A recent report from the National Park Service (NPS) shows that approximately 2.9 million visitors to Glacier National Park in 2022 spent an estimated $368 million in communities near the park. That spending supported 5,690 jobs in the local area. Overall, the figures show the total benefit to the local economy including secondary businesses tallied up to $548 million.

Both national parks have probably foregone potential visitors from other countries over the past couple years because many foreign travelers are giving the US a wide berth due to reported violence, long waits for visas and geo politics, according to Forbes. The magazine said that the US has been losing $20 billion a year in tourism dollars.

There was a 68 percent drop in visitors from China, for whom the two national parks have always been a popular destination. That could change somewhat, now, since China recently lifted their restrictions on on group travel to the US. It was estimated that normally 3 million visitors come to the US every year.

FEMA announced that federal disaster assistance has been made available to the state of Montana to supplement recovery efforts in the areas affected by flooding April 10-26, 2023.

Public assistance federal funding is available to the state, tribal and eligible local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis for emergency work and the repair or replacement of facilities damaged by flooding in Blaine, Daniels, Hill, Park, Roosevelt, Sheridan and Valley counties and the Fort Peck Tribes.          

Federal funding is also available on a cost-sharing basis for hazard mitigation measures statewide.

Jon K. Huss has been named Federal Coordinating Officer for federal recovery operations in the affected areas. Additional designations may be made at a later date if requested by the state and warranted by the results of further assessments

By Brett Rowland, The Center Square

UBS AG and several of its U.S.-based affiliates agreed to pay $1.435 billion in penalties to settle a U.S. Department of Justice civil suit over the Swiss bank’s role in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis.

The U.S. Department of Justice sued the Zurich-based company in 2018 alleging that UBS defrauded investors in connection with the sale of 40 residential mortgage-backed securities issued in 2006 and 2007. The complaint alleged the company knowingly made false and misleading statements to buyers of these securities relating to the characteristics of the underlying mortgage loans.

The settlement raises the total amount of civil penalties paid by banks, originators, and ratings agencies to more than $36 billion. It also resolves the final case brought by a Justice Department working group dedicated to investigating conduct of banks and other entities for their roles in creating and issuing residential mortgage-backed securities leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. 

“In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, people all across the country experienced financial ruin and emotional devastation, and many are still recovering nearly 15 years later,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a statement. 

UBS said the settlement resolves “all civil claims by the DOJ in connection with UBS’s legacy [residential mortgage-backed securities] business in the U.S.” The bank also said the settlement had “been fully provisioned in prior periods.”

The Department of Justice suit alleged that contrary to UBS’ representations in publicly filed offering documents, the company knew that significant numbers of the loans backing the residential mortgage-backed securities did not comply with loan underwriting guidelines that were designed to assess borrowers’ ability to repay. The complaint also alleged that UBS knew that the property values associated with a significant number of the securitized loans were unsupported, and that significant numbers of the loans had not been originated in accordance with consumer protection laws. 

FEMA announced that federal disaster assistance has been made available to the state of Montana to supplement recovery efforts in the areas affected by flooding April 10-26, 2023.

Public assistance federal funding is available to the state, tribal and eligible local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis for emergency work and the repair or replacement of facilities damaged by flooding in Blaine, Daniels, Hill, Park, Roosevelt, Sheridan and Valley counties and the Fort Peck Tribes.          

Federal funding is also available on a cost-sharing basis for hazard mitigation measures statewide.

Jon K. Huss has been named Federal Coordinating Officer for federal recovery operations in the affected areas. Additional designations may be made at a later date if requested by the state and warranted by the results of further assessments

By Greg Cappis, MSU News Service

Alicia Crane wasn’t sure how she was going to be able to afford her doctor of nursing practice degree.

As an undergraduate at Montana State University, she had always hoped to earn an advanced degree so she could better serve her rural community, but she knew that raising three children while working as a registered nurse would make paying for another three or four years of school difficult.

Then she applied for MSU’s Advanced Nursing Education Workforce program scholarship. As one of 20 ANEW scholars selected annually, Crane receives a stipend each semester to help cover the costs of tuition, books and travel as she prepares for a career as a nurse practitioner working in a rural community.

“It’s been a huge blessing and help,” Crane said. “I can’t say in words how thankful I am for the scholarship.”

The ANEW program is funded by a grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. MSU received its first ANEW grant in 2019, and it was recently renewed for $2.6 million over four years, which administrators in the Mark and Robyn Jones College of Nursing refer to as ANEW 2.0.

“The ANEW grant allows us to provide the financial support to cover tuition and fees, books and supplies, and even travel,” said Sarah Shannon, dean of MSU’s nursing college. “ANEW also allows us to offer special learning opportunities to ensure that we produce not just nurse practitioners but rural-ready nurse practitioners who are already embedded in and committed to their local communities.”

The ANEW program is designed to increase access to health care for rural Montanans, a core focus of the nursing college. All but two of Montana’s 56 counties are classified as health care professional shortage areas, according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.

MSU offers two options in its doctor of nursing practice, or DNP, degree program. Family practice nurse practitioners serve as primary care providers with the ability, in Montana, to diagnose, prescribe and refer patients to specialists. Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners assess, diagnose and treat acute and chronic mental health needs of their patients.

ANEW scholarship recipients commit to working in rural health care. Scholars are required to perform some of their clinical work at rural hospitals or health centers. They also must join the Area Health Education Center scholars program, a two-year, nationally recognized certificate program designed to develop and improve skills to help them better serve patients in rural communities. The AHEC scholars program includes 80 extra hours of learning and access to specialty training seminars, like classes on suturing or managing diabetes in a rural setting.

Economic indicators seem to indicate that the US economy is treading water with some indicators up and others down .

American consumers continue to spend what they don’t have.

Credit card indebtedness reached a record $1.03 trillion in the second quarter of 2023, according to the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Total household debt exceeds $17 trillion, with 72.4% of that coming from mortgages and home equity lines of credit.

The Index of Consumer Sentiment ticked down from 71.6 in July  to 71.2 in August. The July reading was the best reading since October 2021. But Americans remain anxious about the economy overall.

The Small Business Optimism Index increased from 91.0 in June to 91.9 in July, the highest reading since November. Despite the uptick in sentiment, small business owners remain concerned about the economy, with the uncertainty index rising to a 25-month high. The top “single most important problem” was the difficulty in finding enough qualified labor (23%), followed closely by inflation (21%). Despite this, fewer NFIB business members plan to increase prices over the next three months… falling to the lowest rate since December 2020.

Consumer prices rose 0.2% in July for the second straight month, with 3.2% growth over the past 12 months. Excluding food and energy, core consumer inflation has increased 4.7% since July 2022, the weakest reading since October 2021.

Yet, core inflation remained stubbornly high.

Producer prices for final demand goods and services rose 0.3% in July, the strongest gain since January but driven largely by higher costs for services.

Overall, inflation continued to moderate, but even so the Federal Reserve is predicted to keep interest relatively high. They are not being predicted to make any changes in interest rates at their next meeting in September.

By Brett Rowland,The Center Square

The U.S. Postal Service reported a $1.7 billion loss in the third quarter adding to ongoing losses for the once self-sufficient agency. 

The U.S. Postal Service, an independent federal establishment that is mandated to be self-financing, said the third quarter losses were “almost exclusively to the non-cash impact of the Postal Service Reform Act in April 2022.” The act removed the Postal Service’s obligation to pre-fund retiree health benefits and eliminated all previously imposed pre-funding requirements that remained unpaid, among other changes. The law was intended to improve the Postal Service’s financial sustainability. 

“Continued rising costs in several areas of our business pose a challenge,” Chief Financial Officer Joseph Corbett said in a statement. “We continue to manage the costs within our control, such as by reducing work hours by 6 million hours compared to the same quarter last year and by focusing on transportation and other operating costs.”

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said the Postal Service continues to face inflation and other pressures.

“Our team is working hard to reduce our cost of performance which is helping to offset still sizeable inflationary and economic pressures,” he said in a statement. “We are setting the stage for long-term financial sustainability as we continue to modernize our processing, transportation, retail and delivery networks.”

Congress designed the U.S. Postal Service to be self-sustaining, but in fiscal year 2007, expenses overtook revenue. This has led to losses of $87 billion through 2020. The agency is further saddled with $188 billion in unfunded liabilities and debt, according to a 2021 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The U.S. Postal Service is the largest postal service in the world, delivering an estimated 49% of all mail sent globally. 

A serious crime in the Biden Administration is the sale of incandescent light bulbs, the sale of which is now illegal.

The Biden administration has enacted a regulation that places retailer or online seller offering incandescent light bulbs for sale subject to severe punishment under the full enforcement of the federal government.

The crackdown on Thomas Edison’s familiar light bulb has been in the works for a long time. It started with provisions tucked into the big 2007 energy bill signed into law by then-President George Bush. These provisions created energy efficiency standards for residential lighting that incandescent bulbs would have great difficulty achieving.  The regulations were designed to get progressively more stringent in the ensuing years.

At the time, many environmental activists and some advantage-seeking light bulb manufacturers were aggressively pushing compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) as the green alternative. But those twisty CFL bulbs, with their high price and harsh glare, proved very unpopular with consumers – a backlash not unlike the one seen early this year after a Biden administration official suggested banning gas stoves.  Nonetheless the Obama administration Department of Energy (DOE), in its waning days in January 2017, finalized rules accelerating the demise of incandescent bulbs.

By Manish Bhatt, Tax Foundation

(Editor’s Note: The Tax Foundation recently published a report on Montana’s new tax changes, explaining them and evaluating their potential effectiveness.)

Montana is renowned for its vast natural beauty and outdoor recreation, but the state also boasts a competitive tax climate, ranking fifth in our 2023 State Business Tax Climate Index. Like many other states, its coffers are overflowing, and lawmakers have rightly prioritized tax reform to share the strong revenue position with those calling the Treasure State home. Legislators should build on these efforts and provide sustainable and sound property tax relief.

Short- and Long-Term Tax Reforms

In 2023, Montanans will be eligible for tax refunds and rebates on income and property taxes.  Generally, one-time, or short-term, tax relief options are not efficient or effective and can exacerbate the negative effects of inflation. However, these measures were paired with long-term, pro-growth tax reforms that could boost the competitiveness of the state overall.

Montana’s seven individual income tax brackets will be consolidated into two in 2024. Previously, the top rate was set to drop to 6.5 percent (down from 6.75 percent), but Senate Bill 121 will reduce it further to 5.9 percent. The bill also raises the state Earned Income Tax Credit to 10 percent of the federal credit. House Bill 221 creates two rates (depending on income and filing status) for taxing capital gains—4.1 percent and 3.0 percent—replacing a 30 percent net long-term capital gains deduction set to take effect in 2024.

Businesses in Montana will benefit from House Bill 212, which raises the business property tax exemption from $300,000 to $1,000,000; this will eliminate 78 percent of current taxpayers from the rolls at a cost of a mere $9 million a year, absorbed by the state. Additionally, Senate Bill 124 revises corporate income tax apportionment from three-factor (double-weighted sales factor) to single sales factor beginning in 2025.

Principled Property Tax Relief Is Needed

Overall, these reforms are commendable and other states should follow the example Montana has set. However, like elsewhere in the Mountain West, Montana property owners are facing rising property values and, in turn, are saddled with greater property tax burdens. Property tax collections don’t need to keep pace with soaring property values because the cost—and value—of government services isn’t dependent on those values. While inflation has increased the cost of government, there’s no reason why a community where property values have increased by, say, 40 percent should have to remit 40 percent more in property taxes from that same set of properties. Residents are not receiving 40 percent more or better government for their money.

Ballot Initiative 2, now before the Supreme Court after an attorney general’s determination that the initiative is legally insufficient, seeks to limit property taxes through several provisions, including: (1) establishing 2019 as the base for real property valuations, (2) instituting a valuation assessment limit of two percent unless the real property is newly constructed, significantly improved, or changed ownership, and (3) limiting the amount of ad valorem tax that may be assessed to one percent of the real property’s value.

Despite the good intentions, this proposal is not sound tax policy and could create detrimental market distortion. Assessment limits are problematic because they incentivize property owners to remain in their homes longer, as purchasing a new residence triggers a new assessment and, potentially, higher taxes. This often disproportionately impacts younger or lower-income purchasers as the supply of starter homes is reduced when more established, higher-income property owners forgo new purchases.

Moreover, assessment limits could result in similar properties in the same neighborhood having dramatically different property tax obligations depending on purchase date—benefitting those with longer tenures in their homes and, effectively, penalizing more recent purchasers (many of them younger homeowners). Appraisal caps also disincentivize new construction and major home improvements, both of which could result in the owner paying higher property taxes.

The ballot initiative applies to many classes of real property, including multifamily rental units, but it excludes business machinery and equipment. To be clear, including rental property in the relief is positive because the tax burden is less likely to shift from single-family homeowners to lessees in the form of higher rent, which could occur if the measure was less neutral. While the legislature has raised the exemption limits for business property, it will be important to ensure that such equipment is not disproportionately impacted by higher levies in the future to recoup lost revenue from other property classes.

Assessment limitations provide property tax relief for homeowners, but they come with real costs, distorting housing markets to the detriment of many of the homeowners—and would-be homeowners—the limits purport to help. Fortunately, Montanans and their lawmakers have options. They could consider levy limits, which restrict the growth of revenue collections from property taxes, rolling back millages across the board to limit the amount that a jurisdiction’s property tax collections can increase from rises in assessed value alone. This can help avoid the disparities that result from assessment limits, lowering rates for everyone when collections rise due to a spike in assessed values, rather than protecting some homeowners to the detriment of others. If states like New York and Massachusetts manage to get this right, surely Montana can too.

Policymakers could also pursue what some states call “compression,” which is when the state uses its own funds to buy down local property tax rates. Simply capping rates, however, is not effective and would not protect property owners from valuation surges or from other policies intended to raise collections. And compression itself may backfire unless paired with levy limits; without them, local governments could pocket the state transfers and later raise millages back to where they had been previously.

Absent a special session, the Montana legislature next convenes in 2025, meaning taxpayers may have to wait for relief that is sorely needed today. This creates a precarious situation and one in which hasty decision-making could leave the state dealing with long-term negative outcomes. Ballot Initiative 2, regardless of whether it goes before voters, has a flawed design that homeowners may come to rue, but it speaks to a real and legitimate concern over rapidly rising property taxes. Policymakers should pursue principled property tax reform that benefits all property owners without creating market distortions or unfairly shifting the tax burden.

Governor Greg Gianforte recently opposed a proposed resource management plan amendment offered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that would restrict responsible coal production in Montana.

“Affordable power generated by coal keeps the lights on in Montana and fuels manufacturing across the country and world,” Gov. Gianforte said. “I’m urging the Biden administration to scrap its plan that would undermine coal production in eastern Montana, eliminate a source of funding for our public schools, and destabilize our energy grid.”

Last week, the governor submitted a letter to BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning and other agency officials as part of the public comment process for BLM’s Miles City Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement/Resource Management Plan Amendment.

The BLM is currently contemplating changes to its coal screening process that would nearly block all coal reserves in Montana from production.

Revenues from coal reserves on state trust lands fund schools and other public institutions in Montana.