Center Square

For the first time ever, California posted a population decline in 2020, and the United States as a whole didn’t fare much better. Its growth has decelerated to 0.35% year-over-year, the slowest growth rate since the Great Depression.
Population experts blame the slowing growth rate on three big trends: families across the country are aging and having fewer kids, legal immigration has declined, and economic hardships extending all the way back to the dot-com crash have shifted priorities away from marriage and families. While some contributing factors are down across the board, other social and economic factors have disproportionately impacted specific counties and states, exacerbating the problems for certain areas.
This latest decline in population growth at the national level is primarily the result of a lower birth rate and reduced immigration during the Trump administration. The U.S. birth rate has slowed for six years in a row to 11.4 births per 1,000 people in 2020—resulting in the fewest births since 1979, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). From 2019 to 2020, the rate slowed 4%, which was twice as fast as the average slowdown since 2014. It was spread across all age groups of women, though the birth rate for teenagers aged 15 to 19 slowed 8%.
Meanwhile, the growth in immigration peaked in 2015, plateaued in 2016 at 3.3 immigrants per thousand residents, and has slowed markedly in line with new federal immigration policies implemented in 2017. The 2020 rate was down to 1.5 immigrants per thousand.
Since 2010, the population totals of only six states declined, and of those only West Virginia (down 3.7%) and Illinois (down 2%) dropped by more than 1%. It’s a different story over the last five years, though. In addition to West Virginia and Illinois, states losing 1% or more of their population were New York, Hawaii, and Alaska.
In West Virginia, the struggle is primarily with an aging rural population. There are more deaths than births in the state, and rural counties are shrinking nearly three times as fast as urban counties, according to the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy. In Illinois, the population loss has accelerated for seven straight years, per Illinois Policy, due primarily to a lack of housing and employment opportunities, as well as high taxes.
Persistent population loss creates compounding economic, social, and political challenges for the residents who remain. West Virginia and Illinois are among just seven states that recently lost a congressional seat as a result of the 2020 Census population estimates. Other states losing a seat include New York, California, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.
Zooming in on the county level, urban centers stand out for being hardest hit with population loss. CBRE Group research shows that urban centers were the only neighborhood type to see more people move out in 2020 than move in, and it underscores a trend that’s been a decade in the making.

Hoping to recoup billions of dollars in investments, the Canadian company that wanted to build the XL Pipeline is considering suing US taxpayers for compensation.
The government of Alberta had also invested $1.3 billion in the project. After more than a decade and a half of struggling with US federal regulators and politicians, TC Energy abandoned the project, part of which would have passed through Montana.
The lawsuit has been filed against President Biden for allegedly breaching the NAFTA agreement, when he cancelled the project on his first day in office. The Biden administration also faces another lawsuit regarding the Keystone that was filed in March by 21 states, including Montana, which argues the permit for construction of the pipeline should be determined by Congress and not the president.

Governor Greg Gianforte has urged the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to provide Montanans with sufficient opportunity for in-person, public comment on the BLM’s Environmental Assessment of the American Prairie Reserve’s bison grazing proposal.
Despite the impact of the BLM’s proposal on Montanans, the BLM announced it would hold one, remotely conducted public hearing on the proposal. Further, the BLM’s announced public comment period coincides with haying and harvest season, making it more difficult for local farmers and ranchers to participate fully.
“This simply does not constitute an adequate opportunity for public comment and participation,” Governor Gianforte wrote to BLM officials. In the letter, the governor formally requests the BLM hold in-person public hearings in, at a minimum, each of the affected counties – Phillips, Chouteau, Fergus, Petroleum, and Valley. The governor also requests a 45-day extension of the public comment period.
“The Montanans most affected by this proposal spend their days in the field, far from a computer, and in many instances, far from reliable internet service,” the governor wrote. “These Montanans are currently in midst of an unprecedented drought.”
“I ask that the BLM recognize these compounding factors and take action to facilitate comment and public participation in a comprehensive and meaningful manner. As this process moves forward, it is critical for BLM officials to come out from behind their computers and meet in person, face-to-face, with Montanans,” the governor concluded.

The Center Square

The majority of all U.S. counties have been designated as Second Amendment sanctuaries, according to an analysis by
As of June 20, there are 1,930 counties “protected by Second Amendment Sanctuary legislation at either the state or county level,” representing 61% of 3,141 counties and county equivalents in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Texas was the 21st state to pass a constitutional carry bill, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law, and becomes effective Sept. 1. And while some state legislatures are not taking the same action, county officials have chosen to enact their own legislation. Roughly 1,137 counties “have taken it upon themselves to pass Second Amendment Sanctuary legislation and likely hundreds of cities, townships, boroughs, etc. have done so at their level as well,” the site states.
The Second Amendment sanctuary movement was born out of a grassroots effort, brought on by county or municipal leaders who vowed to not enforce any gun laws imposed by state or federal bodies they deemed were unconstitutional.
Sheriffs have also made pledges to uphold the Second Amendment, most recently every sheriff in Utah.
“Importantly, the Second Amendment of our divinely inspired Constitution clearly states … ‘the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed,’” a letter signed by all 29 Utah sheriffs states. “We hereby recognize a significant principle underlying the Second Amendment: the right to keep and bear arms is indispensable to the existence of a free people.”
Upon signing the new Texas law, Abbott said Texas was a Second Amendment Sanctuary state. Months earlier, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts signed a proclamation giving Nebraska the same sanctuary designation. And Missouri Gov. Mike Parson signed a bill that nullifies federal gun laws in the Show Me state.
The movement is growing in light of statements made by President Joe Biden that the federal government will target firearms dealers in an attempt to link the increasing number of homicides occurring in major cities to a lack of gun law enforcement.
“We’ll find you and we will seek your license to sell guns,” Biden said last week.
Attorney General Merrick Garland also recently argued that while the majority of licensed firearms dealers sell to individuals who passed their FBI background check, that the same dealers “willfully violate the law increase the risk that guns will fall into the wrong hands.” He said the administration’s plan was part of a “concerted effort to crack down on gun traffickers.”
One such attempt is the ATF’s proposed new rule to regulate and tax a firearm brace widely used by veterans. The move has been criticized by members of Congress and by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who argues it’s unconstitutional.

Economists across the country are sounding increasingly alarmed about what they see as the possibility of a prolonged period of inflation in the U.S. The concern comes as consumer prices rose by the most in 13 years in June.
According to the Labor Department, the consumer price index increased 0.9 percent last month, the largest gain since June 2008, after advancing 0.6 percent in May.
In the 12 months through June, the CPI jumped 5.4 percent, the largest gain since August 2008. That increase followed a 5.0 percent increase in the 12 months through May. Excluding the volatile food and energy components, the CPI accelerated 0.9 percent after increasing 0.7 percent in May.
The so-called core CPI surged 4.5 percent on a year-on-year basis, the largest increase since November 1991, after rising 3.8 percent in May.
Spurring the inflationary trend is the nearly $6 trillion in the federal governments expenditures as well as low interest rates. Economists are saying that these things, along with the year-long COVID-19 disruptions are “fueling demand, straining the supply chain, and raising prices across the economy.”
Some forecasters are expecting inflation to remain elevated through part of 2022, while others are saying it will last “years.”

The Center Square

The number of students attending public schools during the 2020-2021 academic year fell by roughly 3% compared with the previous year.
The data comes from the National Center for Education Statistics, a federal agency that analyzes education figures.
The 3% drop represents some 1.5 million students according to the preliminary report. A final report will not be available until next spring, according to the NCES. Figures come from reports generated by state departments of education.
There were 51.1 million students enrolled in conventional and public charter schools during the 2019-2020 academic year.
Even more stark is the drop in enrollment among younger students. Preschool enrollment fell by 22%, and preschool and kindergarten enrollment combined dropped 13%.
By contrast, high school enrollment fell by 0.4%.
Ross Santy, associate commissioner for the NCES, noted how rare it is for public schools to lose students.
“K-12 enrollment in our nation’s public schools has been increasing almost every year since the start of this century,” Santy said in a statement. “Before this year, in the few recent years where we have seen enrollment decreases, they have been small changes representing less than 1 percent of total enrollment.”
Some 29 states experienced enrollment declines of between 1% and 3%. Washington, D.C., Utah, South Dakota, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa saw decreases of less than 1%.
Vermont, Mississippi and Puerto Rico all saw enrollment fall by more than 5%, while Washington, New Mexico, Michigan, Kentucky and Maine lost between 4% and 5% of enrollment.
The coronavirus pandemic and government-imposed restrictions that closed schools has been the main driver behind the drop in the number of public school students.
The large drop in enrollment among younger students confirms earlier speculation that families chose to keep those students out of school rather than attempt virtual learning.
Home-schooling, meanwhile, more than doubled between the end of the 2019-2020 school year and the start of 2020-2021.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 5.4% of American households said they were home-schooling their children in the spring of 2020. By October of 2020, that figure reached 11.1%.
“It’s clear that in an unprecedented environment, families are seeking solutions that will reliably meet their health and safety needs, their childcare needs and the learning and socio-emotional needs of their children,” the Census Bureau said in a recent report.

The Billings City Council has approved placing a $7.1 million mill levy on the November 2 ballot for public safety. A study has found that public safety is a high priority of citizens, concerned about the increase in crime in Billings.
If it passes the increase in mills will be part of a $434 million budget that was also passed by the Billings City Council. The city’s budget has been bolstered this year by COVID relief funds which allocated money to specific needs that then freed up funds for other needs. The budget includes $11.6 million to purchase the Stillwater Building, as well as $80 million for a new westend water treatment plant and $18 million to construct the Inner Belt Loop and Skyline Trail, and an additional $7 million for the airport expansion.
An increase in the public safety funds will allow an additional $800,000 for the police department, in addition to more funding for enforcement of the recently rewritten building codes, the court system with the development of a law and justice center, and more services for mental health and substance abuse. It will also help fund a new division of the fire department that will be dedicated to responding to Emergency Medical Service calls.
If voters approve the proposed 34 mill increase it will add about $100 a year in property taxes on a $200,000 home in Billings.

From the Northern Ag Network

The Bureau of Land Management has released a Draft Environmental Assessment (EA) and Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for a bison grazing proposal from the American Prairie Reserve on 69,000 acres of BLM grazing allotments in Phillips County.
In November of 2017, the APR submitted a proposal to modify terms and conditions of 18 BLM administered permits, which was revised to 7 grazing permits in September of 2019. APR requested from BLM a change in class of livestock for cattle and bison, changes to the authorized seasons-of-use, construction, reconstruction and/or removal of some fences and adjustments to allotments (such as combining pastures).
In the spring of 2018, the BLM conducted public scoping which included meetings in Northcentral Montana. The BLM received 2,497 submissions which they reviewed and considered in determine the issues to be included in the NEPA analysis.
Now the BLM has come back with their analysis of the proposed action and has found that it conforms with their Resource Management Plans. The bureau has determined the changes will not significantly affect the land, wildlife or human environment.
Jay Bodner, Executive Vice President of the Montana Stockgrowers Association told Northern Ag Network that the announcement of this decision raises a lot of concerns from the livestock industry.
“Certainly, from a resource management standpoint, which we take a lot of pride in our stewardship of our rangelands, we’ve moved away from these kind of grazing practices,” Bodner says. “It seems to be moving our grazing systems back 30 years. So, there’s a lot of concern from just the rangeland health standards.”
“Secondly, it looks like if a livestock producer would have made this proposal, I’m not sure if it would have been met with the same kind of decision that this one is dealing with bison.”
Bodner adds that in previous documents that the BLM had released, they had recognized that with year-round grazing and removal of interior fencing there was a high likelihood of resource damage in those riparian areas. However, in this assessment BLM found no significant impacts.
“One of the challenges we see with this proposal,” Bodner says. “is that if you remove a lot of that infrastructure, to be able to address any kind of resource damage, you basically have to rebuild fence to try to move animals around. So that’s going to create a lot of challenges to address any potential challenges that may arise.”
This has been a controversial topic for 4 years now and Bodner says the MSGA membership will be engaging in the discussion and making public comments.
Sidney, MT rancher and President of the Montana Stockgrowers Jim Steinbeisser commented that, “Our organization has consistently provided comments outlining concerns regarding the impacts a request like this can have on rangeland health, riparian areas and economic impacts to the livestock industry. Today’s release of the draft EA and Finding of No Significant Impact is very impactful to ranchers across the state. This assessment may have a much larger ripple effect moving forward on setting precedent for public land grazing permits.”
“The fences represent a significant monetary investment in improvements, and if this change in grazing management proceeds, BLM must analyze what steps will be taken to address any resource damage”,” continued Steinbeisser. “We feel many of the request changes in the draft have significant resource impacts and have not been fully vetted or analyzed by the BLM.”
Before the Environmental Assessment can be finalized the BLM will conduct a public comment period running from July 1st through August 29th. Comments can be submitted online and a virtual public meeting is planned for Wednesday, July 21 from 1-4pm.
The public may comment on the Draft EA and FONSI by visiting the BLM’s ePlanning website at Search using the NEPA number: DOI-BLM-MT-L010-2018-0007-EA. Public comments may also be submitted via the U.S. Postal Service addressed to: BLM Malta Field Office; Re: APR Grazing Proposal; 501 South 2nd Street East; Malta, MT 59538.

By Evelyn Pyburn

The prolonged search by Commissioners for a solution to meet Yellowstone County’s space needs for future growth will be resolved with the purchase of the Miller Building in downtown Billings. County Commissioners voted two to one, to proceed with purchasing the building following months of due diligence and an appraisal that came in less than expected.
The decision ends considerations of both city and county officials of jointly developing the Stillwater Building into some kind of arrangement for a centralized local governmental facility.
Commissioner Denis Pitman voted against the purchase saying he wanted to continue exploring the possibility of the county remaining in the Stillwater Building and finding a way the county could partner with the city.
The prospects of pursuing a joint tenancy in the Stillwater Building seemed to strengthen with the news from City Administrator Chris Kukulski that the city had a “handshake” agreement on a price for the Stillwater Building of $17 million with owner Joe Holden of WC Commercial. The County currently has a lease agreement for offices on the third floor of the Stillwater Building, which has four years remaining.
County Commissioner John Ostlund pointed out that the $17 million agreement on the Stillwater Building could not be accepted by the county since state law prohibits the county from making a purchase in excess of appraised value, and the appraisal on the Stillwater building was $13.5 million.
Ostlund urged action on the Miller Building because their Memorandum of Understanding for first right of refusal on the property ends July 1, 2021.
On March 2, 2021, the commissioners offered a non-refundable $33,750 to owner, Miller Trois, LLC (Norman Miller) to take the property off the market until July 1, in a vote that Pitman also opposed. Last fall, the Board approved on the consent agent a contract with Cushing Terrell to analyze the suitability of the property for the County’s future needs. The property inspection found that the property would be sufficient to meet the county’s needs.
An appraisal ordered by the county placed a value of $4,375,000 on the Miller Building on May 21, 2021 – – $125,000 less than the county’s offer in the MOU to pay $4.5 million or the appraised value, which ever was less. Ostlund voiced concern about losing the opportunity to purchase the Miller Building which he believes would greatly diminish their options going forward. He said that the building is in very good condition, with new elevators, parking and more than sufficient space to house all county departments, excluding the courts, which would remain in the Courthouse. The inspections and assessments of the building unveiled no issues that would result in uncertainties or contingencies in the proposed purchase.
Pitman urged that the county work with the city and do what is best for the community. “We have other options,” he said, citing the possibility of building next to the jail or near MetraPark or other spaces in the community not necessarily downtown. He said “we could continue to rent or condo or purchase other property. “We need to have an open discussion on what a partnership would look like.” He noted that there are other costs associated with acquiring the Miller Building, such as hiring more maintenance staff. And, with the county purchasing the Miller Building and if the City purchases the Stillwater building that would be taking two buildings off the tax rolls rather than just one, Pitman pointed out.
Commissioner Don Jones said that the county has spent considerable time – since 2018 when they launched their search for more space – exploring all kinds of options, and this is the point to which it has led. Jones also said that he preferred the Miller Building as opposed to the much larger space available with the Stillwater option, since government has a tendency to grow to fill the space it has and he is opposed to unnecessary growth in government. He likened it to “build it and they will come.. but, we will grow.”
He also pointed out that with either option it will be awhile before the county would be needing the space and with the Stillwater that would mean holding an empty shell of a structure while the Miller Building is occupied with renters who would continue paying rent to the county and in essence helping to defray the cost of acquiring the building.
The County’s Finance Director, Kevan Bryan reported that the County has the capability to completely remodel the building for its use as existing leases term out in the Miller Building. He said that the expansion can be accomplished with no tax increase or need for debt on the County’s part.
Bryan said he would advise the commissioners to look at the numbers over the issue of cooperating with the City. He said, “…we respectfully disagree that the decision here boils down to whether we want to share a physical facility with the City of Billings, or that this shows taxpayers that we in local government can work together. Who can oppose us working together?” Both the city and the county seek the same things, he explained, “efficiencies of operations, common purpose and the wise spending of tax dollars. While the thought of a combined administrative facility on the surface has promise, it’s not necessarily a guarantee of any advantage to either governmental entity, or the taxpayers themselves.”
Bryan reminded that the county’s needs are for long-term space for the inevitable growth of the district and justice courts and the departments that work with the courts. The goal is to keep those services located in one building while moving most other county functions other than the Sheriff’s department to a “Yellowstone County Administration Building.”
The Miller Building presents a “very, very long-term solution for the County,” said Bryan. He said the county tried to work out the possibility of purchasing two floors of the Stillwater building, but its owner sought a selling price “well above market value,” which the county “would not and could not entertain.”
In discussions between city officials and county officials, Kukulski urged the county to postpone their decision and to explore the Stillwater option further. Without the county’s interest in partnering in some manner with the city the potential of the Stillwater deal isn’t as promising, pointed out Kukulski and Mayor Bill Cole, both of whom noted that the final decision is up to the City Council. Kukulski said that the matter would be on the City Council agenda on July 12.
In response to a comment that the city ownership would somehow impact the county’s lease, Kukulski said that the city wanted the county to remain. He said that he was sure the city and county could come to some acceptable arrangement in either leasing or condo-ing the floors of the five story building. He did note that the city has its own due- diligence to do on the Stillwater Building in making sure they understand what would be needed to remodel it for city offices, including using the basement for the City Police.
Ostlund said that the county had been attempting to negotiate with Holden for what has come to be years without success and he didn’t want to delay the matter any longer. He further questioned how it would be beneficial to the city to pay more for space than what they would later lease or sell it to the county.
The Miller Building is a six-story, plus basement building, located on 3rd Avenue between 28th and 29th Streets, downtown. It was the former Security Trust & Savings Bank Building.
The Stillwater Building, located at 316 N. 26th, in downtown Billings, is the former James F. Battin Federal Building, which stood vacant for several years until it was purchased for $3.2 million in 2017 by Holden, who has removed asbestos and prepared it to remodel on a build-to-suit basis for future tenants, the first of which was the county two years ago. Holden also built an adjacent parking garage.

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