A proposed new industrial park at Fort Benton has been awarded a $1.7 million grant from the federal government to provide transportation, water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure. The grant is expected to be matched with $1.7 million in local funds, according to an announcement from U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo, Department’s Economic Development Administration (EDA)
The project is projected to create 75 jobs and generate $12 million in private investment.
Raimondo said the expenditure of federal funds “will provide critical infrastructure for a new 105-acre industrial park that will support the growth of the local agricultural industry and diversify the regional economy.”
Governor Greg Gianforte said, “Through infrastructure improvements like these, Fort Benton and Chouteau County will boost their thriving agricultural community and attract businesses to locate, bringing more good-paying Montana jobs to the area.”
This project is being proposed by the Bear Paw Economic Development District (EDD).

Most of media is remaining silent on a huge movement sweeping the country regarding gun rights.
States are not only passing strong “Constitutional Carry” laws, but 61 percent of counties are now “Second Amendment sanctuaries”, according to a report in The Epoch Times.
As of June 20, there were 1,930 counties “protected by Second Amendment Sanctuary legislation at either the state or county level.” The count does not include specific cities, townships, boroughs, etc. that has taken action at the local level.
The movement is a grassroots movement from the bottom-up, according to a website called Sanctuary Counties, which notes that becoming a sanctuary county is different from passing Constitutional Carry laws which many states have done, and which has had more media attention. Sanctuary counties or other communities vow not to enforce “new / unconstitutional gun laws.”
Constitutional carry means laws are in place that allow citizen’s to carry a weapon without a permit. Some states have enacted both approaches in support of the Second Amendment which asserts, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”
Democrats and gun-control organizations usually oppose such legislation, saying it will increase the number of mass shootings and criminal use of firearms.

TC Energy Corporation confirmed that after a comprehensive review of its options, and in consultation with its partner, the Government of Alberta, it has terminated the Keystone XL Pipeline Project.

Construction activities to advance the Project were suspended following the revocation of its Presidential Permit on January 20, 2021. The Company said it will continue to coordinate with regulators, stakeholders and Indigenous groups to meet its environmental and regulatory commitments and ensure a safe termination of and exit from the Project.

Another news report said that the government of Alberta announced that it’s hoping to recover the $1.3 billion in public money the province had invested in the project. How they can do that was not explained, however one Canadian news reported that Premier Jason Kenney called on the Canadian federal government to press the U.S. for compensation as a result of the decision.

The project, which would have been approximately 285 miles, would have passed through six Montana counties Phillips, Valley, McCone, Dawson, Prairie and Fallon.

State and local tax collections in Montana were expected to exceed $65 million annually.

Additionally, an estimated 42,100 jobs with $2 billion in associated earnings throughout the United States would be created, including 3,700 direct construction jobs in Montana garnering approximately $127 million in employment earnings.

It would have had six pump stations in Montana taking Montana petroleum production to market.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality issued Keystone XL a Certificate of Compliance on April 2, 2012, under the Montana Major Facilities Siting Act.

On Inauguration Day, as one of his first acts in office, President Joe Biden made good on his campaign promise about abolishing the fossil fuel energy industry by cancelling the federal government’s permit.

Most recently, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen filed suit declaring President Biden’s executive order unconstitutional. Twenty-three other states had joined the suit. In addition, the government of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan announced it would file an amicus brief in support of the lawsuit, which argues the president unconstitutionally changed energy policy set by Congress, which is granted sole authority to regulate foreign and interstate commerce.

The Montana Petroleum Association recently said that the pipeline would move approximately 830,000 barrels of crude oil per day from where it is produced in Canada and Montana to a large refining hub near the Gulf Coast and supplement refining capacity in Illinois, ensuring a reliable domestic and global energy source, bolstering U.S. energy independence and global leadership.

Governor Gianforte upon learning of the possibility of the company abandoning the project, made a plea to Senator Jon Tester to attempt to convince the President to reinstate the permit. He said, “… this decision has real and devastating consequences in Montana.” He noted thousands of good-paying American jobs, hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to support our local communities and schools, the opportunity to advance America’s green energy infrastructure, and America’s energy security,”

Governor Gianforte wrote, “With its construction terminated, the oil will still reach markets in the U.S. and around the globe. Without a pipeline, though, it will be transported more slowly by trucks and other means, endangering the environment, delaying delivery and making it more expensive for consumers who are struggling to make ends meet amid the pandemic.”

US Representative Matt Rosendale commented, “President Biden owes Montanans an explanation as to why he decided to pull the Keystone XL Pipeline permit. This killed a project that was going to be critical to Montana. The administration has reversed over a decade of planning for our local governments, cut funding for our school systems, and sacrificed the communities that were dependent on revenue from this project to get through the pandemic. We are already seeing the price of Biden’s war on energy independence, and I fear its impact will only get worse.”

“We remain disappointed and frustrated with the circumstances surrounding the Keystone XL project,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said in a statement.

Daniel Turner of Center Square wrote recently that cancelling the pipeline “is a gift to someone.” Besides the rail and trucking industry which will now have to move the oil, Turner said it is a gift to US competitors, such as Russian and Venezuela. Turner dismissed fears expressed by environmental groups regarding the risks of pipelines, pointing out that America is ‘crisscrossed with over 2.6 million miles of pipeline.”

US and Canadian environmental groups fought the project since it was first announced in 2008 described its cancellation as a “landmark moment” in the effort to curb the use of fossil fuels that contribute to climate change.

Anthony Swift, director of the Canada Project at Natural Resources Defense Council, was much more jubilant about the decision, saying, “This is a fantastic day for clean water, safe communities and our climate. The era of building fossil fuel pipelines without scrutiny of their potential impact on climate change and on local communities is over. Keystone XL was a terrible idea from the start. It‘s time to accelerate our transition to the clean energy sources that will power a prosperous future.”

The proposed pipeline over the past 15 years passed through several environmental impact studies which always resulted in being granted state and federal approvals, but were then delayed or rejected for political reasons. Former President Barack Obama rejected permits in 2015, an action reversed by former President Donald Trump who allowed construction to move forward.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among those critical of President Biden’s inauguration day cancellation of US approval.

TC Energy’s President and Chief Executive Officer, François Poirier:

We value the strong relationships we’ve built through the development of this Project and the experience we’ve gained. We remain grateful to the many organizations that supported the Project and would have shared in its benefits, including our partners, the Government of Alberta and Natural Law Energy, our customers, pipeline building trade unions, local communities, Indigenous groups, elected officials, landowners, the Government of Canada, contractors and suppliers, industry associations and our employees.

Through the process, we developed meaningful Indigenous equity opportunities and a first-of-its-kind, industry leading plan to operate the pipeline with net-zero emissions throughout its lifecycle. We will continue to identify opportunities to apply this level of ingenuity across our business going forward, including our current evaluation of the potential to power existing U.S. assets with renewable energy.

TC Energy’s infrastructure plays a critical role in powering the North American economy, delivering the energy people need every day, safely and responsibly. The Company has $20 billion in projects, with another $7 billion of projects under development.

A campaign to bring Montana’s progeny back home has been launched.

Governor Greg Gianforte announced a website as part of the administration’s new campaign to encourage Montanans, who have moved to other states, to come back home to Montana.

“For too long, Montana’s most valuable export has been our kids and grandkids,” Gov. Gianforte said. “Our quality of life is second to none, and we’re reminding former residents of what a great place Montana is to live, work, and raise a family. We’re growing opportunities and creating an environment so more Montanans can thrive and prosper. Let’s bring our kids and grandkids back home.”

The campaign and new website, ComeHomeMontana.com, encourage Montanans who have relocated to other states to return to Montana to work remotely, start a business here, or take advantage of job opportunities across the state’s industries.

To bridge the digital divide and make working remotely more accessible than ever, the administration is in early stages of deploying $275 million for broadband expansion.

In addition to highlighting opportunities for remote work and employment, the campaign highlights the value of a Montana education.

In a joint-letter with governors from South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Iowa, Governor Greg Gianforte has urged the Department of Justice (DOJ) to continue their investigation into serious allegations of anticompetitive behavior in the meatpacking industry.

“Decades of consolidation in meatpacking has significantly limited the options that producers have to market their cattle and has created a situation where one segment of the beef industry has near total control over the entire market,” Governor Gianforte and other governors wrote to U.S. Attorney General Garland. “We urge you to continue to investigate this matter with the urgency it calls for.”

In May 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into the nation’s four largest meatpackers whose anticompetitive behavior is threatening Montana cattle producers.

As outlined in the letter, the price of cattle has decreased in recent years while the price of boxed beef has skyrocketed. The result is higher prices for consumers at the grocery store and declining profit margins for cattle producers in Montana. 

“The loss of the independent cattle producer would devastate not only ranching families and the rural communities they support, but the very health and spirit of our nation,” the governors emphasized. “Producers and consumers deserve fairness and transparency now more than ever.”

Governor Gianforte was joined in signing the letter by South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, and Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt

The Montana Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the Governor making appointments to the Supreme Court and District Courts.

The decision is in response to a challenge to SB140, a recently enacted law that abolished the Judicial Nomination Commission. The commission that was responsible for screening applicants for vacancies on the Supreme Court and District Courts and forwarding nominees to the Governor for appointment to those vacancies.

SB 140 replaced the Commission with a process that allows the Governor to consider any applicant who received a letter of support from at least three adult Montana residents during a prescribed public comment period. The Judicial Nomination Commission was created by the 1973 Legislature in response to the enactment of Article VII, Section 8(2) of the 1972 Montana Constitution, which provides that “[f]or any vacancy in the office of supreme court justice or district court judge, the governor shall appoint a replacement from nominees selected in the manner provided by law.”

The Petitioners contended that Article VII, Section 8(2) required the creation of a separate commission or committee to screen applicants for judicial vacancies. The Petitioners argued that the purpose of Article VII, Section 8(2) was to ensure the appointment of quality judges who were free of political influence, and that the abolishment of the Commission violated that purpose by giving unfettered discretion to the Governor for appointing justices and judges.

Respondents argued that the plain language of Article VII, Section 8(2) gave the Legislature the discretion to prescribe the manner in which justices and judges are appointed and did not require an independent commission to screen applicants. The Court agreed with Petitioners that the purpose of Article VII, Section 8(2) was to ensure the appointment of good judges, and that the intent of the Framers of the Constitution had to be properly considered in determining a provision’s constitutionality.

After reviewing the transcripts from the Constitutional Convention, however, the Court concluded that neither the plain language of Article VII, Section 8(2), nor the Framers’ intent indicated that Article VII, Section 8(2) required an independent commission to screen applicants. Rather, the language of Article VII, Section 8(2) was a compromise among some Constitutional Convention Delegates who wanted a commission, and others who wanted to give more discretion to the Governor. The compromise delegated the process for making judicial appointments to the Legislature. Although the Court acknowledged that the Commission created by the 1973 Legislature had honored the constitutional objective of recruiting good judges to serve the citizens of Montana for the past forty-eight years, it was not the Court’s function to determine whether the Commission was a better process than SB 140 for making judicial appointments—it was to determine whether SB 140 complied with the language and constitutional intent of Article VII, Section 8(2).

The Court held that it does.

Justice Rice wrote a separate concurring opinion to condemn “the extraordinary, indeed, extraconstitutional, actions taken by the Legislature and the Department of Justice.

Justice Rice addressed at length the failure of the Legislature and the Department of Justice to “demonstrate a proper understanding of the Judiciary’s constitutional authority.” He addressed the historical importance to our constitutional system of government that requires each branch of government to respect the other branches’ constitutional authority, and the perils to our democracy when one branch of government ignores the constitutional separation of powers. Justice Rice also addressed the “duplicitous actions” engaged in by the Legislature’s attorneys in their filings with this Court.

Despite finding this conduct “dishonest and contemptuous,” Justice Rice assessed the merits of the issue before the Court and concurred with the Court’s decision that SB 140 is constitutional.

Justice McKinnon dissented from the Court’s decision. She concluded that SB 140 violated the plain language of Article VII, Section 8(2), which requires that “nominees [be] selected.” Justice McKinnon would hold that SB 140 establishes only an application process that is not a merit-based selection process as required by Article VII, Section 8(2). Noting that when interpreting constitutional provisions, the intent of the Framers is controlling, Justice McKinnon discussed Montana’s history of political corruption, executive overreach into the courts, and the constitutional provision itself, and would hold that applying well-established rules of construction for determining the Framers’ intent in reviewing Constitutional Convention Notes, prior legislative determinations regarding the Framers’ intent, and this Court’s precedent lead to a conclusion that SB 140 is unconstitutional.

Justice McKinnon concluded that the Framers of the 1972 Constitution intended to limit the Governor’s plenary power to make judicial appointments which existed under the 1889 Constitution. Justice McKinnon noted that at the core of the Framers’ convictions was an intent to preserve the integrity and independence of Montana’s judiciary, and to ensure that power was not disproportionately placed in one branch of government. Justice McKinnon concluded that SB 140, because it gives plenary power to the Governor to appoint judges from self-nominated applicants without an independent merit-based vetting process, is inconsistent with the Framers’ intent, and violates Montana’s Constitution

The Billings Breakfast Exchange Club and Anderson Management have been selected to serve alcohol at the First Interstate Arena at MetraPark. After a competitive bidding process, they were selected as the preferred vendors.

“We’re happy to welcome back Breakfast Exchange and excited to begin our relationship with Anderson Management,” said Tim Goodridge, MetraPark Assistant General Manager. “Working with these two organizations ensures great customer service and preserves the charitable capacity so important to our community.”

Interested vendors were invited to tour the First Interstate Arena and submit RFPs (request for proposals) to serve alcohol in the arena. The submitted RFPs were then evaluated by a selection committee and their recommendation was made to the county.

“The decision to bid out the alcohol sales contract, or any MetraPark contract, is not a critique of a partnership,” said Goodridge, “but an ongoing obligation, on behalf of the County, to regularly bid out contracts. This is standard business practice and state law that vendor contracts need to be revisited every so often as a matter of good government. As we start to think about the future of MetraPark and investing in new infrastructure, now is a good time to improve the way we do business overall.”

by Evelyn Pyburn

While receiving $32 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) may be considered something of a windfall for Yellowstone County, there’s a lot of needs in the county and it goes quickly, according to Yellowstone County Commissioners.

The commissioners and other county officials are in the process of identifying priorities while trying to sort out the state and federal rules about how they can spend the money. Time frames imposed by federal regulations limit substantially their options, but fortunately Yellowstone County had several projects in the planning stages which also happen to qualify as permissible expenditures by ARPA.

County Commissioner Don Jones said that counties without qualified projects already in the planning may not be able to meet the late summer deadline.

Commissioners are working on meeting their own internal deadline of mid-July to determine what projects they want to set as priorities to obligate in spending the first half of the ARPA grant – -$15.6 million—which has already been released to the county. ARPA requires that the monies issued to counties and municipalities  be spent by Dec. 31, 2024

Besides addressing the needs of health and safety, the county must have direct line of authority over any entity or projects to which they direct the ARPA money. Counties and major municipalities have been allotted funds directly, but the state set aside a separate program for “non-entitled units” of government which would typically include many “districts” or local governments serving less than 50,000 people.

Much of the county’s funding will be spent on rebuilding infrastructure and utilities at Metra Park, according to the commissioners, not only because it involves projects for which much of the preliminary work has already been done but because Metra Park and the role it plays in serving the community easily qualifies within the parameters of ARPA for public health and safety.

County officials had already recognized the need to refurbish Metra Park’s almost 100-year old infrastructure and has already had extensive engineering studies and evaluations completed in anticipation of conducting numerous projects, from replacing water and sewer lines to enhancing broadband capacity. Because of that preliminary work all they have to do to launch many of the projects is issue a “request for proposals.”

Metra Park infrastructure projects include such things as water and sewer lines, storm water retainage, electricity – “everything that is under the ground”, including the possibility of expanding Metra Park’s broadband capacity to 5G. 

Expanding broadband capacity requires the installation of fiber optic cabling. Broadband 5G is the newest global wireless standard which delivers higher peak data speeds which can connect “everyone and everything together,” including machines, objects, and devices.

County commissioners are also eyeing the possibility of doing a pre-engineering study in Lockwood to install water and sewer lines in the areas of Johnson Lane and Coulson Road aimed especially at the planned industrial park, the TEDD (Targeted Economic Development District).

The county, under the direction of purchasing agent, James Matteson, has issued requests for qualifications from architects, engineers and consultants, to design, estimate costs and scope of work for Metra Park and for the Lockwood area. Responses for the Lockwood RFQ is June 14 and for Metra Park RFQs, June 28.

Matteson explained that for any large project that involves architects or engineers, in order to select a firm the county typically issues requests for qualificaions (RFQ) which are reviewed by county officials with the top three candidates interviewed, one of which is then selected to assist in planning and getting a project ready for bid.

Jennifer Jones, the county’s assistant finance director, explained that the county commissioners need to have information that the engineers or other consultants will provide in order to “brainstorm,” and figure out what is feasible and what they can “bid out”. “Some things may not be possible,” she said.

The feasible projects will then be “obligated” under the federal guidelines, which means they have to be designed and put out to bid by the end of summer.

Jones said that the requirements of ARPA are different than most federal grant processes in which they are reimbursed when the project is completed. ARPA sends the funds up front with the stipulation that if they are not spent properly they have to be sent back, so the county wants to be very diligent in making sure they comply with the requirements.

“We have to have our ducks in the row so we have been talking about this for three or four months. We don’t want to be in a position that we can’t spend it properly and effectively,” said Jones. “I’ll do quarterly progress reports,” said Jones, upon which the federal government will determine if the county is in compliance and if they are, they will release the balance of the funds to the county in May 2022.

While many people think of Metra Park primarily as an entertainment venue, for the emergency services providers in the community it is home base for all kinds of activities. “We use Metra Park a lot, for more than just entertainment,” said KC Williams, County Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator, who sees Metra Park in a very different light, one totally in keeping with the intent of ARPA. In general APRA funds are meant to be spent in manners that fortify the health and welfare of citizens.

But even as far as being an entertainment center there is much to be said about refurbishing the facility to meet that demand. Metra Park houses the largest crowd gatherings in the state,” pointed out Williams, crowds of that size need better access to 911 and for all public safety and public health that use the grounds.

Metra Park is commonly used as a shelter for situations in which citizens are displaced, as was most recently the case when an irrigation ditch was flooding a Billings neighborhood.  Williams noted that the Red Cross frequently directs people to Meta Park who are in need of emergency shelter.

Metra Park was made available by county officials to the medical community as a backup for potential overflow from the hospitals, and provided an easily accessed location where the pubic could get tested for COVID during the pandemic.

It has often been used to accommodate fire fighters and as a point of staging emergency responses. It is  routinely used by emergency service providers for training exercises and a meeting place. “We need better access to public safety data that we constantly rely on,” said Williams.

Conceding up front that he is no expert on what it takes to increase broadband capacity for Metra Park, Williams fully understands the benefits that it would bring. In addition to responding to emergencies, increasing capacity in and around Metra Park’s 189 acres would be a significant benefit in providing a foundation for the technology for surrounding areas.

“One of the limiting factors in Metra Park serving well as backup for the hospitals’ overflow” during the height of COVID hospitalizations, explained Williams, is that medical records are all electronic now and “in order to do it correctly and most effectively we need to have better broadband capacities. When Metra Park has better broadband capabilities and can handle electronic medical records easily then using it as an alternative cite for a hospital will be easier.”

The Center Square

Republican-led states and Vermont reported the lowest unemployment rates in April, according to a new report by the U.S. Commerce Department. States led by Democratic governors recorded the highest jobless rates, according to the report.

Unemployment rates were lower in April in 12 states and the District of Columbia and stable in 38 states, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

States with the highest unemployment rates in April were Hawaii (8.5%), California (8.3%), New Mexico and New York (both at 8.2%), and Connecticut (8.1%). All five states with the highest unemployment are run by Democratic trifectas, meaning Democrats control the governor’s office and both houses of the state legislature.

The four states with the lowest jobless rates in April were all run by Republican trifectas: Nebraska, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Utah, with 2.8% each. Vermont, with a Republican governor and a Democratic-controlled state House and Senate, ranked fifth-best with an unemployment rate of 2.9%.

Overall, 31 states had unemployment rates lower than the U.S. national average of 6.1%. The majority – 26 – are Republican-led states. Of the 19 states and the District of Columbia with jobless rates higher than the national average, 14 are led by Democrats.

However, the three largest unemployment rate decreases year-over-year from April 2020 to April 2021 occurred in blue states: Nevada, (down 21.5%), Michigan (down 18.7%), and Hawaii (down 13.4%). Ten other states also saw declines of 10% or more.

The report came out as the Dallas Federal Reserve reported lowered expectations for May job growth.

Dallas Federal Reserve President Robert Kaplan said that hiring difficulties have continued through May and will likely lead to another weak jobs report following the lower-than-expected 266,000 positions added in April. The next jobs report is expected to be published June 4.

According to a Dallas Fed survey, weakening job growth is attributed to several factors, including extended additional federal unemployment payments and a lack of childcare options for working parents.

“These structural issues, which we saw in the report for April … all those tensions are not going to go away” immediately, Kaplan said at a Dallas Fed conference on technology. “We think you are going to see another odd or unusual report. … Businesses are telling us they got plenty of demand, but they cannot find workers either skilled or unskilled.”

Republican governors in at least 22 states moved to drop the additional federal payment in response to businesses having difficulty finding people to hire because they were making more or enough money receiving unemployment checks than working. Texas was among the last to do so last week.

Montana State University and Montana Department of Transportation are collaborating in the development of a specialized concrete that is 20 times stronger than regular concrete. It will be used for the first time this summer to form parts of two 60-foot long bridges over Trail Creek near Wisdom.

MSU has been developing this unique concrete for over five years. It is special because it can carry up to 20,000 pounds per square inch.

Due to a specialized mixture that includes conventional concrete materials in addition to steel fibers, fly ash — a byproduct of coal-fired power plants — and chemicals that reduce the amount of added water, the material is roughly five times stronger than normal concrete, according to Mike Berry, associate professor in the Department of Civil Engineering in MSU’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering. It also cures rapidly, potentially reducing construction time, and resists corrosion, which will extend the lifetime of the structure, he said.

“It’s like normal concrete on steroids,” said Berry, who is leading the MSU research project. “If we could make all our bridges out of this stuff, it would be magnificent.”

The concrete is not new, Berry added, but until now its use has been limited due to high costs charged by companies that treat the mixture as proprietary, meaning only they can install it. The concrete developed at MSU uses the same principles but is non-proprietary and is designed to use locally available materials to further reduce costs.

According to Lenci Kappes, innovations and complex structures engineer in MDT’s bridge bureau, the MSU project could potentially cut the cost of the material in half. That would mean significant savings for the state not only with construction costs but also with reduced long-term maintenance due to the material’s durability.

The future cost savings are anticipated as MDT and contractors become more familiar with procuring, mixing and installing the material with MSU’s support, according to Kappes.

The MSU collaboration with MDT is part of a federal initiative to encourage states to adopt ultra-high performance concrete, according to Berry. Montana isn’t alone in its efforts, but “you can count on one hand the number of states that have actually developed and used this material, so we’re kind of unique in that way.”

According to Kappes, Montana has lots of bridges in need of replacement or repair, so the money-saving MSU mixture is a particularly relevant material coming at an opportune time. “This is really a learning experience,” he said. “We’re excited to take what we learn and apply it around the state.”