At Hoven Equipment Company,c Governor Greg Gianforte and Representative Josh Kassmier, R-Fort Benton, celebrated recent reforms to the business equipment tax which permanently eliminate the tax for more than 5,000 small businesses, farms, and ranches.

“Taxing critical business equipment makes it harder to grow a small business and is a wet blanket on job creation,” Gov. Gianforte said. “With hardworking Montanans in mind, we prioritized and secured historic business equipment tax relief, eliminating this tax burden for more than 5,000 Montana small businesses.”

Gov. Gianforte praised Rep. Kassmier, the sponsor of the new law, saying, “I appreciate Rep. Kassmier for championing these reforms so small business owners can grow their operations and create more good-paying Montana jobs.”

Proposed by the governor in his Budget for Montana Families and signed into law in March 2023, Rep. Kassmier’s House Bill 212 cuts taxes for Montana’s small business owners, family farmers, and family ranchers by expanding the business equipment tax exemption from $300,000 to $1 million.

“Montana small businesses, farms, and ranches have been burdened by the business equipment tax for too long,” Rep. Kassmier said. “By raising the business equipment tax exemption to $1 million, small businesses across Montana will be able to save money, invest in their businesses, and be more competitive. I thank Gov. Gianforte for making meaningful tax relief a top priority.”

In 2021, the governor worked with Rep. Kassmier to increase the business equipment tax exemption from $100,000 to $300,000.

Taken together, these reforms eliminate the business equipment tax burden for more than 5,000 small businesses, farms, and ranches.

Montana’s business equipment tax requires businesses, including family farms and ranches, to reallocate resources they would otherwise invest in their operation and create jobs with to pay a tax on the equipment and machinery they need to operate.

The business equipment tax also imposes a costly compliance burden, with businesses required to inventory and report their equipment to the state each year.

Reducing the burden of the business equipment tax on Montanans, Rep. Kassmier’s new law encourages business investment and promotes job creation.

During the press conference, small business owners and agricultural producers praised the recent reforms.

Klayton Lohr, treasurer for the Montana Grain Growers Association, said, “I’m a small farmer southeast of Shelby, and this business equipment tax being raised to a million dollars in exemption is huge for me – being a small operator, that will encompass most of my equipment.”

Praising the governor and Rep. Kassmier, Cyndi Johnson, state president of Montana Farm Bureau Federation, added, “We really appreciate all of your work on behalf of Montana farmers and ranchers. This effort of yours to lower business equipment tax is right in line with the Montana Farm Bureau policy down the line.”

Finally, Brian Hoven, owner of Hoven Equipment Company, said, “It takes investment to create jobs, and that’s what the governor’s done. He’s put more money in the pockets of job creators that have the opportunity to create jobs.”

With locations in Lewistown and Great Falls, Hoven Equipment carries new and used farm and construction equipment.

By Casey Harper, The Center Square

A new U.S. Department of Labor regulatory effort could impact retirement plans by requiring them to monitor whether plan members access electronic communications, a cost that may be passed on to consumers.

Chair of the Education and the Workforce Committee, U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., sent a letter to the Employee Benefits Security Administration raising concerns about the federal agency’s Request for Information, a document suggesting the agency will add more regulatory burden onto retirement accounts.

More regulations could mean more fees and higher costs for some Americans with retirement plans.

“The RFI includes several questions targeting the paper statement requirement enacted in section 338 of SECURE 2.0,” said the letter to EBSA Assistant Secretary Lisa Gomez. “These RFI questions contemplate amendments to DOL regulations well beyond the provisions of section 338. Congress’ directives to the Secretary of Labor in section 338 are clear, specific, and intentionally limited. This letter is intended to remind DOL of its obligation to comply with the statutory provisions of section 338, as limited by Congress.”

The rule in question came after Congress passed SECURE 2.0 last year, a bill that made several legal changes to encourage employers and employees to build retirement accounts.

Foxx said the federal government’s interpretation of that law, though, may go too far, adding unnecessary regulatory burdens.

“RFI Question 21 contemplates additional, and very significant, regulatory requirements not authorized by Congress,” the letter said. “Question 21 asks, ‘should [DOL’s electronic delivery guidance] be modified such that their continued use by plans is conditioned on access in fact?’ To require a plan administrator to monitor electronic access is as ridiculous as requiring a plan administrator to confirm that a participant opens and reads paper mail.

Montana ranks #7 in the nation for interest in homeschooling (1.58 per 100,000 residents), according to Age of Learning. Montana residents 327% more likely to search for homeschool info than Nebraska residents.

New Education Bills Would Block CRT, Back Parents

By Casey Harper, The Center Square

A new trio of House education bills would push back on Critical Race Theory and federal rules in local public schools, the latest in an ongoing battle led by Republicans to respond to curriculum and policy changes in education.

U.S. Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., introduced the three new education bills, including the Defending Students’ Civil Rights Act, which codifies that teaching CRT is illegal discrimination; as well as the Empowering Parents Act, which allows parents to hold schools accountable if those schools embrace more progressive racial or gender ideology in the classroom.

Good also introduced the Empowering Local Curriculum Act, which says schools receiving federal dollars cannot be forced to include CRT in their curriculum.

“These three bills would combat federal encroachment in curriculum, protect students from the harmful ideology of Critical Race Theory, and defend parents’ God-given right to educate their children,” Good’s office said.

CRT is an increasingly controversial set of ideas based on the idea that the U.S. is an inherently racist country and always has been and that the U.S. and its institutions can largely be viewed through that lens.

“Parents know what is best for their students and have primary responsibility for their children’s education,” Good said. “Local school boards should represent the will of the parents, not teachers unions, the Biden Administration or DC bureaucrats. I am fighting back against the Biden Administration’s overreach into the classroom with my back-to-school agenda that empowers parents, protects students from racist curriculum, and permits children to focus on their academic pursuits.”

The bills come amid a nationwide debate over the role of parents in their kids’ education. Parents have begun organizing and protesting at school boards, raising concerns about school curriculum and sexualized books in school libraries.

Those parents have often been brushed aside in recent years, sometimes caught on camera in videos that went viral and fueled the “parental rights” movement.

Democrats have pushed back, saying teachers know best what curriculum is needed and that the effort to ban books that Republicans say are age-inappropriate is a form of censorship.

In recent years, equity and CRT ideology in education has become increasingly common with billions of taxpayer dollars behind it.

House Republicans launched an inquiry last year after reports showed that federal funding passed for COVID-related student learning loss was spent to promote “equity warriors,” critical race theory teachings and more at local schools.

The Center Square previously reported on similar funding at the collegiate level. Federal grant documents show that the U.S. Department of Education awarded millions of dollars to a Florida-based education program that trains future educators and other professionals in CRT.

Another similar program, “The Research Institute for Scholars of Equity,” received millions of taxpayer dollars for training college students in critical race theory at several higher educational institutions.

Good is not the only lawmaker raising concerns about progressive ideology in schools and introducing legislation.

U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., in July reintroduced the Protect Equality and Civics Education (PEACE) Act, a bill that would prevent tax dollars from promoting CRT within the Department of Education’s American history guidelines, which have increasingly incorporated those ideas.

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has also introduced the Combating Racist Training in the Military Act as well as the Stop Critical Race Theory Act.

Good’s legislative effort has received support from several family and education groups.

“The Empowering Local Curriculum Act will end funding for schools promoting divisive ideologies like Critical Race theory that separate students into opposing categories of victims vs oppressors simply based on the color of their skin,” Terry Schilling, president of American Principles Project, said in a statement. “The Defending Students’ Civil Rights Act clarifies that position further by outlining how such a practice violates these children’s Civil Rights, an offense actionable by law. And finally, the Empowering Parents Act ensures that these children, their rights, and their innocence are being protected, not by a distant bureaucracy that can be bought out by well-funded organizations, but by those who have their best interests at heart: their parents.”

Matt Buckham, executive director for Institute for Educational Reform, backed the bills as well, calling out a recurring point of criticism: politicization of schools.

“Government teacher unions push the toxic political agenda of the Democratic party along with their radical lies through Critical Race Theory and woke ideology,” Buckman said in a statement.

By Bethany Blankley, The Center Square

Texas has bused more than 50,000 people who’ve illegally entered the U.S. and were unlawfully released into the U.S., Gov. Greg Abbott said Friday.

The majority have been bused to New York City, followed by Chicago, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Denver and Los Angeles.

Abbott began the busing strategy in April 2022. He first sent foreign nationals who illegally entered the U.S. in Texas to Washington, D.C. Since then, over 12,500 people chose to be transported to the nation’s capital.

Last year, he expanded the strategy to send people to New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia. Since last August, Texas bused more than 18,500 people to New York City and over 13,500 people to Chicago. Since last November, Texas bused over 3,200 people to Philadelphia.

The majority have been bused to New York City, followed by Chicago, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Denver and Los Angeles.

This year, he began busing people to Denver and Los Angeles. So far, more than 3,200 people have arrived in Denver since May 18 and over 940 to Los Angeles since June 14.

The governor recently directed additional buses to Eagle Pass and El Paso, Texas, after a surge of people came roughly two weeks ago. He said he was sending them to self-declared sanctuary cities to provide much-needed relief to overrun Texas border towns.

Montana roads are getting safer, according to Quote Wizard. Their analysts found that traffic fatalities have decreased by 14 percent in Montana over the past year – that’s the 3rd biggest decrease nationwide.

Key findings for Montana:

* 206 people were killed on roadways in 2022

* Smaller city roads had an 8% decrease in traffic fatalities nationwide

* Nationally, Connecticut and New Hampshire had the largest increases in traffic fatalities while Idaho and Rhode Island had the biggest decreases

By Chris Woodward, The Center Square

Montana sold 52 million board feet of timber from State Trust Land in fiscal year 2023, state agencies announced this week.

Those sales resulted in $8 million in revenue, according to the governor’s office and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. In Montana, revenue from agriculture, grazing and recreation on State Trust Land is allocated to public schools and other public education.

Gov. Greg Gianforte said in a statement that state goals for timber production means “reduced wildfire risk, improved forest health, and greater predictability and certainty for the wood products industry” in Montana.

?DNRC?s commitment to responsible forest management has led to exceptional outcomes,?ÿForest Management Bureau Chief Dan Rogersÿsaid. ?Montana?s State Trust Land serves as a vital source for regional forest products, and we’re proud to provide a steady supply of timber while supporting local economies.?

Montana reported 51 million board feet of timber in fiscal year 2022, 64.1 million in 2021, and 45.5 million in 2020.ÿ

“In Montana, schools and other public institutions are funded in part by revenue generated from certain state-owned lands ? those state lands are Trust Land,” the state’s website says. “Montana state trust lands are working lands. These lands are held in trust for the perpetual yield of revenues to support Montana?s public education institutions.”

By Cristina Enache, The Tax Foundation

In recent years, European countries have undertaken a series of tax reforms designed to maintain tax revenue levels while protecting households and businesses from high inflation.

These policies include reducing value-added taxes (VAT) and excise duties, indexing the income tax to inflation, and cutting tax rates for low-income families. Some countries introduced temporary windfall profits taxes while others reduced environmental taxes.

Nevertheless, according to an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report, many countries experienced an increase in tax revenues after the pandemic while growth outpaced the rate of GDP expansion.

If this trend is to continue through 2022 and 2023, it would suggest that governments used this inflationary scenario to raise more revenue, rather than protecting citizens from inflation.

The largest increases in tax-to-GDP ratio were observed in Norway, Lithuania, Spain, and Germany. The main drivers behind the revenue increases were corporate taxes and VATs. On the other hand, eight European countries registered a decline in their tax-to-GDP ratio with Hungary registering the largest fall at 2.2 percentage points.

By Lauren Jessop, The Center Square

The federal government’s electrified vision for the nation’s transportation sector needs a modernized power grid to support it – and experts say they need it now.

More concerning still, they say, upgrades aren’t on track to meet the Biden administration’s 2035 target for an electric vehicle takeover.

That’s because shoring up grid capacity, moderating the variability of renewable energy, and appeasing duplicative government regulations complicate the process, creating doubts about whether these goals are attainable at the scope and pace being set. 

Robert Charette – a longtime systems engineer, contributing editor for IEEE Spectrum, and author of “The EV Transition Explained” – said simultaneously transforming the transportation and energy sectors “will involve a huge number of known and unknown variables, which will subtly interact in complex, unpredictable ways … and each proposed solution will probably create new difficulties.”

Lehigh Valley engineer James M. Daley, PE, a member of the IEEE Standards Association – with decades-long experience developing criteria addressing the interconnection of new energy technologies to the electric grid – told The Center Square that “variable renewable energy already has an impact on the resiliency of the national grid.”

“The introduction of EVs will only serve to exacerbate the issue,” he said.

It’s important, he said, to differentiate between renewable energy, or RE, and variable renewable energy, or VRE. For example, geothermal, nuclear, and hydroelectric are considered RE, whereas wind and solar are VRE. 

The distinction between the two is made because wind and solar power are contingent on weather and atmospheric conditions, while other sources are constant sources of energy.

A dramatic demonstration of that system vulnerability, Daley said, occurred in Texas in 2021, when a winter storm severely impacted their wind turbines. The blades iced up, ceased to produce energy, and grid operators brought on their natural gas-fired turbine generators. With high demand for residential and commercial heating, the remaining supply was insufficient to make up for the loss of wind power – resulting in outages affecting millions of customers for days. 

The Texas Department of State Health Services later confirmed 246 people died during the deep freeze, close to two-thirds of which succumbed to hypothermia.

Daley analyzed solar insolation data from 14 national weather stations from Maine to Florida, finding southern states have a 25% difference – a significant advantage – in harvesting solar energy. This should be kept in focus when deciding what form of renewable energy is to be harvested, he said.

Daley is one of an increasing number of people adding solar panels to their homes. He harvested almost 47% more energy than he used, but his utility company still had to provide 63.3% of his electricity. 

“You harvest energy during the day when the sun is out, but you use energy 24 hours a day – so on rainy days and in the evening, your energy comes from the utility company,” he said.

Typically, energy harvested from renewable sources is used immediately, and not stored, so any excess is sent to the grid where it can be distributed to others. The utility company applies credits to your bill for that energy.

Swiftwater Solar, an 80MW facility awaiting approval in Monroe County, will encompass 476 acres and is estimated to provide power to approximately 14,000 homes. Daley says that’s a lot of virgin forest to lose. 

There are debates over whether solar panels reduce carbon dioxide emissions more per acre than trees, and on other tradeoffs such as area aesthetics and loss of wildlife habitat. Offshore wind projects have also created controversy over their potential effects on marine life. 

Daley said currently, the largest source of non-polluting energy is nuclear power. 

Energy generation technologies are rated for their capacity – a measure of reliability, or how often a plant is running at maximum power. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, in 2021, nuclear plants were the highest rated at more than 92.7%. 

Geothermal received a 71% rating; natural gas 54%; coal 49.3%; hydropower 37.1%; wind 34.6%; and solar 24.6%.

Creating energy is one issue, but the bigger problem is transferring it to the grid because transmission infrastructure needs a massive upgrade. 

The DOE says that to meet growing clean electricity demands, transmission systems need a 60% expansion by 2030, and possibly tripled by 2050. 

The department admits “building transmission is difficult, time-consuming, and hard to get over the finish line.” As a result, the large amount of potential clean power capacity is gridlocked due to wait times and costs of connecting to the transmission grid. 

Alleviating the issue, they say, will require a collaborative, holistic approach, engaging other federal agencies, state and local governments, American Indian and Alaska Native tribal nations, industry, unions, local communities, environmental justice organizations, and other stakeholders. It will also require changes to transmission planning and generator interconnection processes.

Charette says any hope of having a carbon-free electricity grid by 2035 involves adding tens of thousands of miles of new transmission lines to the more than 600,000 circuit miles of existing alternating current (AC) transmission lines. 

He cites a report showing that from 2010 to 2020, only 18,000 miles of new transmission lines were added to the grid, with only 386 added in 2021. Currently, there are only 5,000 miles on track for delivery between now and 2025. 

Further, Charette adds, the local electricity distribution network needs to be upgraded as well, with new substations being built and tens of thousands of line transformers in need of replacement.

The proximate causes for the slow progress, he says, are numerous competing federal and state regulations that must be followed, as well as possible landowner objections. As a result, new projects can take a decade or more to complete, and often double or triple in cost – if they get built at all. 

Daley said these challenges mean a 100% renewable energy future “will never happen.”

The City of Billings, in partnership with the Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID), the Billings Chamber of Commerce, and Big Sky Economic Development has been awarded a $1,000,000 Small Community Air Service Development Program (SCASD) grant by the United States Department of Transportation to recruit, initiate, and support new air service between Billings and one of two California hubs—San Francisco or Los Angeles.

“This SCASD grant is a very effective tool in our community’s ongoing air service development effort. We were successful in bringing American Airlines service to Billings with the last SCASD grant and I am looking forward to the new air service this grant will generate,” shared Jeff Roach, Director of Aviation and Transit for the City of Billings.

According to Billings Chamber of Commerce President/CEO John Brewer, Southern California is one of the top destinations for Billings residents that is currently without direct service. “Direct service to the Los Angeles or San Francisco area would grow our visitor economy and provide residents with a better quality of life via better travel options for leisure, visiting family, and work,” he added.

This is the second time the City of Billings has been awarded the prestigious SCASD grant, and an exciting development in the community-wide effort to increase Air Service frequency and availability from the Billings airport.

“Increasing Air Service is a strategic priority for the businesses and communities we serve. We’re pleased to see that our government partners recognize our efforts and continue to support us as we expand our air service partnerships,” shared Ashley Kavanagh, Senior Director of Recruitment and Community Development at Big Sky Economic Development.

The City of Billings, the Tourism Business Improvement District, Billings Chamber of Commerce, and Big Sky Economic Development continue to partner with key stakeholders to increase air service in the Billings market and have a goal of providing a local match in funding to maximize the federal grant.

AARP’s new Long-Term Services and Supports (LTSS) Scorecard finds that more than three years after the COVID-19 pandemic began, care provided in the United States for older adults and people with disabilities is painfully inadequate. The report finds that major gaps persist in every state, including Montana, especially related to Safety & Quality; Choice of Setting & Provider; and Affordability & Access.

 Ranking #33 in the country, Montana has made some progress to improve care options for older adults, including “Assisted Living Supply” meaning assisted living and residential care units per 1,000 population (ages 75+). However, the report shows there is still much more to be done to keep up with the rapidly changing needs of an aging population. Montana dropped six slots since the last score card was issued in 2021, Montana was ranked #27 in the country.

 “The pandemic reinforced the need to strengthen long-term care for loved ones across the country, including in Montana,” said Mike Batista AARP Montana Director of Government Affairs. “AARP’s Scorecard shows that there are many roads to meet the needs of all Montanans who deserve the very best care, including the 112,000 family caregivers in our state. It’s time to accelerate our efforts.”

 Additional key findings from the report include:

 Family Caregiving

* Only six states, including Montana, provide a tax credit for family caregivers’ out-of-pocket expenses. Oklahoma enacted a caregiver tax credit bill in June, after data for the Scorecard was collected. Family caregivers on average spend $7,242 per year on out-of-pocket costs.

 Home Based Services

* There has been a surge in older adults receiving long-term care at home, rather than in nursing homes and other institutions. For the first time, more than half (53%) of Medicaid LTSS spending for older people and adults with physical disabilities went to Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS). This is up from 37% in 2009. HCBS includes support for home health care aides, respite services, assistive technology and home modifications and other services.

o The average annual per person cost of home care in 2021 was $42,000.

o Montana ranked near the bottom at #42 for “Home Care Cost” meaning the median annual home care private pay cost as a percentage of median household income, (ages 65+). 

* Many states have large numbers of people with low care needs living in nursing homes, indicating a lack of HCBS access and services. More than 20% of residents in Montana have residents with low needs, compared to 9% nationally.  

Nursing Homes and Institutional Care

* A major workforce crisis exists in nursing home care. Across all states, wages for direct care workers are lower than wages for comparable occupations, with shortfalls ranging from $1.56 to $5.03 per hour. In Montana, wages are $2.28 lower than other entry level jobs.

o Nationally, more than half of nursing staff in nursing homes leave their job within a year (53.9% turnover rate). In Montana, the rate is above the average, at 63.2%, with Montana, Vermont, and New Mexico experiencing the highest averages in the nation in staffing turnover.

o Staffing disparities are a significant challenge. Residents of nursing homes with high admissions of Black residents receive almost 200 fewer hours of care per year compared to residents of nursing homes with high admissions of white residents.  

* Nationally, only 22% of nursing home residents live in a facility with a 5-star rating; about 33.7% of Montana residents live in a 5-star facility. Gaps in workforce and equity result in persistent problems in care. For instance, about 10% of nursing home residents nationwide experienced a pressure sore. Pressure sores can be life-threatening as they can lead to bone or joint infections, cancer, and sepsis. 

“COVID-19 tested our long-term care systems, and they failed. Now is the time to take the lessons we’ve learned to fix them, for the sake of saving lives,” said Susan Reinhard, Senior Vice President, AARP Public Policy Institute. “AARP’s LTSS Scorecard shows some progress and innovation, but there’s still a long way to go before we have systems that allow people to age well and independently for as long as possible and support the nation’s 48 million family caregivers. It’s also clear some emerging issues deserve more attention – from whether nursing homes are prepared to confront natural disasters, to whether they have plans in place to maintain and grow their workforces.”