“Montana is enjoying one of the strongest economic recoveries in the nation,” announced Laurie Esau, Commissioner of the Montana Department of Labor & Industry with the release of a state of the state’s economy report.

The report shows that Montana has had the third highest recovery in payroll jobs since the start of the pandemic . Total employment is more than 99.5 percent recovered from the pandemic, and since January the number of Montanans receiving unemployment benefits has plummeted 87 percent.

The state has also had strong wage growth, growing at 7.9 percent in 2020, and the fastest personal income gains of any state in the nation.

As Labor Day rolled around in Montana, vaccinations had became available and business restrictions lifted, Montanans returned to normal business activity, and were celebrating the ability to attend restaurants, concerts, and social activities. The release of this pent-up demand, augmented by  economic stimulus, and higher income, have contributed to surging consumer demand, leaving businesses scrambling to bring on enough workers to meet customer needs. Tight labor markets, already evident prior to COVID-19, once again became the largest challenge to the state’s economic growth.

Highlights include:

•The rate of new businesses skyrocketed to the fastest rate in ten years, with over 3,500 new businesses created in 2020

.•Montana’s startups are more successful than the national average, and the pandemic had little impact on the rate of business closure for firms created within the last ten years.

•Montana has the 4th highest rate of business ownership in the nation, with 6.3% of Montana households reporting income from a business or farm.

•Montana posted the 3rd best payroll employment recovery among states since the start of the pandemic recession, and the 8th best recovery in total employment.

•The pandemic recession averaged job gains over 2,700 per month since the trough, a much faster recovery than the average of 500 jobs gained per month during the recovery from the 2008 recession.

•Both payroll and total employment levels are within 1% of the pre-recession peak.

•Montana’s real GDP growth from 2019 to 2020 ranked 20th among states, and likely made a full recovery in the 2nd quarter of 2021.

•Montana ranked 1st among states for personal income growth in 2020, growing 8.4% to $57.6 billion.

•Business owner income increased by 10%, or $506 million, bolstered by the Paycheck Protection Program and the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.

•Wages paid to Montana workers surged, posting a 7.2% increase ($1.7 billion) for the year ending 2021Q1. Increased wage earnings are an important component needed to drive future business demand and are vital to increasing the standard of living for most Montanans.

•Montana ranks 8th among states for the fastest average annual wage growth over the last 10 years.

•Average annual wages in payroll jobs increased by 7.9% in 2020 (up to $48,400), over double the wage growth rates posted in prior years.

Real wage growth, or the amount of wage growth that exceeds inflation, was 6.6% in 2020

•The unemployment rate dropped quickly after the pandemic recession, reaching 3.6% in July 2021.  Prior recessions took much longer for unemployment to return to normal levels.

Labor productivity soared as workers moved into remote work, increasing by 3.9% for the year ending 2021Q1.

Despite the strong economic recovery, challenges remain, particularly labor shortages and the impacts of rising prices on businesses and workers:

Inflation has spiked, with prices increasing over 5% during the summer of 2021, leaving consumers paying more for housing and gasoline, among other goods. Over the two years ending June 2021, hourly wages have increased by 8.7% while the price level has increased by 6.1%, resulting in a 2.6% increase in the real hourly wage.

Housing prices have also risen, with Montanan’s typical home price up 10.3% to $327,000 for the year ending June 2021, leaving many communities concerned about affordable housing.

Thousands of workers left the labor force during the last year due to fears of contracting COVID-19 and a lack of childcare. These workers must be reengaged in our economy to help fill unmet worker demand. Many of these workers have already come back into the economy as of July, with the labor force only 0.5% lower than its pre-recession peak.

If Montana’s labor force participation rate was the same now as before the pandemic, 11,331 more workers would be available to fill openings.

The average work week in Montana fell during the pandemic, moving from 33.4 hours per week in 2019 to 32.8 hours per week in 2020. Moving more part-time employees to full-time could address many workforce shortages.

Over 20% of the workforce is 60 years or older and preparing for retirement. Among those not retired, family care is the main reason for not participating in the labor force.

 The report suggested, there are several solutions to the worker shortage, including increasing worker productivity through training and automation, tapping into underutilized labor sources (such as those living in rural areas or reservations, disabled, or facing barriers to work), and ensuring that workers have the incentive to move out of unemployment to work. With the resiliency and determination Montanans have shown throughout the last year, there can be no doubt that these future challenges will also be resolved, moving Montana’s economy into a more profitable future.

Some of the funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) are being directed to strengthening Montana’s workforce and providing job training to Montanans.

Governor Greg Gianforte approved directing $6 million for job training programs, particularly to individuals with disabilities and those who have become unemployed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Helping Montanans acquire the in-demand skills needed to fill good-paying jobs is a top priority,” Gov. Gianforte said. “These investments will help more Montana workers access skills training programs, helping them enter or reenter the workforce or boost their careers to the next level while alleviating our workforce shortage in critical industries.”

Two million dollars of ARPA will be directed to fund the Individuals with Disabilities Employment Engagement Program, which augments the Department of Public Health and Human Services’ (DPHHS) Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) services.

DPPHS VR provides services to individuals with disabilities to obtain, regain, maintain, and advance in employment. The funding approved will supplement existing VR staff by temporarily adding 10 additional full-time rehabilitation counselors, opening the door to approximately 1,000 additional individuals with disabilities to participate in the program. Approximately 1,300 individuals are on the program’s waitlist.

“This funding is going to have a tremendous impact on the people our agency serves,” DPHHS Director Adam Meier said. “The opportunity to add additional rehabilitation counselors will allow us to work with our clients who are currently on the waiting list. These individuals are ready and willing to work, and just need the opportunity. We’re excited to increase these efforts across the state to connect our clients with training, assisted technology and other tools that will help set them up to successfully enter the work force.”

The governor also approved an additional $4 million in ARPA funds for the Department of Labor & Industry (DLI) to provide “rapid retraining” services and enroll Montanans in workforce training programs.

The funds will allow the department to utilize an existing state network of contracted workforce program providers to provide critical training, primarily for those who lost their jobs during the pandemic and need new skills to reenter the workforce. The funds will be used to conduct and support short-term skills training for Montanans including displaced workers such as those in Colstrip or St. Regis.

“This funding will enable the department to strengthen our already-robust network of workforce service providers and help more Montanans benefit from the training programs they provide. The end result will be more Montana workers with the skills they need to succeed,” DLI Commissioner Laurie Esau said.

The governor accepted the $6 million funding recommendations from the ARPA Economic Transformation and Stabilization and Workforce Development Programs and Advisory Commission. ARPA advisory commissions comprise state legislators, agency leaders, and administration officials. More information about the advisory commissions may be found at arpa.mt.gov.

US consumer confidence has plunged to its lowest point in over a decade according to the University of Michigan confidence survey. Americans are worried about personal finances, unemployment and inflation.

The decline is attributed to a combination of things including the resurgence of the virus but most especially rising inflation rates. The spike in prices for consumers in July were 5.4 percent higher than in June and the highest 12-month spike since 2008. But rising costs for producers are even more dramatic.  The inflation rate increase of production costs is the biggest on record, at 7.8 percent, year over year.

The survey released on August 13 showed that the consumer index was down from July’s reading of 81.2 to 70.2, a level not seen since 2011. The 13 percent slide was one of the sharpest in the past 50 years, exceeded only by an 18.1 percent drop in 2008 and a 19.4 percent fall in April 2020, when economic constraints imposed because of the virus threw the economy into a tailspin.

The decline in confidence was broad and impacted almost every aspect of the population (age, income, education) and in all regions, according to survey director, Richard Curtin.

A concern of economists is that the consumers’ lack of confidence could mean a drop in how much they spend. Consumer spending is considered by some as a major driver of the economy.

Policies that are flooding the economy with extra cash is in large part the reason for inflation and it has thwarted what had been an unprecedented economic recovery, erasing increased benefits and wages for workers. Inflation is putting pressure on the federal government but the response has been to increase the flood of easy money, with the belief of officials that “the current bout of inflation is transitory” and will improve once the labor market has recovered and become more solid.

Following their meeting in late July on wildfire, Governor Greg Gianforte urged President Joe Biden to support the bipartisan Resilient Federal Forests Act.

“Introduced by 70 members of Congress in July with the backing of 90 organizations, this bill will support proactive, science-based forest management at a pace and scale that match the urgency of the forest health crisis we face,” the governor wrote in a letter to the President.

Outlining the benefits of the bill, the governor continued, “It gives the U.S. Forest Service additional tools to manage millions of acres of federal forest and reduce wildfire risk. It also addresses a concern raised in our conversation by Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, which I was encouraged to hear you share, by helping to end frivolous lawsuits that delay essential forest management projects from moving forward.” 

In his meeting with President Biden and other governors last month, the governor called for meaningful forest management to improve forest health and reduce the risk of wildfire. Several other governors joined him in that call.

At the state level, the governor has set out to more than double the number of acres treated this year as compared to last year in Montana.

In late July, the governor announced signed project agreements for 14 cross-boundary, active management projects associated with the Montana Forest Action Plan.

Two companies are applying for tax abatements from the county and city.

Montana Sun LLC is seeking abatements for its $100 million, 80 megawatt solar generated power facility that will begin construction in October on Alkali Creek Road. The project is that of Greenbacker Renewable Energy Company, which will sell power to NorthWestern Energy.

Coca-Cola Bottling Co. High Country is also seeking tax relief for a $50 million investment in a bottling plant on Harnish Road.

There are two programs under which the county and city have historically encouraged economic growth and development by reducing property taxes for a period of time on an investment a company makes to expand or establish itself. Dianne Lehm, Director of Community Development for Big Sky Economic Development, explained that the county commissioners will decide under which of two available options to make the abatement decision.

The 10-year program, called the New & Expanding Industry Tax Incentive Program, allows the taxable value of the real property to be reduced by 50 percent in the first 5 years. In years 6-10, the tax obligation incrementally increases by 10 percent a year and the savings decreases until the full 100% liability is required and the abatement expires in year 10. The state legislature recently allowed local government the discretion to reduce taxes by 50 percent or by 75 percent with an incremental 15 percent increase over the last five years.

Another available option of the program is a five abatement which allows tax reductions on remodeling, reconstruction, and/or expansion of existing real property when a project makes improvements exceeding $500,000 to the property.  Property taxes on the value of improvements may be reduced by 100 percent for the first five years, after which property returns to its full taxable value.

Coca-Cola Bottling Co. High Country hopes to expand its operations in Billings in a facility to be built on 10.5 acres south of I-90 near the Zoo Drive Exit, the Harnish Trade Center. They have requested that the City of Billings annex the area and to help pay for 4,300 feet of extended utilities to the site. Big Sky Economic Development has offered a grant of up to $250,000 from its Opportunity Fund to help pay for the extension of lines, which would also assist other future development.

The City Council will take up the issue, in a few weeks, of spending another $250,000 to help support the project, while most of the $1.5 million cost for the installation of water and sewer will fall to the company.

The project proposal is for a 110,000-square-foot distribution center with a 30,000 square-foot manufacturing facility. Joe Easton, director of property development for Coca-Cola Bottling Co. High Country, explained that the expansion would mean that Billings would become a bottling plant from which their products will be distributed to the region they serve which besides Montana includes Minnesota, Colorado, North and South Dakota, Wyoming and Utah. Currently their 450 products are bottled elsewhere and distributed to Billings.

Coca-Cola High Country is a Rapid City -based company, owned by the third generation of the Messenger Family. The company acquired the Billings center in 2014, which has had a warehouse on 1st Avenue South in Billings since 1959.

Right now, the Billings center employees 60 full-time workers, but with the expansion, the number of employees is expected to increase by 50, including 40 manufacturing jobs, paying $24/hour, and other management jobs paying $100,000-plus benefits.

Montana Sun expects to start construction in October with the aim of being completed in about a year. The company believes the construction will create about 200 temporary jobs.

The project is one of many throughout the country owned by Greenbacker Renewable Energy Company, a company launched in by Robert Hokin, in 2011. Greenbacker Renewable Energy Company is a publicly reporting, non-traded limited liability company that acquires and manages income-generating renewable energy and other energy-related businesses. The company has over a billion dollars invested in solar facilities in a number of states.

Small nonfarm businesses in 18 Montana counties and neighboring counties in Idaho and Wyoming are now eligible to apply for low interest federal disaster loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration, announced Director Tanya N. Garfield of SBA’s Disaster Field Operations Center-West. These loans offset economic losses because of reduced revenues caused by drought in the following primary counties that began July 6, 2021. 

Primary Montana counties:  Carbon, Gallatin, Madison, Park, Stillwater, Sweet Grass, Treasure and Yellowstone;

Neighboring Montana counties:  Beaverhead, Big Horn, Broadwater, Golden Valley, Jefferson, Meagher, Musselshell, Rosebud, Silver Bow and Wheatland;

Neighboring Idaho county:  Fremont;

Neighboring Wyoming counties:  Big Horn, Park and Teton.

“SBA eligibility covers both the economic impacts on businesses dependent on farmers and ranchers that have suffered agricultural production losses caused by the disaster and businesses directly impacted by the disaster,” Garfield said.

Small nonfarm businesses, small agricultural cooperatives, small businesses engaged in aquaculture and most private nonprofit organizations of any size may qualify for Economic Injury Disaster Loans of up to $2 million to help meet financial obligations and operating expenses which could have been met had the disaster not occurred.

“Eligibility for these loans is based on the financial impact of the disaster only and not on any actual property damage. These loans have an interest rate of 2.88 percent for businesses and 2 percent for private nonprofit organizations, a maximum term of 30 years and are available to small businesses and most private nonprofits without the financial ability to offset the adverse impact without hardship,” Garfield said.

By law, SBA makes Economic Injury Disaster Loans available when the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture designates an agricultural disaster. The Secretary declared this disaster on July 12, 2021.

Applicants may apply online, download applications at https://disasterloanassistance.sba.gov/. Applicants may also call SBA’s Customer Service Center at (800) 659-2955 or email disastercustomerservice@sba.gov for more information on SBA disaster assistance. Individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing may call (800) 877-8339. Completed applications should be mailed to U.S. Small Business Administration, Processing and Disbursement Center, 14925 Kingsport Road, Fort Worth, TX  76155.

The deadline to apply for economic injury is March 14, 2022.

The FBI conducted more background checks for firearms purchases in March — a month in which several prominent mass shootings reignited America’s conversation about gun control — than they have in any month so far this year.

About 4.7 million Americans initiated gun background checks last month — a 36% increase from February, according to the FBI. More than 2 million of those checks were for new gun purchases, according to the National Shooting Sports Federation, the firearms industry trade group that compares FBI background check numbers with actual sales data to determine its sales figures.

The new guns purchased in March make it the second highest month on record for firearms sales, according to NSSF spokesman Mark Oliva, who said the threat of looming gun control legislation was the catalyst for last months sales surge.

NSSF data shows last month’s sales were surpassed only by the estimated 2.3 million guns sold in March 2020.

“It is clear that firearm sales in March were driven by gun control calls from politicians to ban entire classes of firearms and enact onerous gun laws,” Oliva told CNN Business.

This year, an ongoing surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans has also led to an increase in first-time firearms purchases among this demographic group.

“The face of today’s gun owner no longer fits in the neat little box that some would like to put gun ownership into,” Oliva said. “The fact is gun ownership in America looks more like the country than it ever has.”

The House of Representatives passed the pair of gun control bills on March 11. Five days later eight people were killed in Atlanta, including six Asian women, in a series of shootings at spas. A week after that, 10 people, including a local police officer, were shot dead in a Boulder, Colorado grocery store. Biden urged the Senate to pass gun control legislation in the aftermath of both shootings.

There have been at least 20 mass shootings in the three weeks since the Atlanta attack.

Firearm sales fell slightly in February after a January surge, which had been fueled in part by the Capitol Hill insurrection. January and March are the only two months in which FBI gun background checks surpassed 4 million since records were first kept in 1998.

The Keystone Pipeline System was supposed to create 11,000 American jobs in 2021, but President Joe Biden revoked the permit for the project. Now the company in charge is suing the U.S. government for $15 billion.

The massive pipeline project’s first three phases run from Alberta, Canada to refineries in Illinois and Texas, and to oil tank farms and an oil pipeline distribution center in Cushing, Oklahoma.

The proposed phase IV would have connected the existing pipeline terminals in Hardisty, Alberta, and Steele City, Nebraska, by a shorter route and a larger-diameter pipe.

But on the day of his inauguration, Biden signed an executive order to revoke the permit granted by President Donald Trump to TC Energy Corporation.

TC Energy estimated the 11,000 jobs would have totaled more than $1.6 billion in pay, and supporters touted the pipeline as a big step in American energy independence.

“TC Energy will be seeking to recover more than US $15 billion in damages that it has suffered as a result of the U.S. Government’s breach of its NAFTA obligations,” the company said in its July 2 press release.

In his executive order, Biden said in revoking the permit that “approving the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would not serve the U.S. national interest” and would “undermine U.S. climate leadership by undercutting the credibility and influence of the United States in urging other countries to take ambitious climate action.”

Beyond costing Americans jobs and energy independence, this move may also cost taxpayers $15 billion.

When a shortage of truck drivers to deliver fuel to the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport resulted in no available carbon-based fuel there were no energy alternatives and airlines had to cancel flights. Planes were forced to land in neighboring cities and states to fill up with jet fuel.

A similar story has been reported in Billings by gas stations which have run out of gasoline because there are no truck drivers available to deliver fuel. With no alternatives to gasoline the gas stations have referred drivers to other gas stations.

Placing greater pressure on the availability of jet fuels is fire suppression efforts in the state for which aircraft has a priority for the fuel. Airlines are responsible for acquiring their own fuel and supplies come from petroleum production in Great Falls, Billings, Utah, and Wyoming. 

Also, placing pressure on gasoline for vehicles is a booming tourism business which is seeing a 40 percent increase over 2019 visitations.

There were no alternatives to fossil fuels last weekend when airlines at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport had to cancel flights due to a shortage of jet fuel.

Multiple flights out of the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport were delayed, rescheduled, and canceled due to a fuel shortage. 

Over the weekend, planes were forced to land in neighboring cities and states to fill up their fuel tanks. 

Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport Director Brian Sprenger said there is a combination of events that have resulted in the scarce fuel supply. 

“Some of it is the lack of available trucking drivers to haul fuel across the state, limited fuel supply from the projections that were earlier expected and then now we are battling fire suppression season where we have aircrafts that have priority for fuel as well,” Sprenger said. 

Montana’s fuel supply comes from Great Falls, Billings, Utah, and Wyoming and each airline is responsible for their own fuel. 

Sprenger said this summer’s travel is 40% over 2019 numbers for both inbound and outbound passengers. 

For community members flying this summer, it is important to show up early and check your airline website for updates and flight statuses. 

Trade and tourism across the Canadian border is a very important part of Montana’s economy, which means the border closure over the past year has been greatly detrimental to our economy.

Governor Greg Gianforte, the governors of Idaho and North Dakota, and the premiers of two Canadian provinces have called on U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to immediately open the border between the two countries.

On Wednesday, July 21, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced it was extending its temporary restriction prohibiting non-essential cross-border travel from Canada through at least August 21.

In response, Gov. Gianforte, the governors of Idaho and North Dakota, and the premiers of Alberta and Saskatchewan urged Biden and Trudeau to work together to reach an agreement allowing for the immediate movement of citizens, goods, and tourists between the two nations.

“Our relationship is one built on mutual respect and friendship. As we continue to manage the COVID-19 pandemic and work together on joint initiatives to provide vaccinations to more and more of our citizens every day, the time has come to allow our citizens to move safely and securely across our shared border,” the leaders wrote in a letter to Biden and Trudeau.

Gov. Gianforte and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney have worked together to combat the pandemic. In addition to encouraging Montanans to get the free, safe, and effective COVID-19 vaccine, Gov. Gianforte announced on May 7 that Montana and Alberta signed a Memorandum of Understanding whereby Montana would provide vaccines to Albertan commercial truck drivers and their families at a rest stop near Conrad, Montana. On May 20, the governor visited the vaccine clinic off I-15. Over the course of four weeks, Montana administered 1,235 vaccine doses at the clinic.

The U.S. governors and Canadian premiers concluded their letter to Biden and Trudeau, writing, “Our two nations, and the states and provinces along our shared border, have a long history of secure, safe and free flow of goods and services across the border, as well as citizens traveling between our countries for business, shopping and tourism. We request our federal governments return to this symbol of friendship once again by securely opening the northern border.”

Governor Gianforte signed the joint letter with Idaho Governor Brad Little, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe.