The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) announced that Five Mile Road is now open to the public. Finishing work taking place will include epoxy striping in mid-September and final seeding and erosion control blankets in mid-October.

According to the Beer Institute, “Taxes are the single most expensive ingredient in beer, costing more than the labor and raw materials combined.”

Research has shown that approximately 40 percent of the retail price of beer is dedicated toward covering all the applicable taxes.

Tennessee, Alaska, and Hawaii levy the highest beer excise tax rates in the country, while Wyoming, Missouri, and Wisconsin have the lowest rates. Tennessee’s tax is $1.07 per gallon and in Wyoming the tax is 2 cents a gallon.

Montana’s tax is on the low end at 14 cents a gallon, ranking the state 40th.

Meanwhile across the pond in Europe, the EU countries with the highest excise taxes on beer are Finland, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.

On the lower end, Bulgaria, Germany, Luxembourg, Romania, and Spain levy the lowest rate (EU’s minimum rate of €0.03 per beer bottle).

Despite economic setbacks imposed because of COVID-19 concerns, Montana has remained financially resilient, with adequate reserves to meet this year’s fire season, according to Governor Steve Bullock. 

State Government ended the fiscal year under budget which allowed the transfer of $46. million to the fire fund. This puts the fire fund at its statutory maximum of $101.5 million, or 4% of fiscal year 2021 appropriations, for the first time in history, enough to cover nearly five average years of state wildfire suppression costs, said the Governor.

Additionally, the Budget Stabilization Reserve remains at its statutory maximum, which is $114.2 million or 4.5% of fiscal year appropriations. This represents the second year in a row that the Budget Stabilization Reserve has been funded to its statutory cap and it is available to sustain the budget should revenue collections or expenditures vary from projections.

The balances of the general fund, the fire fund, and the Budget Stabilization Reserve total $620 million as the 2021 fiscal year begins.

The Billings Yellowstone County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) is seeking public input regarding six feasible alternatives to the downtown Billings traffic system that were identified by a recent study. Public input is being collected on the alternatives in an online survey; the deadline to participate is September 15, 2020. Public input will be used to steer future planning efforts. (The MPO is the same as the Policy Coordinating Committee)

The feasible alternatives being posed for public consideration include:

*North and South One-Way to Two-Way Conversions – Converts remaining north and south one-way streets between Division Street and North 24th Street to two-way operation and provides potential bicycle facilities consistent with the City’s Bikeways & Trails Master Plan.

*2nd Avenue N & 3rd Avenue N One-Way to Two-Way Conversions – Converts the one-way segments of 2nd Avenue N and 3rd Avenue N between Division Street and North 22nd Street to two-way operation and provides potential bicycle facilities consistent with the City’s Bikeways & Trails Master Plan.

*Montana Avenue Road Diet (Division Street to 18th Street) – Reduces Montana Avenue from three lanes to two lanes from Division Street to North 18th Street, provides potential bicycle facilities consistent with the City’s Bikeways & Trails Master Plan, and maximizes on-street parking.

*6th Avenue N Road Diet (Main Street to North 13th Street) – Reduces 6th Avenue N from five lanes to four lanes from Main Street to North 13th Street and provides a potential bicycle facility consistent with the City’s Bikeways & Trails Master Plan.

*13th Street Road Diet between 6th Avenue North and 1st Avenue North – Converts North 13th Street to a two-lane roadway with or without a center turn lane and provides potential bicycle facilities consistent with the City’s Bikeways & Trails Master Plan.

*Broadway Street Seasonal Closure – Creates a festival street by seasonally closing Broadway Street to vehicles between 1st Avenue North and 2nd Avenue North.

Members of the public are encouraged to participate in an online survey available at https:// dowl. mysocialpinpoint .com/ downtown- billings- traffic- study.

The site offers the opportunity to provide specific feedback on the proposed alternatives through an online survey, a budgeting tool to help prioritize how funds are allocated, and a digital bulletin board for other thoughts and perspectives. A link to the full Downtown Billings Traffic Study document and general project information are also available.

Following the public feedback deadline, the findings will be documented in a report and presented to the MPO and community leaders.

Direct comments, questions, or concerns to Lisa Olmsted at or by calling (406) 869-6329.

From Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation 

In 2019, nonresident travelers spent $3.77 billion throughout Montana, a 5.4% increase from the previous year. Over 12.6 million nonresidents visited in 2019.

Research by the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research reveals a different story in 2020. Nearly all of the second quarter was shut down to travelers this year due to the pandemic, creating a jolt to that yearly injection of money and visitors into Montana’s economy. The second quarter generally accounts for a bit more than 20% of annual traveler spending in the state.

Additionally, the latest available statistics by the National Park Service show big visitation declines in June in Montana’s Glacier and Yellowstone national park. Glacier was down 62% during June 2020, and Yellowstone was down 32% in June compared to that month a year ago. July figures are not yet available for Glacier, but Yellowstone actually experienced a 2% increase in visitors when compared to July 2019.

In general, when the two national parks do well, Montana’s tourism does well. As travelers drive to the parks, they spend extra time in Montana just to get there.

“What we expect to see, however, is a change in nonresident spending patterns for 2020,” said Jeremy Sage, ITRR associate director. “For example, with nervousness about dining in, we expect higher spending in the grocery and snack categories and less in restaurants and bars.”

Fuel always has been a high expenditure by nonresidents visiting Montana, but this year gasoline prices are lower than they have been in the past 20 years.

“The conundrum for fuel spending is that the pandemic actually encourages people to drive around more for sight-seeing while on vacation and spend less time stopping at museums and other attractions because they are either closed or people are uncomfortable being in indoor settings,” Sage said. “So fuel spending could be on par with other years in terms of average daily spending in that category.”

Accommodations, as well as restaurants and bars, are taking a big hit in 2020, ITRR Director Norma Nickerson said.

“A recent survey of tourism-related business – the fourth in a series of surveys – is showing that accommodation owners are still seeing cancellations and fewer reservations compared to the same months last year,” she said.

Seventy-eight percent (121 respondents) of the accommodations owners in the survey reported decreased reservations for August, with an average decrease of 52% compared to August last year.

Similarly, declines in September reservations average 61%, and winter reservations are down 66% compared to the same time last year.

“In general, however, visitors are waiting to make last-minute decisions on travel as they watch the number of COVID-19 cases go up or down and their comfort level of traveling changes based on those numbers,” Nickerson said.

Campgrounds are an exception to the general decrease in accommodation business. Nationally, there are reported spikes in recreational vehicle sales and rentals. Campground respondents in the ITRR tourism business survey basically agree. Twelve of the 14 campground owners (85%) said inquiries are up or have stayed the same.

“So it’s business as usual for the camping industry, except, of course, for the extra cleaning, mask-wearing and social distancing,” Nickerson said.

In normal years, Montana’s six travel regions and 16 of the counties with the highest levels of nonresident spending have shown that visitation and spending is widespread throughout the state and that all regions benefit.

In the most recent 2019 figures from ITRR, the Yellowstone and Glacier travel regions received 34% and 31% of all nonresident spending, while Gallatin and Flathead counties, located within those regions, accounted for 25% and 16% respectively of all nonresident spending in the state.

How different will these numbers be in 2020?

The Glacier and Yellowstone regions, home to Montana’s two iconic national parks, receive the majority of nonresident travel spending, according to Kara Grau, the ITRR assistant director of economic analysis.

“In 2019, both those regions received over 30% of traveler spending,” Grau said. “We expect those regions to continue to lead the state in nonresident spending in 2020 but realize that overall traveler spending will take a big hit this year due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, closures in the parks and consumer hesitancy in travel.”  

From Oil Patch Hotline

The North Dakota State Supreme Court last week backed up the contention of mineral owners along the edge of Missouri River near Williston that the state wrongly grabbed their mineral ownership and the result could be a huge payout.

The State does not have any claim or hold title as sovereign lands to any minerals above the Ordinary High Water Mark of the historical Missouri riverbed channel, the court said about the  William S. Wilkinson case brought against the ND Dept. of Trust Lands, Statoil, Brigham Oil and Gas and others.

“I t’s a historic win for North Dakota mineral owners/landowners against the State, said attorney Josh Swanson.  “The Supreme Court categorically rejected all of the State’s arguments, affirmed the fact that the Wilkinsons own the minerals, and is allowing the Wilkinsons to go back to the district court to pursue money damages against the State.”

As much as $1 million could be distributed to 14 mineral owners on 286 acres on the edge of Missouri River.

Protect Our Care Montana was joined by Reps. Debo Powers and Dave Fern, Executive Director of Flathead Community Health Center, Mary Sterhan, and Kalispell City Councilman Kyle Watermen on an a call to discuss the new healthcare navigator grant program during a meeting that recognized the third anniversary of Senator John McCain’s thumbs-down vote to that would have repealed Affordable Care Act. 

 Speakers spoke with elected leaders supporting ongoing efforts to eliminate the Affordable Care Act in court. They said that the stakes have never been higher to protect the Affordable Care Act and Montana’s Medicaid, given the current concerns about COVID-19. 

 Waterman, councilman for Ward 3 in Kalispell, called upon his experiences working with Montanans facing health challenges, “Medicaid expansion has allowed us to expand services in our community and move care upstream for issues like mental health.”

Discussing Montana’s Medicaid program and the change it’s brought to the Flathead area, Sterhan emphasized the impact Medicaid expansion has had on the state. She pointed out that programs like Montana’s Medicaid allow healthcare providers, like her, to approach health holistically and begin working with patients early instead of having to provide emergency or critical care later. 

 Sterhan also applauded Governor Steve Bullock’s announcement of $1 million health coverage Navigator grant program in the state. She confirmed Flathead Community Health currently has two navigators working with the public and the patients and will be applying for grant funds to increase that outreach. 

 Reps. Powers and Fern lauded the impact the ACA has had in their community and stressed what they believe would be the unintended impacts of repeal, including economic hardship for nearly 90,000 as they struggle to find healthcare.

The following Montana Bank Board appointments have been announced.

* Bill Davies, Billings. Qualification: Active officer of a national bank doing business in Montana. Davies is the Regional President for the Montana Northwest Wyoming Region for U.S. Bank.

* Tony Ennenga, Bozeman. Qualification: Member of the public who is not an officer, director or shareholder of a bank. Ennenga is a Certified Public Accountant in private practice.

* Tom Swenson, Missoula. Qualification: Active officer in state bank of Montana. Swenson is the Founder, Director and CEO of Bank of Montana and Bancorp of Montana Holding Company.

The Center Square

On June 30, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 opinion that the application of Article X, Section 6, of Montana’s Constitution (Montana’s Blaine Amendment) violated the free exercise clause of the U.S. Constitution. The majority held that the application of the state’s Blaine Amendment was unconstitutional because it barred religious schools and parents who wished to send their children to those schools from receiving public benefits because of the religious character of the school.

Blaine Amendments refer to language in state constitutions that prohibit public funding for schools or educational institutions run by religious organizations. The language in each state constitution varies. Blaine Amendments are named after an amendment to the U.S. Constitution—sponsored by James Gillespie Blaine—that was proposed but never passed.

Thirty-seven states have Blaine Amendments in their constitutions as of 2020. Louisiana’s Blaine Amendment was repealed by voters in 1974.

In 31 states, the existing versions of Blaine Amendments were included when the state’s most recent constitution or constitutional revision was ratified by voters, which means voters did not vote specifically on the Blaine Amendment but rather considered an entirely new constitution or a larger set of revisions that contained the Blaine Amendment language. In six states, Blaine Amendments were added through specific constitutional amendments, at least three of which were referred to the ballot by constitutional revision commissions.

In Utah and South Carolina, the states’ Blaine Amendments were amended to remove the prohibition against indirect public funding of religious schools, leaving a prohibition against direct public funding.

By Dan Nordberg and Brent Donnelly

As leaders within the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), we have the privilege to partner with businesses and entrepreneurs pursuing their American Dream – even amidst extreme challenges. Last week, we visited Bozeman, Butte, and Belgrade to learn how local businesses are weathering the pandemic, and we were encouraged to hear about the ways so many not only kept their businesses viable but went above and beyond to support their community.

Take Bridger Brewing Company, for example. Known in the area for locally sourced pizza and brews, Bridger has made community partnerships a central component of their business model. When the coronavirus pandemic impaired their ability to continue business-as-usual, Bridger applied for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan through the SBA to supplement their income and keep their employees on payroll. Because of the financial flexibility provided by this loan, the restaurant committed to serving their community in one of the ways they know best: they delivered free pizza to fire stations, non-profits, and other first responders.

Mountain Hot Tub was also impacted by the economic challenges of recent months. An integral part of local tourism efforts, Mountain Hot Tubs experienced challenges based on the supply chains of national manufacturers. Though business was uncertain and they weren’t getting the inventory they needed, the hot tub retailer was able to bring back their entire staff through the help of a PPP loan. Kelly King, Mountain Hot Tubs’ co-owner and president, said the PPP allowed them to change their mindset from insecurity to innovation, and they utilized the time of reduced sales to dig into business strategy and consider opportunities for forward advancement.

These stories are just a few that demonstrate the incredible actions of your business community, and the SBA is honored to play a part in making them possible. In recent months, more than 30,000 Montana businesses have received over $2.2 billion in SBA loans. These dollars fueled local economies, made sure families continued to receive paychecks, and kept hometown businesses afloat.

Visiting your region, we were reminded that so much good is happening despite the challenges around us. People are giving back to the community. Neighbors are helping neighbors. Companies are going the extra mile. Yes, times are tough, but by investing in local businesses, we’re truly building a foundation for a stronger tomorrow.

We are profoundly grateful to your local business community for hosting us last week. Together, we’ll continue empowering Montana entrepreneurs to serve their hometowns and pursue their American Dream. To learn more about the PPP or other SBA programs, visit

Dan Nordberg serves as the National Director for Rural Affairs for the U.S. Small Business Administration, and Brent Donnelly serves as Director for the SBA Montana District Office.