By Evelyn Pyburn

In speaking to County Commissioners, County Health Officer John Felton said that although he is normally an optimistic person, “It’s getting increasingly hard to be optimistic,” regarding the growing number of COVID-19 cases in the state.

“The state is just on fire with cases,” said Felton.

The number of cases is nearing 100 per 100,000 population, which Felton said is very serious. Just under 6 percent of the population has been infected.

 Montana has been experiencing escalating cases since mid-September, (see accompanying article) Felton said that he doesn’t know what else to do other than impose more restrictions, which happened with announcement from Governor Bullock that requires bars, restaurants and casinos to reduce capacity from 75 percent to 50 percent and to close at 10 pm – limitations that are the same as being totally shutdown for many businesses, beginning Nov. 20.

Felton broadened the restrictions on hours of operation to include all businesses. He has also hired four “liaison officers” to patrol businesses in Yellowstone County and oversee training of people failing to comply and oversee legal proceedings of enforcement against businesses.

“I know that there are significant economic impacts,” Felton said, noting that the situation is even more severe since, “we don’t have access to all the supports we had in the beginning with the CARES act.”

Montana ranks ninth in the nation in terms of COVID cases per 100,000 population which is at 95.4.

After the impact of the Canyon Creek nursing home cases, the number of cases in Yellowstone County dropped to a level more in keeping with its share of population, at about 16 percent.

Yellowstone County’s hospitals are at capacity. Besides space, the hospitals are struggling with having adequate staffing since many are either sick or quarantining.

“This is becoming a pretty significant issue for us,” said Felton.

The number of regional patients fluctuates between 40 and 60 daily. Billing’s medical community serves a regional population of about 650,000 people.

People have occasionally asked why they don’t just refuse to accept out- of- county patients, to which Felton explained that Billings has spent the last 40 years establishing itself as a regional medical center and has thrived economically on that distinction, in addition they have a moral responsibility to live up to the commitment.

Felton also pointed out that staffing issues are impacting local businesses, making it difficult for them to stay open. It is not that much different for them than being required shut down. Staffing shortages are also the primary issue with which schools are dealing.

Schools “haven’t seen a large number of kids becoming ill,” reported Felton. There has only been a slight increase in the number of cases since school began.

Yellowstone County is experiencing more deaths, said Felton. As of press time, the County had 107 deaths, with the number of confirmed cases in the county nearing 10,000. The state has had almost 50,000, with 543 deaths.

Felton rebuffed claims that hospitals get funding based on the number of COVID cases reported. He said, “There is no economic benefit to say that someone dies of COVID when they don’t.”

The good news lies in reports that there are two effective vaccines on their way. How they will be distributed has yet to be determined, and it is likely that the vaccines will have to be taken repeatedly, not unlike flu shots.

“I don’t know where the end point is,” said Felton, “….There is no evidence that we are at the top. What slows it down is when people decide this is enough. I have to do my part.”

“We know how to slow this thing down. ..There is no ‘magic sauce’”

It requires masking, distancing, and sanitizing. Bars, restaurants, gyms, schools and churches should be closed – “but we haven’t done that… now we are at the point.”

 “There are no good choices,” said Felton.

The U.S. Small Business Administration announced Fiscal Year 2020 summary loan data of the financial assistance provided through traditional loan program lending as well as aid provided via the CARES Act. Loans guaranteed through traditional SBA-backed lending programs exceeded $28 billion; however, enactment of the CARES Act dramatically increased loan volume guaranteed by the Agency: In FY20, the Paycheck Protection Program provided an additional 5.2 million loans worth more than $525 billion; the Agency’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program added another 3.6 million small business loans valued at $191 billion, as well as an additional 5.7 million EIDL Advances worth $20 billion.

“In response to the unprecedented challenges faced by small businesses this year, the Trump Administration provided more than three-quarters of a trillion dollars in financial assistance to support impacted small businesses. SBA lending data further reflects the extraordinary commitment this Administration has made to supporting entrepreneurs in underserved communities,” said Administrator Jovita Carranza.

“The SBA played a monumental role in supporting small businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, evidenced by the thousands of Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans approved to urban and rural Montana businesses since March,” said Dan Nordberg, SBA Regional Administrator and National Director of Rural Affairs. “The SBA’s historic lending achievement is a testament not only to the dedicated public servants within the agency, but also to the grit of small business owners and entrepreneurs across the state. The SBA will continue advocating for small businesses and working with business owners and entrepreneurs as we navigate these challenging times.”

“When the COVID-19 pandemic impacted Montana’s small businesses, the SBA answered the call by leveraging all of the resources at our disposal, including 24,000 Paycheck Protection Program loans and 10,000 Economic Injury Disaster Loans that provided much needed funds to Montana small businesses, helping to keep Montana’s economy going during this difficult time,” said Brent Donnelly, SBA Montana District Director. “Like any great effort, a team of dedicated individuals was needed, and we at the SBA would like to thank Montana’s lenders, the small business owners, and our resource partners all continuing to work together for Montana.”

Highlights from the PPP include:

 *   27% of the PPP loan dollars were made in low-and moderate-income communities which is in proportion to the percentage of population in these areas:

 *   More than $133 billion, or 25%, of PPP loans were approved for small businesses in historically underutilized business zones (HUBZones); and,

 *   Over $80 billion, or 15%, of total PPP dollars were approved to small businesses in rural communities.

Administrator Carranza further noted, “In addition to the tremendous amount of aid provided by the CARES Act via the PPP and EIDL programs, our regular loan programs showed solid year-over-year improvement, especially within our 504 and Microloan programs. SBA’s small but dedicated team of professionals punched far above its weight this year, building on last year’s lending numbers for traditional loans, while administering the largest and most consequential disaster response effort in modern history – all while overcoming unprecedented workforce disruptions.”

The Montana Public Service Commission has trimmed $9.4 million from an annual rate adjustment requested by NorthWestern Energy, after concluding the utility’s imprudent supervision of the coal-fired power plant in Colstrip, led to its temporary shutdown in 2018.

With interest, NorthWestern will be required to refund more than $9.9 million to ratepayers.

For about two and a half months in the summer of 2018, the power plant had to be shut down after testing showed the plant’s emissions exceeded federal pollution standards. Tests leading up to the outage showed the plant was operating at the maximum emissions limit. When a test in June 2018 exceeded the limit, the plant had to be shut down until it could be brought into compliance.

NorthWestern, a co-owner of Colstrip Unit 4, was forced to buy power from other energy producers during the outage, at a higher price than the cost of production at Colstrip. Each year, the Commission requires NorthWestern to request a rate adjustment to reflect actual costs the utility incurs to supply energy to its customers in Montana.

NorthWestern’s proposed adjustment for 2019 sought to collect $23.8 million from Montana ratepayers, including costs related to the Colstrip outage. The Montana Consumer Counsel and the Montana Environmental Information Center disputed NorthWestern’s request and argued the outage costs resulted from imprudent management and supervision of the Colstrip plant.

The Commission decided NorthWestern should bear the majority of the costs associated with the Colstrip outage. Specifically, the Commission determined NorthWestern’s 2 of 3 supervision of the Colstrip plant was imprudent, and that a reasonable utility in NorthWestern’s position would have taken more proactive steps to ensure compliance with emissions standards. As a result, the Commission determined NorthWestern should be liable for $6,284,967 of replacement power costs, which represents the premium NorthWestern paid to buy energy from other producers instead of generating it at the Colstrip plant.

NorthWestern’s original cost recovery request assumed the utility would be responsible for $629,967 of the replacement costs under cost-sharing rules, so the Commission’s decision increases NorthWestern’s responsibility by nearly $5.7 million. The Commission’s decision follows in the wake of similar findings regarding the Colstrip outage made by regulators in other states. Earlier this year, Washington regulators denied $15.4 million in power replacement costs requested by three utilities in that state.

NorthWestern’s proposed rate adjustment also sparked debate over a new law that limits how much of the power supply costs the utility has to absorb before passing costs on to ratepayers. NorthWestern lobbied the 2019 Montana Legislature to pass a new law that bars the Commission from applying a “deadband” and other cost-sharing rules when calculating NorthWestern’s annual rate adjustment. The Commission had instituted a deadband—a dollar range of power supply costs and savings that NorthWestern would absorb without a rate adjustment—to incentivize careful management of supply costs. Although the new law became effective in May 2019, after the Colstrip outage costs were incurred, NorthWestern argued it barred the Commission from applying its deadband and costsharing rules when calculating the rate adjustment.

The Consumer Counsel, however, argued the deadband had to be prorated based on the new law’s effective date. The Commission agreed with the Consumer Counsel, concluding that the new law could not be applied retroactively, and held NorthWestern responsible for an additional $3,765,739 of costs. As a result of the Commission’s decision, NorthWestern will be required to refund ratepayers $9,422,209 it collected through an interim rate adjustment that was based on the full amount of its original request. Until the refund is fully paid, it will accrue interest at a rate of 10.25%, annually. As of Tuesday, interest owed to ratepayers totaled more than $523,000. During the Commission’s deliberations on Tuesday, Commissioner Roger Koopman proposed an amendment based on the Consumer Counsel’s proposed calculations that would have held NorthWestern responsible for an additional $2.5 million in costs, but the amendment failed for lack of a second.

By Evelyn Pyburn

The people of Montana have “thrown down the gauntlet,” and have challenged Republicans to show what they can do, stated Republican Brad Tschida, who was 2019 House Majority Leader and recently re-elected to HD97 in Missoula. On Nov. 3, the Republicans swept all statewide offices and netted many new positions in both houses of the state legislature, achieving a rare “trifecta” in state political power.

The Republicans have been saying they can govern better and the voters of Montana have said, “prove you are in fact better to run the government,” surmised Tschida, regarding the fact that Republican Greg Gianforte won the governorship and Republicans won a veto-proof majority in both the House and the Senate.

“It’s the first time in 84 years that something like this has happened, “ said Tschida, “It doesn’t take much insight to know it is significant.”  But why it happened isn’t all that clear, Tschida puzzled, adding that it was probably a myriad of factors. Significant, however, was probably “seeing all the riots and lawlessness that was going on, and I think people think Republicans have a better grasp on supporting law enforcement and safety.”

This may be the first time in history that Republicans swept all the offices – including all the State Land Board Offices, as well as the Public Service Commission positions, said Jon Benion, a senior staff attorney for the Montana Attorney General’s office. Benion is something of an expert on the history of Montana politics having written the book, “Big Sky Politics.”

“I don’t know if we have ever had a time when Republicans controlled all Land Board offices,” said Benion, “The Democrats did in 2008, “when they swept all offices except for Dennis Rehberg’s  US Congressional seat.”

When looking at history, it becomes obvious that there is something of a 16- 20 year cycle regarding party control in Montana, said Benion.  “From 1988 to 2000 the Republican brand was strong, and then Democrats were golden from 2004 to 2008.”

Montana is typically known as a red state, said Benion, but that is mostly because the state predictably votes for Republican presidents. Clinton winning in 1992 was out of the norm, but that was because Ross Perot was a third party candidate. One has to go back to 1964 before Montana supported another Democrat presidential candidate as part of the Lyndon B. Johnson landslide.

Asked what he thought the Republican sweep would mean in the next state legislative session, Benion quipped, “It means a lot fewer vetoes.”

Tschida, too, cited that as one of the most significant aspects of the election wins. Having a Republican governor for the first time in 16 years, will undoubtedly more easily advance Republican policies. Even though Republicans have controlled both houses for the past couple of sessions, a lot of their measures were vetoed by Democrat Governor Steve Bullock and before him, by Democrat Governor Brian Schweitzer, who gained some notoriety for the number of his vetoes.

Going into the 2021 session, the Republican majority in the House will be sufficient to override a governor’s veto or to pass measures that require a two-thirds majority without winning Democratic votes.

With Republican Greg Gianforte winning the governorship, Republicans also picked up nine legislative seats in the Montana House and one in the Montana Senate — enough to expand their majorities to 67 of 100 House seats and 31 of 50 Senate seats. Cascade County Republicans made a total sweep of their legislature districts. Democrats didn’t win a single Republican-held legislative seat.

Tschida was not too certain what the priorities for the Republicans will be. There are a lot of things that need to be addressed and he quickly recited a long list starting with First and Second Amendment rights, water rights and protecting “the most vulnerable.”

Tschida wants to demonstrate that the Republicans do not just stand opposed to expanding government, “but that we want smart government.”

The rules and details of how the legislative session will be run and their leadership will be ironed out in caucuses of both parties on November 18 and 19 in Helena.

“We are going to see some good legislation that will save money and benefit Montanans….we will get business-friendly legislation passed, reduce the size of bureaucracies and the regulatory impact on businesses….We will have a legislative and executive branch that will create a positive environment to serve the needs of the population and not government.”

Property taxes will undoubtedly be a big issue, given that the rapid rise in home values is pushing a lot of people out of their homes.

An obvious issue will be what Tschida called “over-reach by the outgoing administration regarding masking people up and shutting business down. If you look at what they did — not a single state, county or city job was deemed as non-essential.  Every one of them kept their jobs. The entire impact of COVID was born by the private sector. It caused businesses to shut down forever. “

The government failed to look at the broader impact of its actions in shutting down the economy and imposing other restrictions, according to Tschida. “By their actions they promoted more domestic violence, child abuse, an increase in the amount of drug and alcohol abuse… they didn’t look at the myriad of impacts that those decisions had on people.”

The next session of the Montana State Legislature is scheduled to begin on Jan. 4, 2021.

Prior to each legislative session, organizations of all sorts usually announce their legislative priorities – those issues, policies and proposals, for which they plan to lobby or support.

Yellowstone County’s economic development agency, Big Sky Economic Development (BSED) is among the many that have announced their list of priorities going into the next legislative session. The agency, which administers both Big Sky Economic Authority and Big Sky Economic Corporation, has identified a broad range of issues at both the state and local level that it considers important.

BSED’s legislative priorities at a local level parallels those at the state level, and includes the goal of Yellowstone County to change state law to allow more flexibility in establishing long-term leases of county properties, which might better encourage private business investment.

BSED’s goals include supporting the continued funding of Medicaid which will bolster local and regional healthcare providers.

They will also stand behind any proposed funding of Montana State University-Billings, including what has been identified as a need for investment in the health care and science professions.

BSED wants to Protect Tax Increment Financing, saying that “urban renewal and target economic development districts need to be supported as one of the few economic development tools available to support the redevelopment of our downtown core and to build infrastructure that supports the growth of value-added industry.”

BSED’s legislative priorities include endorsing the goals of the Montana Economic Development Authority and the Montana Chamber of Commerce’s “Next Generation of Community and Economic Development Tool Analysis,” which is essentially a number of funding proposals and laws that will empower agencies to develop programs and projects.

The priorities include reorganizing the state’s economic development programs and subsidies for job creation. They also advocate for a reorganization of the Department of Commerce and the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

They want to fund incentives for recruiting and retaining workers in Montana and to encourage entrepreneurship.

The priorities include support for a statewide strategy to improve broadband accessibility, and revenue to support investment in 5G networks.

And they want the state legislature to explore funding sources to help advance economic development programs and projects to be created in future legislative sessions – laws which would enable government funding of “infrastructure and community development assets.”

To explore options for affordable daycare and programs supporting “workforce” housing, were other issues of interest that might come forward in the next state legislature, about which BSED would be supportive.

The Department of the Interior announced it has removed the gray wolf from the endangered species list, signaling a successful recovery under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The gray wolf spent more than four decades on the endangered species list. The population is now thriving in the lower 48 states.

“This should be heralded as a success story of the Endangered Species Act,” noted Montana Farm Bureau Executive Vice President John Youngberg. “The gray wolf in Montana has already been delisted and state and tribal management is working well. When the numbers required by a scientific study are reached, it’s time to delist that species. In the case of the gray wolf, those states where they have already been delisted are managing the species well, limiting conflict with livestock and keeping a check on the reduction of wildlife numbers—yet still have the species thrive.”

State and tribal wildlife management agencies will now be responsible for the management and protection of the gray wolf.

“This is an Endangered Species Act success story,” said American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall. “The gray wolf joins more than 50 other animals, including the bald eagle, as an example of how careful management and partnerships between federal and state agencies can result in the successful recovery of a once-threatened species. The gray wolf population is now thriving so it is appropriate to turn management over to the states, which can oversee the species in a way that is most appropriate for each region.”

Over 1,600 species remain on the federal threatened and endangered list. Delisting the gray wolf allows the Department of the Interior to focus resources on other species in need of recovery.

Ronda Wiggers has been announced as the new state director or the Montana Federation of  Independent Business, (NFIB) a small-business advocacy association. She will be in charge of lobbying, educational outreach and political efforts.

Wiggers will be taking up the torch for Riley Johnson who has served in that position for 38 years.

“Ronda’s lobbying experience combined with her grassroots organizing abilities made her an ideal fit for the job,” said Gary Selvy, executive director of state public policy for NFIB. “Our main educational mission for the 77 years of our existence, and all that entails, is to instruct and remind state and federal policymakers that small businesses are not smaller versions of big businesses and do not always benefit — and are more often harmed — from one-size-fits-all laws, rules, and regulations. As a small-business owner herself, Ronda fundamentally understands that, and, given her grassroots organizing abilities, can drive home the point with more emphasis.”

A native Montanan, Wiggers was raised on a farm in the heart of the state’s Golden Triangle. She attended the University of Montana, has held local elected offices, and is very active in her community.

“Since the time I first became actively involved in politics and policy,” said Wiggers, “NFIB has always had a stellar reputation in Montana, and I attribute that to the man I will be replacing. I’m honored to take the hand-off of the torch for Main Street, mom-and-pop enterprises that are the engine of every economy in the world. I’m looking forward to getting started working on small-business issues when the 2021 session of the Montana Legislature commences.”

Added Selvy, “It was with equal feelings of delight in getting someone of Ronda’s caliber to join our team and sadness in losing a great friend and mentor in Riley Johnson, who for 38 years has been the voice of small business in Montana. So much can be learned about someone in those unguarded moments, and when Riley and his fellow state directors would gather at a conference, I would always notice how they delighted in seeing him and valued his wise counsel on difficult issues they were dealing with back in their states.” 

With its founders and researchers, “united in free markets and limited government,” the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has come out with results of two studies that show Montana is about middling when it comes to economic prospects and the performance of its governor. And, the authors make frequent points that one ranking might have a lot to do with another.

Montana Governor Steve Bullock scored but 3 of a possible 5 stars and ranked 24th among the 50 governors of the country in the first ever ALEC Governors ranking of the 2020 Laffer-ALEC Report on Economic Freedom. The scorecard ranks governors based on policy performance and result, as well as executive leadership before and after the start of the COVID-19 health crisis.

At the beginning of September the study ranked Montana as 48th in the number of COVID deaths per 1 million population… only Alaska, Wyoming and Hawaii had a ratio of fewer deaths. New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts had the most. Montana also had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation.

The ranking shows that good management and balanced budgets have significantly helped states like Texas, Georgia and South Dakota, the governors of which earned five stars.

In their Rich States Poor States ranking, Montana’s best score was 15th in economic performance. Montana comes in 33rd in projecting economic outlook —  six levels higher than last year and the score shows an over-all upward trend from 43rd in 2015. Montana ranked 24th in terms of State Gross Domestic Product , 15th in Absolute Domestic Migration, and 18th in Non-Farm Payroll.

The Economic Outlook Ranking is a forecast based on 15 state policy variables. Each of these factors is influenced directly by state lawmakers through the legislative process, emphasized the authors. Generally speaking, states that spend less — especially on income transfer programs — and states that tax less — particularly on productive activities such as working or investing — experience higher growth rates than states that tax and spend more.

The authors of the studies include Jonathan Williams, ALEC Chief Economist and Executive Vice President of Policy, who founded ALEC Center for State Fiscal Reform in 2011. He co-authors Rich States, Poor States: ALEC-Laffer Economic State Competitiveness Index with Reagan economist Dr. Arthur Laffer, Stephen Moore and Bill Meierling.

The numbers that help Montana’s standing include the impacts of not having a sales tax. The state is also bolstered by the fact that Montana has no estate or inheritance tax. The ranking is also bolstered by having a low level of debt at 4.6 percent, which taxpayers would otherwise have to be looking at repaying.

These positives are outweighed to a great extent by the fact that Montana’s other taxes are relatively onerous with rankings such as 33rd for top marginal personal income tax rate; 25th which reflects an increase of $18.12 per $1000 of income; or Top Marginal Corporate Income Tax Rate; 37th for Property Tax Burden which is $35.39 per $1000 of personal income. Montana ranks 32nd in terms of the number of public employees per 10,000, at 538.3.

And, Montana gets dinged as being dead-last, for not being a right-to-work state, and it sinks to 34th for not having tax expenditure limits.

Ranking first in economic performance is Utah, which has ranked in first place for 13 years in a row.

Utah is followed by Wyoming and then Idaho.

At the bottom is California, Illinois and New Jersey, Vermont, with New York dead last.

The authors said that they would like to see more states immolate the management policies of Utah, South Dakota or Wyoming. Among the common themes of the states at the top of their ranking is having balanced budgets and being “right to work states.”

So how has Utah maintained top ranking for 13 year? “A lot goes into that,” said Jonathan Williams, “They have kept a disciplined approach to budget and spending. They created a flat tax from a graduated income tax system, and they made innovative property tax reform… And, finally – something the bond agencies point to – they have prepared for the eventuality that the federal government may not keep up their matches on programs.”

“Another story is Wyoming which is No.  2 —  moving up eight spots.” It is unique in that it is one of two sates that does not have a personal income nor a corporate tax.

Idaho is No. 3.  Indiana is No. 4 and North Carolina is No. 5; both states ten years ago were “in the middle of the pack,” but because of cutting taxes and government reformed they have moved up.”

Ranking 6, 7, and 8 is Nevada, Florida and Tennessee – all states without personal income taxes.

New York has ranked 50th for seven years.

“It is interesting to see [Governor Andrew] Cuomo begging people to return to New York after years of chasing them away,” commented Williams.

Other low rankers are Vermont, Illinois, California, Minnesota, Hawaii, Minnesota and Maine – “states that have the biggest pension liability and the ones most lobbying for a federal bailout — a dangerous idea for federalism.”

Pointed out Steve Moore, there are states that want the federal government to grant them a total of some $750 billion to bail them out of deep debt. “It is unfair to states like Iowa, Idaho and Utah who have balanced their budgets.”

“The COVID crisis has “exposed the states who did not save for a rainy day,” said Jonathan Williams.

While it is noteworthy that many of the states that perform well are states without income taxes, Art Laffer pointed out that Washington  state ranks 37th and it has no income tax – “so that tells you other things matter.”

“When you look at the bottom states, they have the highest tax rates, and then they are doubling down on that,” said Laffer, “….if you look at ten year averages it fits just like a glove on a hand.”

The Rich States Poor States study has been reported for 14 years, and over that time it’s become evident that “income tax rates do have a significantl affect, in fact it is indisputable at this point given what is happening ,” said Steve Moore..

“Looking at U-Haul data, shows the continuation of the trend,” he said, pointing out that there is a consistent migration out of the high-tax states like New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island.

Another example: “Illinois it is a catastrophe . It is so mismanaged … they have a massive unfunded liability in their pension benefits. … these states have put themselves in a big, big hole,” said Moore.

Art Laffer commented on the devolution of New Jersey which in 1965, with neither an income tax nor a sales tax was performing so well economically it was considered a “growth miracle.” But now, “They have flipped completely,” continued Laffer, pointing out that New Jersey has high gift and estate taxes and an inheritance tax.

Weighted down with unfunded government pension programs is one of the greatest problems confronting states that are underwater. “Unfunded pensions are future tax increases,” warned Laffer, and New Jersey has some of the highest unfunded pensions in the US. A prospective business person “sees a sees “a very toxic business environment waiting to hit in the future.”

Pointing out that it is not uncommon for income tax increases to be advanced with the argument that they bring income equality, Steve Moore interjected, “Guess what states that have the greatest income inequality like California, New York or New Jersey, have the highest income inequality.”

Eight businesses are receiving $1,050,260 in business development funding through the Montana Department of Commerce. It is estimated that the funding will support the creation of up to 136 jobs and train new workers at growing businesses in Montana.

Funds will be awarded through two reimbursement programs at the Department of Commerce: The Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund (BSTF) and the Primary Sector Workforce Training Grant (WTG). The two grant programs provide reimbursements to local and county governments and economic development organizations on behalf of businesses for creating good-paying jobs in Montana and training Montanans to fill those jobs.

The following organizations will receive funding for creating jobs and training new workers:

—Big Sky Economic Development Authority will receive up to $66,600 on behalf of Belle Chemical, LLC in Billings, which estimates it will create 18 jobs. Funds will be used to purchase construction materials, equipment and for wage reimbursement. Belle Chemical also will also receive $90,000 from the Primary Sector Workforce Training Grant program to train workers to fill the newly created jobs. Belle Chemical LLC is a chemical manufacturer and packager of consumer products intended for sale online.

—Big Sky Economic Development Authority will receive up to $49,000 on behalf of Wyo-Ben, Inc. in Billings, which estimates it will create 10 jobs. Funds will be used to purchase construction materials, equipment, furniture, fixtures, for lease rate reduction and for wage reimbursement. Wyo-Ben, Inc. is leading producer of Wyoming bentonite clay-based products. The company will be creating another division for bulk commodity cat litter.

—City of Bozeman will receive up to $170,000 to assist XY Planning Networking LLC, which estimates it will create 34 jobs. The grant funds will be used to purchase equipment and for wage reimbursement. XY Planning Network LLC is the leading organization of fee-only financial advisors who specialize in working with Gen X and Gen Y clients, offering comprehensive resources to help financial planners run better and more successful businesses.

—Fergus County will receive up to $70,500 on behalf of Big Sky Processing, LLC in Lewistown, which estimates it will create 15 jobs. Funds will be used to purchase of equipment and for wage reimbursement. Big Sky Processing, LLC will also receive $75,000 from the Primary Sector Workforce Training Grant program to train workers to fill the newly created jobs. Big Sky Processing, LLC will be establishing a U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected mobile meat processing unit in Fergus County.

—Lake County will receive up to $150,000 on behalf of Rocky Mountain Twist Corporation in Ronan, which estimates it will create 20 jobs. Funds will be used to purchase equipment. Rocky Mountain Twist Corporation will also receive $95,480 from the Primary Sector Workforce Training Grant program to train workers to fill the newly created jobs. Rocky Mountain Twist Corporation is a manufacturer of power tool accessories, primarily drill bits, for the retail and industrial markets.

—Missoula County will receive up to $95,000 on behalf of UNAVCO, Inc. in Missoula, which estimates it will create 19 jobs. Funds will be used to purchase equipment and furniture, for lease rate reduction, for wage reimbursement and for equipment relocation. UNAVCO, Inc is a global leader in engineering and data handling for geophysical and environmental sensors.

—Sanders County will receive up to $88,800 on behalf of Agriculture Resource Management, Inc. dba AquaPrawnics, Inc. in Noxon, which estimates it will create 12 jobs. Funds will be used for wage reimbursement. Agriculture Resource Management, Inc. dba AquaPrawnics, Inc. will also receive a $53,030 grant from the Primary Sector Workforce Training Grant program to train workers to fill the newly created jobs. Agriculture Resource Management Inc. dba AquaPrawnics is positioned to become the largest indoor shrimp farm producer.

—Wausau Supply Company will receive up to $46,850 through the Primary Sector Workforce Training Grant Program to train eight new workers. Wausau Supply Company distributes building materials for the industry’s leading manufacturers to authorized retailers from the Great Lakes to the West Coast and is looking to establish a distribution center in Butte.

The next application deadline for the Big Sky Trust Fund Grant Programs is December 16, 2020. In addition, Montana businesses are now eligible to apply directly for workforce recovery grant dollars to help companies refill jobs that were lost due to the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Montana Department of Commerce has launched a temporary Workforce Recovery grant program as part of the Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund (BSTF). The deadline to apply to this temporary program is December 31, 2020.

The Center Square

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has blocked a Trump administration change to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that could have removed eligibility for almost 700,000 unemployed, able-bodied Americans.

A lawsuit filed in January by a multistate coalition alleged a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rule wrongly reversed a decades-old policy that allowed states to waive SNAP work requirements. The previous rules granted waivers for larger geographic areas by lumping certain regions with lower unemployment with locations registering higher unemployment, as well as carryover unused exemptions.

To increase workforce participation, Congress in 1996 amended SNAP benefits to limit disbursements to “Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents” (ABAWD), defined as unemployed individuals ages 18-49 who are not disabled or raising minors. SNAP funds were restricted to three months within three years unless subjects are employed for a minimum of 20 hours per week.

But the law granted states the ability to request waivers for that time limit if the state or part of the state had an unemployment rate above 10%, or did not have a sufficient number of jobs to employ SNAP recipients.

The new rule attempted to revise state discretion for waivers due to economic conditions, define geographic scope waivers, and require the state to rely on the entire population’s unemployment instead of employment for ABAWD.

Critics of the geographic waiver requirements point out that past regulations required the USDA to average different regional unemployment rates so more people receive the waiver, even in regions that are below the unemployment benchmark.

“Geographic-area waivers of work requirements for people who receive food stamps are based on the flawed premise that when the unemployment rate in a given area exceeds a certain level, even in a national economic boom, able-bodied people in that area should not be expected to look for work, whether in that area or in a neighboring city or county,” Jamie Hall, a senior policy analyst in empirical studies at The Heritage Foundation, said.

Hall said that ABAWD work requirement exemptions by geographic waivers account for about double the SNAP caseload expected.

“Geographic waivers are not needed to protect vulnerable citizens’ access to food. Other provisions exist or are available to give states the flexibility they need to provide exemptions from the work requirement for people facing difficulties,” Hall said.

Chief Judge Beryl Howell noted “the backdrop of the pandemic has provided, in stark relief, [the] procedural and substantive flaws” of the rule change.

Within two months of the start of the pandemic, more than 6 million Americans enrolled in SNAP.

The court observed USDA was “silent” on how many of enrollees wouldn’t be eligible for SNAP benefits as a result of USDA’s proposal.

The Administrative Procedure Act requires agencies to offer explanations for changing long-held policies, but the court found the waiver changes were “arbitrary and capricious.”

“SNAP was specifically created to help Americans struggling with food insecurity and as we continue to navigate this pandemic, this assistance is more important than ever,” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a statement.

“Instead of helping Americans at a time when so many are facing hardships, the Trump administration chose to cruelly revoke vital food assistance that thousands of Michigan residents rely on. This is an important victory in favor of human decency.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Michigan’s SNAP rolls surged $126 million from February to May.

The federal government pays the full cost of SNAP benefits but splits administration costs evenly with the states.

The court ruled that USDA’s change violated the federal rulemaking process, and vacated the rule in its entirety.