The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced approximately $65 million in funding from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to address cleanup projects at three Superfund sites across Montana: the Basin Mining Area, in Jefferson County; the Carpenter Snow Creek Mining District, in Cascade County; and the Upper Ten Mile Creek Mining Area in Lewis and Clark County.

The funding is aimed at continuing the cleanup of long-standing contamination of Superfund mining sites and watersheds according to EPA Regional Administrator KC Becker.

This is a historic funding of $3.5 billion for Superfund cleanup work. The funding is not just for cleanup, however, it will also enable EPA to accelerate “essential work needed to prepare sites” for construction and to enforce communities to be “meaningfully involved in the cleanup process.”

U.S. Senator Jon Tester said he is “proud to have secured this funding and is working closely with the EPA to apply it.

The Infrastructure Investment Act actually packs in a lot of things like public transportation, water and climate provisions including “green” provisions, and cybersecurity that will impact communities in numerous ways. It is touted as creating “millions of jobs modernizing our infrastructure,” and turning the “climate crisis into an opportunity.”

In 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, known as Superfund. The law gave EPA the authority and funds to hold polluters accountable for cleaning up the most contaminated sites across the country. When no viable responsible party is found or cannot afford the cleanup, EPA steps in to address risks to human health and the environment using funds appropriated by Congress, like the funding provided by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is a once-in-a-generation investment that will create millions of jobs modernizing our infrastructure, turn the climate crisis into an opportunity, and put us on a path to win the economic competition for the 21st century. 

By Chris Woodward, The Center Square

Wyoming and Montana are among the states that are most dependent on the federal government, according to a new ranking.

The ranking, from the personal finance website WalletHub, compared the 50 states across metrics such as return on taxes paid to the federal government, federal funding as a share of state revenue, and share of federal jobs. 

Jill Gonzalez, policy analyst at WalletHub, said both Wyoming and Montana receive a large amount of federal funding as a share of state revenue.

“In Wyoming federal funding represents more than 56% of the state’s revenue, the highest share nationwide,” she said. “In terms of residents’ dependency, both states have a large percentage of federal jobs, over 2.8% of total employment.”

Wyoming ranks sixth out of 10 when it comes to most federally dependent states. Montana ranks ninth. 

Other states finishing in the top-10 are Alaska (No. 1), West Virginia, Mississippi, Kentucky, New Mexico, South Carolina, Arizona, and Louisiana (No. 10). 

The least federally dependent states are Nevada (No. 41), Delaware, Iowa, Massachusetts, California, Illinois, Kansas, Utah, Washington, and New Jersey (No. 50). 

Wyoming and Montana did rank among states with the lowest amount of federal contracts received per money in federal taxes paid.

Wyoming has the lowest amount of grants received per money in federal taxes paid. Wyoming also has the lowest amount of other financial assistance received per money in federal taxes paid. 

By Dan Brooks, Billings Chamber of Commerce

To date, 1,571 bills have been introduced, over 250 more than were introduced in the 2021 session. Of those introduced, approximately 1/4 are considered dead, either failing passage or missing a deadline. The Governor has signed into law 82 bills, including his tax package lowering taxes and providing tax rebates to Montanans.

Other tax changes coming up this week deal with the Montana Economic Development Industry Advancement (MEDIA) Act Film Tax Credit. Film tax credits offer incentives for film producers to practice their craft in our beautiful state. Originally passed in 2019 by Representative Wylie Galt, the tax credit was established at $10 million of first-come, first-served tax credits for qualifying media productions in Montana. Last legislative session, Speaker of the House Wylie Galt introduced HB 340 to remove the cap on the MEDIA Act tax credits. After a number of amendments through the process, the final bill increased the cap from $10 to $12 million.

That increase in the tax credit cap was at least partially responsible for the television series Yellowstone packing their things in Utah and moving all production to Montana. With further increases perhaps there’s a chance for our snow-capped peaks to become the Misty Mountains, or the open skies of eastern Montana to be the open fields of Rohan, or the Lewis and Clark Caverns as the mines of Moria…

 This session, there are a number of proposals to revise the MEDIA Act. Senator Greg Hertz is sponsoring a bill to raise the cap to $30 million. Representative Brad Barker has a bill that would raise the cap to $75 million. Representative Kerri Seekins-Crowe is bringing a bill to eliminate the cap on credits. And, if that weren’t enough to discuss, Representative Bill Mercer has a bill draft to eliminate the MEDIA Act entirely. As far as the MEDIA Act tax credit debate goes, hopefully the elimination of the MEDIA Act is more red herring and less Chekhov’s gun. 

The television series Yellowstone and its spin offs get a lot of attention but the fact is, there’s A LOT of film production in Montana. A 2020 – 2022 study commissioned by the state indicates significant production and numerous benefits around the Big Sky. The two-year study identified 195 film productions, generating $153.9 million in local economic impact and $16.6 million in total tax revenue. 

According to the study, Yellowstone County fared pretty well with $4.8 million in total production spending between 2020 and 2022. That spending created additional benefits in the form of indirect and induced economic impacts totaling $4.3 million. Those indirect and induced jobs include professional services, accommodations, recreation, food, and others.

While it’s highly unlikely any amount of tax benefit would move Middle Earth filming to the Big Sky, there is substantial potential to grow an industry interested in bringing the majesty of Montana to the big screen. The Billings Chamber encourages the legislature to increase the MEDIA Act tax credit and allow Montana to realize its film industry potential and generate more meaningful economic benefits.

Senate Bill 323 — Allow for duplex, triplex, and fourplex housing in zoning

Sen. Jeremy Trebas (R) SD 13

This bill would eliminate exclusionary zoning by allowing additional homes to be built on a lot. Many local zoning codes mandate exclusionary zoning throughout a majority of residential areas—including Billings—making housing less available and more expensive. Beyond negative impacts on the housing market, it segregates citizens. An article in the Journal of the American Planning Association points out, “[Exclusionary zoning] was born from, and codifies, base and tribal instincts: a desire to set privileged in-groups apart and keep feared or despised out-groups at bay.” The Governor’s Housing Task Force identified this recommendation (3B) in its final report.  Billings Chamber supports.

House Bill 827 — Appropriation for water works at Billings treatment plant

Rep. Larry Brewster (R) HD 44

This bill provides an appropriation of $17 million for a grant to construct year-round recreation and conservation amenities at the west end water reservoir. The bill is co-sponsored by 12 local legislators of both parties and Representative Mike Hopkins (R) from Missoula. The facility is certain to benefit Montanans beyond Billings considering the regional appeal for recreational opportunities and easy access for travelers, being just a short drive from interstate 90.  Billings Chamber supports.

Patrol agents in Minnesota and North Dakota continue to apprehend foreign nationals brought in by human smugglers in the dead of winter and illegally crossing the northern border from Canada, reports The Center Square.  

Instead of flying from Mexico and other countries to Canada to enter legally through ports of entry, border agents say foreign nationals are flying to Canada to enter the U.S. illegally between ports of entry while intentionally seeking to evade capture by law enforcement. But they do so at their own peril as temperatures reach double digits below zero and heavy snow is prohibitive for travel on foot and by car. 

Minnesota and North Dakota are located in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Grand Forks Sector, which has 7 Border Patrol stations responsible for covering 8 midwestern states and 861 miles of shared international border with Canada. In 2022, Border Patrol agents in the Grand Forks Sector apprehended 171 illegal foreign nationals and reported 10 who turned back to Canada. Grand Forks Sector agents also reported 293 gotaways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Rachel Cone and Nicole Rolf, Montana Farm Bureau Federation

The 2023 Montana Legislative Session is picking up momentum. Along with advocating on over a dozen bills, we celebrated National Ag Week here in Helena and had the opportunity to teach the 2023 ACE participants about the Montana Legislature.

The 2021 Legislature provided incentives for employers to invest in their employees through the Montana Trades, Education and Training Tax Credit (M-TEC). This tax credit covers 50% of education and training expenses for an employer of an eligible trade and can be used for tuition, fees, books, supplies and equipment. HB 245 Revise tax credit for trades education and training sponsored by Sue Vinton (R) HD 56 builds on the success of M-TEC by expanding to more trades such as agricultural, mining, food manufacturing and several other trades. We believe this expansion of the eligible trade professions is critical for Montana agriculture by providing farms and ranchers a great incentive to provide training and education to agricultural workers.

We also supported SJ 14 Resolution opposing bison introduction at Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge sponsored by Mike Lang (R) SD 17 which would state the Montana Legislature’s opposition to bison being introduced to the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge (CMR). The CMR spans nearly 1 million acres in land from six Montana counties and is surrounded by private property, BLM land and state land trust. Introduction of bison to the CMR is risky without a detailed plan and would have a direct impact on CMR’s rangeland and would increase the risk of transmission of disease between bison, wildlife and livestock. We also advocated for HJ 11 Joint resolution relating to Environmental, Social, and Governmental regulation sponsored by Steve Gist (R) HD 25 to urge Congress to push back on environmental social governance (ESG) polices for credit scores. ESGs provide a framework for stakeholders to understand how an organization is managing risks related to environmental, social and governance factors. Using non-financial factors such as ESGs, which have no domestic or global standard, to evaluate investment opportunities can have a negative impact on our free-market system due to their subjective nature and can vary in every situation.

Front Range County Farm Bureau member and Choteau rancher, Karli Johnson, traveled to Washington, D.C. to testify before the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources. Karli testified in regard to HR. 1419 to direct the Secretary of the Interior to issue a new rule removing the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem population of grizzly bears from the Federal list of endangered and threatened wildlife sponsored by Rep. Matt Rosendale (R). In her written testimony, the owner of Sevens Livestock explained how their ranch has had to change their livestock management strategies including changing to flood irrigation, changing their heifer calving date, not raising sheep, erecting a Grizzly Bear fence at more than $6,000 out-of-pocket and being extremely cautious when spraying noxious weeds and fixing fence.

Montana State University Billings Assistant Professor of Microbiology Madison Collins, Ph.D., is engaging undergraduate students from multiple science and health majors in her groundbreaking research.

Collins’ research involves studying the drug resistant bacterial infection called Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), and why it is infecting healthy individuals. This issue received prominent attention when it was discovered that MRSA not only causes nosocomial infections (acquired by patients in hospitals), but that it also has robust capability to infect healthy individuals. Collins’ research teases apart the mechanisms that enable MRSA to infect healthy people, and so far, she has narrowed it down to MRSA’s specific defenses that affect white blood cells. Collins says that if there is a defect in the function of the neutrophils (a type of white blood cell), individuals can experience recurrent staph infections. She also shares data from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Around 12 to 13 million people contract MRSA staph skin infections in the United States per year, and around 11,000 Americans die from MRSA staph infections every year.

A Billings native and a Laurel High School graduate, Collins started her higher education at MSU Billings, then completed her Ph.D. at MSU Bozeman. She got her start in research working on pathogens that infect honeybees, sparking her interest in studying human diseases, which was the focus of her Ph.D. She then went on to conduct post-doctoral work at Rocky Mountain Laboratories, a National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases biomedical research facility in Hamilton, Montana, during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a trained bacteriologist, she worked on numerous COVID-19 projects, helped to create a new infection mesh research model, and worked on another project looking at making human immune systems younger and more efficient. She presented her most recent research findings at the Society for Leukocyte Biology Conference in Hawaii in 2022.

Collins has been teaching at MSU Billings since July 2022, and has not missed a beat. She has already gathered a nontraditional student research team which includes a pre-nursing student, two pre-med students, and one pre-dental student. Two of her students have their own INBRE fellowships, which support their ability to continue to conduct research and contribute to their field. Collins shares that none of these students had prior research experience and she is extremely impressed with their ability to ask questions and learn quickly. “They were hesitant to participate at first, but they are owning their own research,” she says. Collins adds that in the near future, she would like to open additional spots on her research team to more undergraduate students.

Biology major and member of Collins’ research team Dominic Estes says that he enjoys this research because he has the possibility of finding answers to questions that no one knows. He also shares that “Dr. Collins is an amazing instructor. She’s fun and lighthearted but also wants us to learn and understand what we are doing.” Nursing student and research team member Wynter Doyle shares that she was in high school during the COVID-19 pandemic and came to MSUB not knowing how to use a microscope. “The opportunity to work alongside a motivational and patient teacher who was also transitioning during an unfamiliar time in her life, has been a great support system to me. This opportunity has also given me a chance to try something new in college.”

Recently, Collins received a Montana INBRE grant to pilot her MRSA research. Her grant ($80,000) will help move her research forward, and support research costs and fund student researchers. She also received an MSUB CARE grant of $5,000 to support her research last October. Collins contributes her success in securing these grants largely due to the support and mentorship of MSUB Associate Professor of Molecular Biology, Lynn George, Ph.D., who is conducting ALS research with her own student research team.

In her second semester of teaching at MSUB, Collins says that she never thought she would leave Billings to continue her education and never thought she would return. It has now come full circle and she finds it soul fulfilling.  “There’s no question that the professors here know every student by their name and I like the close relationships I have with my students,” she shares. “There are many opportunities for students to grow at MSUB and they can really build their own adventure.”

By Glenn Minnis, The Center Square

 Nearly two out of every three primarily low-and middle-income parents – 64% – say being able to afford food is their biggest challenge, a new Parents Together Action survey highlights. And 65 percent say they’ve had to change the foods they buy, including purchasing fewer fruits and vegetables.

All told, the nonprofit family advocacy group that counts upwards of 3 million members finds that many parents now fear things could get worse before they get better as food prices continue to rise across the country. The results come as federal food assistance that was expanded during the COVID-19 is set to sunset in March.

Over the past three years, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients have received emergency allotments of at least $95 extra per month for food, though those added benefits are set to end by the end of March.

With 41% of respondents saying that they’ve had to work extra hours to make ends meet and an additional 35% insisting they’ve had to go as far as getting a new job, Parents Together Executive Director Ailen Arreaza say the changes are coming as too much too fast for many Americans.

“At a moment when food distribution centers are seeing increases in demand as American families struggle to feed their children, Republican lawmakers are putting families in their political crossfire by threatening to dramatically decrease spending on essential programs like SNAP. The timing of this could not be worse,” she said on the organization’s website. “Further cuts to essential policies helping families to keep food on the table would be unconscionable – and those politicians responsible will pay a political price.”

In the survey taken between Feb. 1 thru Feb. 9, 52% of respondents say they’ve used food banks or similar services to get by and another 36% added that they’ve skipped meals in order to make sure their children could eat.

When quizzed about what can be done to make their lives easier, 63% of respondents said expanding access to programs to help cover the cost of groceries, 46% said lowering the cost of essential goods like diapers, baby formula and period supplies, and 29% said the enactment of paid sick, parental and family leave so families don’t have to choose between caring for their families and making ends meet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.