Saad-Lessler, Ph.D., associate dean of undergraduates at the Steven Institute of Technology’s School of Business, thinks Americans might be “re-evaluating” their willingness to work. They may be due to concerns about COVID or the desire to care for their kids more.

“Perhaps they can live off the benefits they have received during the pandemic and do not have to pay for rent yet if the rent moratorium still holds,” says Saad-Lessler. “But it is not 100% clear why the labor force participation rate is still so low.”

If the labor force remains low, it could cause more problems for the economy. Raymond J. Keating, chief economist for the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, says the U.S. faces a long-term challenge on the labor front with aging people. 

“Higher levels of immigration would help not only to meet the need for workers but also would boost the country’s slowdown in entrepreneurship,” says Keating. 

Only Alaska, West Virginia, and Louisiana outranked the Treasure State.