By Evelyn Pyburn

As a concern to the future of the planet, research on global warming is on-going. Despite the politics of it and the media’s contention that it is a proven phenomenon, it is not. Much costly research has yet to be done and imposing that burden on any single business as a condition to do business is to essentially deny the business to exist. Regulations meant to assure safe and environmentally sound operation of a business were not meant to place such an extreme burden as a condition for permitting.

A district court judge to insert a demand into regulatory law that a Montana business must take on research that would demonstrate that their activity would not impact the climate is an unreasonable expectation. As a result of such a court decision the Montana Legislature has passed HB 971 which Gov. Greg Gianforte has signed into law, that will prohibit the state – agencies like the Montana Department of Environmental Quality —from considering climate impacts in analyzing large projects such as coal mines and power plants.

The proposed legislation was by far the most controversial environmental legislation with those opposed citing polls of what people believe, rather than fundamental evidence that human beings are impacting climate conditions on the planet.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Josh Kassmier, R-Fort Benton, introduced the legislation in response to a 13th District Court Judge Mike Moses ruling revoking the permitting on NorthWestern Energy’s  gas plant at Laurel, which has been strongly challenged by the Montana Environmental Information Center.

Kassmier said that his bill “underscores that it’s lawmakers, not judges,” who set the state’s policies. Supporting the legislation were Treasure State Resources Association and the Montana Petroleum Association, who called the court’s decision as an “unworkable” mandate to measure greenhouse gas emissions and that it belong in federal regulations such as the Clean Air Act.

By Chris Woodward, The Center Square

Gov. Greg Gianforte has signed legislation aimed at enhancing educational opportunities for Montana families. 

House Bill 203, sponsored by Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, standardizes open enrollment in Montana’s public schools. Now, parents cannot be denied by their home district if they want to send their children to another school. 

“A child may be enrolled in and attend a school in a Montana school district that is outside of the child’s district of residence at the request of the child’s parent or guardian,” the bill reads.

Gianforte said in a statement that parents  “deserve to have their voices heard and to be a part of their kids’ education, including by pursuing the education that best meets the needs of their son or daughter.”

“I’m proud House Bill 203 promotes parental choice within our public school system while ensuring taxpayer fairness in cases where parents decide to have a child attend public school outside their place of residence,” Bedey said. 

The Helena-based Frontier Institute also applauded the legislation.

“Prior to the signing of HB 203, parents seeking to enroll their child in an out-of-district school faced a litany of barriers,” Frontier Institute Communications and Outreach Director Tanner Avery told The Center Square. “HB 203 represents an important step towards ensuring Montana parents can choose an education option that best fits the needs of their child.”

The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) construction project at the intersections of Underpass Avenue/State Avenue and 6th Street West/Central Avenue has begun. Riverside Contracting, Inc. has begun work to reconstruct the intersections to enhance traffic operations and safety in the south-central Billings area.

The project incorporates new traffic signals, storm drain, lighting, improved pedestrian facilities, and upgraded signage to improve these intersections, promote accessibility, and enhance safety features.

Work in-process:

* Water mains are being replaced

* The shared-use path is being constructed

* Retaining wall construction will begin next week

* Signals are being removed

Traffic advisories:

* 6th Street underpass between stop lights: While work occurs in the underpass, traffic is reduced to single-lane travel in each direction.

* Underpass Avenue south of State Avenue intersection: The Underpass Avenue/Calhoun Lane intersection is closed while the team replaces the water main under the street. This closure is expected to take a few weeks. Use Orchard Lane as an alternate route.

* Laurel Road west of Underpass Avenue and State Avenue east of Underpass Avenue: While the team replaces the water main under the street, traffic is reduced to single-lane travel in each direction.

* The signals are being removed on the southern intersection. Temporary signals will be used for the next couple of months while the new intersection is built.

Work in-process:

* Water mains are being replaced

* The shared-use path is being constructed

* Retaining wall construction will begin next week

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority (BSPRA) has submitted its proposal for a southern passenger rail in Montana to the Corridor ID Program of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). 

BSPRA hopes the North Coast Hiawatha (NCH) corridor from Chicago to Seattle/ Portland through southern Montana will be one of routes chosen by the FRA for funding, according to Dave Strohmaier, Chairman, Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority. For each corridor selected, the FRA will award an initial grant of $500,000 for preliminary planning.

According to the FRA, “The Corridor ID Program is intended to become the primary means for directing Federal financial support and technical assistance toward the development of proposals for new or improved intercity passenger rail services throughout the United States.”

Its proponents claim that the North Coast Hiawatha will transform the economy of the “Greater Northwest” region, revitalizing rural communities and tribal nations and provide access for underserved citizens to health care, education, other services, and civic resources often unreachable in winter when highways become unreliable or hazardous. BSPRA states that the proposed route will serve as a key catalyst for creating or renewing other passenger rail routes in the American West and Canada and will help awaken a 21st century rail renaissance in western North America.

Strohmaier credited Quandel Consultants and KLJ Engineering with assisting in making application to the federal government.

The North Coast Hiawatha route is already under analysis as part of the FRA’s Amtrak Daily Long-Distance Service Study. The Corridor ID Program will work with that study to complete a service development plan and preliminary engineering—precursors to resuming passenger rail service through southern Montana and beyond.

 Strohmaier said that the project has received letters of support from BNSF Railway, Amtrak, five state DOTs, U.S. senators from North Dakota and Montana, and municipalities.

Some counties in Montana, including Yellowstone County, have not endorsed the proposal due to concerns of costs that might be imposed on the counties and because of concerns about how a passenger line could disrupt rail freight.

The concept of a southern passenger rail line is not a new idea. A similar rail service, Amtrak, already passes through the norther tier of Montana, which is significantly subsidized by the federal government.  Amtrak traverses the entire country and reported $1.6 billion in capital spending in 2017 with operating expenses totaling $4.2 billion. Montana’s Amtrak route, called the Empire Builder, passes through Havre and the Flathead between Seattle and Chicago.

Yellowstone County was first requested to support the concept of a Montana route 13 years ago, according to County Commissioner John Ostlund. At that time, he said the estimated cost was $1 billion, an estimate that is probably double that now.  “Passenger rail service doesn’t make money,” said Ostlund.

 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.”

Big Sky Economic Development has announced the promotion of Patrick Klugman to the position of Senior Director of Economic Development Programs. In this new capacity, Klugman will be responsible for providing leadership and strategic direction for Big Sky Economic Development’s core business advising and outreach programs, including the Small Business Development Center, Veterans Business Outreach Center, Procurement Technical Assistant Center, and Member Investor Program. These programs are essential to executing BSED’s mission to support the growth of start-up companies, existing businesses, and economy of Billings, Yellowstone County, and the region. In collaboration with BSED’s business advising programs: unique responsibilities, contracts, and cooperative agreements will be interfaced by the Senior Director of Economic Development Programs with our federal, state, and local partners to effectively serve BSED’s clients and business community.

Since first joining Big Sky Economic Development in 2015, Klugman has served as the Community Development project Manager, then in 2021 became the Director of Development leading BSED’s Member Investor program.

Executive Director, Steve Arveschoug said, “Patrick’s new role with BSED comes as a result of his hard work and the partnerships he fosters in the community. It is also part of a restructuring effort that will include four new Senior Director roles in the organization. Senior Directors are charged with supporting the success of our individual programs and setting the stage for our growth, continuing the impacts we make on the community we serve.”

Klugman holds a Master of Public Administration degree from Montana State University Billings and Bachelor of Arts Political Science and Government degree from Minnesota State University Moorhead.

Property taxes levied on single-family homes in the United States increased 3.6% to $339.8 billion in 2022, according to a new report from a real estate data firm.

That’s up from $328 billion in 2021. The 2022 increase was more than double the 1.6% growth in 2021, but smaller than the 5.4% increase in 2020, according to the report from ATTOM, a property data provider.

The report also shows that the average tax on single-family homes in the U.S. increased 3% in 2022, to $3,901, after rising 1.8% in 2021. The latest average tax resulted in an effective tax rate nationwide of 0.83%. That was down slightly from 0.86% in 2021 to the lowest point since at least 2016. The “effective rates continued to decline even as total taxes rose because home values went up faster than taxes,” according to the report.

If you are an income tax payer, or property tax payer, in Montana, chances are you have money coming your way.

The Montana State Legislature has approved, and the Governor has signed, bills that will be delivering the biggest tax reductions and rebates in Montana history – – $500 million worth.

So how much do you get and how do you go about getting it?

The process is being handled by the Montana Department of Revenue.

Income Tax Rebate as provided for by HB- 192.

If you lived and worked and paid income taxes in Montana in 2021 you will get a rebate on your income taxes of up to $1,250. If you didn’t pay that much in income taxes you will get a refund on what you did pay. All you have to do is sit back and wait for your refund – sometime in July, probably. All the rebates are to be disbursed by the end of the year.

Those eligible for up to $1,250 rebate are single taxpayers, heads of household or married taxpayers who filed separately. Married couples who filed jointly are eligible for up to twice that amount or $2,500.

Part time residents or people late in paying their taxes will not be eligible for the refund.

The rebate will be sent either electronically or by mail, depending on how you, most recently, paid your taxes or received your refund. The rebate will be sent to the bank account information listed on your most-recently filed Montana Form 2. . If you elected to receive your refund by a paper check or paid your tax bill by check, the rebate will be mailed to the address on your most-recently filed Montana Form 2.

Property Tax Rebate as provided for by HB-222

Home owners in the state who paid property taxes on their principle residence in 2022, and who will do so again in 2023 will receive a rebate of up to $500 for each year. The 2022 rebate is applicable to November 2022 and May 2023 payments, and the 2023 rebate is applicable to November 2023 and May 2024 payments.

Those who qualify for property tax rebates are those who owned and lived in a Montana property as their principal resident for at least seven months of each year and were assessed and paid property taxes on the residence within that rebate time frame.

It takes a little effort to get your property tax rebate.

Taxpayers may claim the 2022 rebate online through the TransAction Portal or by paper form beginning August 15, 2023. The claim must be filed by October 1, 2023. The portal is on the Montana.gov website (https://tap.dor.mt.gov/_/)

Taxpayers may claim the 2023 rebate online through the TransAction Portal or by paper form beginning August 15, 2024. The claim must be filed by October 1, 2024.

By Dan Brooks, Billings Chamber of Commerce

Tomorrow is Legislative Day 71, giving lawmakers 19 more days before legislative business must conclude. And despite having over two weeks left to work, I’d wager they wrap up in April, going Sine Die (concluding the legislative session) without using any days in May. Just a hunch…

Considering the recent holiday, I felt it appropriate to highlight a different rise from the dead. No, I don’t mean to detail our favorite Maiar’s return to the mortal realm of Middle Earth, given new life by Eru Ilúvatar. I want to look at legislative blast motions, the process by which either body, house or senate, can vote to bring a bill to the full floor, giving it renewed life.

 During floor sessions, members of the house or senate can make the motion to take a bill that’s been tabled in committee and place it on the floor agenda for a scheduled 2nd reading, allowing a vote by the whole body, and bypassing the previous decision of the committee. Successful blast motions breathe life back into a bill that had been effectively dead, although many of the bills that receive a second chance will still end up dead in the end.

Billings Strategic Partners and supporters of the One Big Sky District project should remember the importance, and disappointment in, the potential of blast motions. After it was tabled in (S) Tax, SB 340, the 406 Impact Districts bill, failed a blast motion by a couple votes on the Senate Floor, the final nail in the coffin for the bill in 2019.

 As you can see from the information below, each legislative session is different. Legislators have varying appetites for making blast motions, and the bodies differ on whether they want to entertain them, somewhat undermining previous committee decisions.  While the 2017 and 2019 sessions each have over 40 blast motion attempts, the success of the efforts remained limited.

We’ll see how many more blast motions are made this session as legislators make last ditch efforts to save their bills. With lawmakers starting to see the light at the end of the legislative tunnel, it’s unlikely they will want to bring many more bills to the floor.

2023 Legislative Session (thru Apr 7)

Successful blast motions: 4 out of 24

We’ll see how many more blast motions are made this session as legislators make last ditch efforts to save their bills. With lawmakers starting to see the light at the end of the legislative tunnel, it’s unlikely they will want to bring many more bills to the floor.

2023 Legislative Session (thru Apr 7)

Successful blast motions: 4 out of 24

HB 432 – Generally revise abortion laws (Fail)

HB 448 – Revise laws related to right to work (Fail)

HB 515 – Revise property tax payment procedures (Passed)

HB 784 – Revise laws related to school elections (Fail)

HB 837 – Require curriculum transparency in K-12 education (Fail)

HB 953 – Create election security & integrity complaint/enforcement process (Fail)

HJ 5 – Resolution for congressional term limits (Fail)

HJ 13 – Resolution for Article V Convention for a balanced budget amendment (Fail)

SB 15 – Provide for all ages homeowner and renter tax credit (Fail)

SB 110 – Provide property tax assistance to elderly homeowners (Fail)

SB 120 – Establish the Chief Earl Old Person memorial highway (Passed)

SB 141 – Create indigenous people’s day (Fail)

SB 161 – Revise board of investment laws (Failed on both attempts)

SB 194 – Income tax credit for landlords who rent for below market rate (Fail)

SB 233 – Enhance legislative understanding of state-tribal relations (Failed x2)

SB 276 – Revise laws related to prevailing wage (Fail)

SB 361 – Prohibit discrimination by any person/entity because of firearms (Passed)

SB 390 – Provide freedom in school choice (Fail)

SB 437 – Generally revise abortion laws (Fail)

SB 449 – Provide limitations on collections of taxes (Fail)

SB 464 – Revise laws related to eyewitness lineups (Passed)

SB 517 – Establish graduated fee on short term rentals (Fail)

Senate Bill 14 Sen. Greg Hertz (R) SD 6

Revise MEDIA Act film credit cap

Senate Bill 14 raises the cap for the MEDIA Act tax credits from $12 million to $20 million, with 25% of the credits going to a company domiciled in the state. The MEDIA Act was passed in 2019 and then increased in 2021. Incentivizing film production in Montana leads to numerous other benefits, providing manufacturing and trades jobs, increasing tourism, growing local businesses and economies, and diversifying Montana’s mix of industries. This bill passed the senate 30 – 20 and will be heard in (H) Taxation on April 13th. Billings Chamber: Supports

Billings Chamber: Supports House Bill 819  Rep. Paul Green (R) HD 41

Create Montana community reinvest act

The Montana Community Reinvestment Plan Act creates an affordable housing program that distributes funds to communities, proportionate to a counties’ gross domestic product, to fund housing cost buydowns for eligible home buyers—those making between 60% – 140% of average median income. The bill has over 50 cosponsors and passed the house with nearly 3/4 in support. Passing HB 819 would provide one element of a multi-element housing affordability strategy, including reducing barriers and regulations to housing development. This bill will be heard in (S) Business and Labor, April 12. Billings Chamber: Supports

House Bill 652 Rep. Steven Galloway (R) HD 24

Revise UI law related to benefit duration

With almost 60 co-sponsors, this bill revises the duration of unemployment benefits from 28 to 20 weeks. Currently, Montana has one of the longest unemployment benefit durations in the U.S. Our businesses face continual workforce shortage challenges, reflected in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Shortage Index designating Montana as one of the most severely impacted. A reasonable reduction in the length of unemployment benefits is likely to result in more unemployed people returning to the workforce and helping our businesses. Tabled in committee on April 6, 10-0.

Billings Chamber: Supports

Senate Bill 269 Sen. Greg Hertz (R) SD 6

Consumer protections in litigation financing

This bill provides thoughtful reforms to protect consumers from potential predatory practices in third party litigation financing (TPLF) and increases transparency. TPLF is a relatively new and unregulated practice where hedge funds and other wealthy entities invest in the outcome of court cases. This bill shines a light on TPLF by requiring TPLFs to register, limiting interest rates charged to plaintiffs, requiring disclosure to all parties of TPLF involvement, and capping TPLF’s share of winnings from plaintiffs. Missed deadline. Billings Chamber: Supports

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By Casey Harper, The Center Square

The National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal and science technology office, has made race and gender speech codes for its scientists a top priority.

The guidance, for example, tells federal employees not to use the words “blacklist” or “whitelist” because of the racial connotations and also cautions against “using terms that assign a gender to inanimate objects, such as male/female connectors.”

The NIST is a little-known government agency tasked with helping the U.S., among other things, stay technologically ahead of rivals like China. Congress appropriated about $1.65 billion for the group for 2023.

Lawmakers recently hammered the Pentagon for investing heavily in critical race theory and gender ideology. The National Institutes of Health has done so as well, along with other agencies.  

The NIST is one of many federal agencies putting its attention and taxpayer funds into these efforts as it struggles to keep pace with its key mission. The NIST sparked controversy for its “Inclusive Language Guidance,” which tells scientists which words or phrases they can or cannot use in reports.

From the document:

– Consider that biased terms, such as blacklist/whitelist, also may introduce comprehension issues.

– Avoid terms such as master/slave that perpetuate negative stereotypes or unequal power relationships.

– Avoid identifying an individual’s gender unless necessary for comprehension, or using terms that assign a gender to inanimate objects, such as male/female connectors.

– Avoid descriptive terms that are condescending or reductive in favor of language that the groups being described would prefer.

Steven Lipner, chair of the Congressionally authorized Information Security and Privacy Advisory Board, sent a letter to NIST in 2020 recommending the whitelist and blacklist changes as well as the changes for master and slave usage.

“Many technology and security standards contain racially insensitive language that is both offensive to many of our colleagues and is also, in many respects, ambiguous – technically and culturally,” the letter said. “Examples of such language include using the terms blacklist and whitelist instead of block-list and allow-list and using the terms master and slave.”

Jennifer Huergo, a spokesperson for NIST, told The Center Square the guidance “was created primarily for the benefit of NIST staff experts who participate in the development of documentary standards as expert collaborators and leaders.”

“Use of inclusive language helps to avoid potential gaps in understanding that could arise from the use of colloquial or idiomatic expressions that are rooted in particular historical events or regional dialects,” she said. 

The NIST’s DEI office also promotes liberal ideas around gender and sexuality. The DEI staff page features the preferred pronouns of its employees as the first priority in the bios.

The issue has regularly been thrust into the forefront because while Americans are largely split on the debate over gender identity and critical race theory, federal agencies have largely embraced it and put millions of taxpayer dollars behind it.

A Pew Research report released last summer found that while most Americans say there is discrimination against transgender people, “60% say a person’s gender is determined by their sex assigned at birth, up from 56% in 2021 and 54% in 2017.”

The NIST speech code also links to the American Psychological Association’s webpage on “biased language,” which goes on at length about the myriad of possible genders, and the need to cater to them.

“Transgender is used as an adjective to refer to persons whose gender identity, expression, and/or role does not conform to what is culturally associated with their sex assigned at birth,” APA says. “Some transgender people hold a binary gender, such as man or woman, but others have a gender outside of this binary, such as gender-fluid or nonbinary. Individuals whose gender varies from presumptions based on their sex assigned at birth may use terms other than ‘transgender’ to describe their gender, including ‘gender-nonconforming,’ ‘genderqueer,’ ‘gender-nonbinary,’ ‘gender-creative,’ ‘agender,’ or ‘two-spirit,’ to name a few.”

The taxpayer-funded speech guidelines also quote racial theory from a book written by Tukufu Zuberi, a professor of Race Relations and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania steeped in critical race theory. The book is titled “White Logic, White Methods.” Zuberi also penned an article titled, “Critical Race Theory: A Commemoration.”

While the U.S. is a world-leader in developing intellectual property, it lags behind in the ability to manufacture it. For example, the source of electric batteries, seen as the future of the green energy movement, is largely overseas. In fact, China made about three quarters of the world’s lithium ion batteries in 2021, while the U.S. made only 7%.

By Casey Harper, The Center Square

Gas prices continue to rise in the U.S., hitting the highest level in months.

Now, the concerns and political ramifications for the Biden administration are starting to rise as well.

“Gas prices are rising,” said economist Stephen Moore. “Joe Biden is doing nothing except push a crazy green agenda that will make prices even higher. “If America went back to Trump’s energy policies, we’d be producing 2 million barrels more a day.”

According to AAA, the average national price for a gallon of regular gasoline is $3.56, up from $3.49 a week ago and $3.41 a month ago.

Those energy price woes were exacerbated earlier this week when OPEC+ announced a significant cut in oil production, something likely to raise prices for American consumers.

“Saudis to cut oil production by 500,000 barrels per day,” said Rep. Mayra Flores, R-Texas. “This will definitely impact our economy and gas prices. This is why it’s so important to become and remain energy independent.”

Americans are already paying much more for energy than when Biden took office. Gas prices hit record highs last summer, surpassing $5 per gallon nationally. Those prices afterward dipped, in part because Biden relied heavily on the Strategic Petroleum Oil Reserves. Now, those reserves are at their lowest level since 1984, and Biden will have to use them more sparingly, if at all, to fend off future price increases.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also disrupted global oil markets. The war was expected to end by now, but it has continued with no sign of peace in the immediate future.

Biden’s defenders have pushed back, pointing to oil companies’ profits despite higher prices hurting Americans.

“While you were paying through the nose at the gas pump, Big Oil companies were using the cover of inflation to jack up prices and line their pockets,” said Robert Reich, a Berkeley professor and former Secretary of Labor. “BP’s CEO recently boasted that in 2022 his company had its ‘lowest production cost in 16 years.’”

Critics have hit the Biden administration’s role in rising energy prices, pointing to Biden’s discouragement of domestic oil and gas drilling and pipeline development. House Republicans recently passed the Lower Energy Costs Act, which would encourage domestic drilling to lower prices, but it is unlikely to get the Democratic support needed to succeed in the Senate.

“The Senate should pass H.R. 1 immediately and President Biden finally needs to put politics aside and unleash the power of American energy,” said Daniel Turner, who leads the energy workers advocacy group Power the Future. “Otherwise we are headed back to $4 dollar a gallon gasoline as the norm, among many other unpleasant factors.”

Some experts project the decision by OPEC+ could raise energy prices by 26 cents. Other experts say the decision by OPEC+ is a sign of the future.

“Given the transition the world is undergoing as it embraces ‘clean and green energy,’ OPEC+ understands all too well that its still highly valued ‘liquid gold’ will at some point begin to lose its shine,” said Quincy Krosby, Chief Global Strategist for LPL Financial. “Until then, as the countries dominating OPEC+ prepare for the future by spending trillions of dollars rebuilding infrastructure and refocusing away from crude oil as their primary source of income, managing the price of crude will be used more directly and aggressively than was anticipated.”

Biden also recently took fire for lowering the nation’s oil reserves to what some consider dangerous levels. House Oversight Republicans said in a letter to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm making that very point.

“By gutting vital fuel storage to lower short-term prices, the Biden Administration exposed the U.S. to future market volatility and increased supply dependence on adversarial nations instead of supporting an all-of-the-above energy approach to unleash American energy potential,” the letter said.