Samuel Stebbins,  24/7 Wall St. for Center Square

Public employee pension systems are some of the largest financial liabilities on state government balance sheets. The 50 states have over $4.5 trillion in cumulative pension liabilities combined, roughly double the amount all 50 states spent in fiscal 2020. For years, state pension systems were woefully underfunded in much of the country, but according to a recent report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, this trend may be reversing.

Driven by higher investment from both employees and employers, state pension systems have largely stabilized as of 2020. Since 2007, states across the country have more than doubled annual pension contributions, often cutting funding for other programs to do so.

Still, some states are better positioned to pay public sector employees in retirement than others. In Montana, pension liabilities totaled an estimated $17.5 billion in 2020. Meanwhile, the state’s pension assets totaled $11.8 billion. Considering both assets and liabilities, Montana’s pension funding ratio is 67.3%, the 20th lowest in the country.

According to 2021 estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Montana state government employs some 27,800 people, or 5.6% of the total private and public sector workforce in the state.

It is important to note that 2020 is the most recent year for which comprehensive state level data is available and that the recent market downturn has all but erased much of the financial gains states have made in recent years. Still, while markets are always susceptible to turmoil, improved policies have gone a long way to improving pension funding in much of the country.

All state pension data in this story was compiled by the Pew Charitable Trusts using comprehensive annual financial reports from each state.

KLJ Engineering is proud to welcome four new employees to its Billings office. These new employee-owners will be working in multiple markets across KLJ.

Joining KLJ’s survey team is Tyler Mayhue. While working as a survey technician, he is actively pursuing his degree in mechanical engineering from Arizona State University. Mayhue also has a bachelor’s in business administration.

Luke Walker comes to KLJ as a CAD Technician I. He is pursuing his bachelor’s in math at Liberty University. Walker is also a Specialist in the US Army.

Jessica Callahan recently started as an environmental specialist II. She has more than seven years of experience working as an environmental/permitting specialist and GIS analyst on a variety of projects in the Midwestern States, including Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Callahan has her master’s in biology from The University of Northern Iowa.

Jhett Quade has begun his career as a civil engineer in training. Before coming to KLJ, he spent time as an assistant project manager and field technician at different companies across Montana. Quade earned his bachelor’s in civil engineering from Montana State University.

Hannah Olson joined the Billings Chamber of Commerce as the Director of Communications and Marketing in late September, 2022.

Olson comes to the Chamber with an abundance of experience in communications and community engagement. She previously worked with nonprofits like Big Brothers Big Sisters of Yellowstone County and YWCA Billings and in public involvement with DOWL Civil Engineers. Actively involved in the community, Olson currently serves on the NextGEN leadership team and is a board member for the Junior League of Billings.

With a heart for civic engagement, she ran for the Montana state legislature in 2020, served on the Board of Community Development for the City of Billings, and is the past president of the MSU Billings Alumni Advisory Board. She also has a daughter, Vienna, who is her pride and joy. In her new role, Olson oversees the overall branding and public image of the Billings Chamber of Commerce and leads the electronic, social media and design functions, with management of Chamber publications, and public relations.

She is also directly responsible for overseeing success of new member sales, sponsorship, member retention, and event success and sharing the value of Chamber membership. Olson holds a Master of Science in public relations and a Bachelor of Science in English, both from Montana State University Billings, and an Associate of Arts in secondary education from Northwest College. She grew up in Powell, Wyoming and has been a proud resident of the South Side of Billings since 2013

By Brett Rowland, The Center Square

The Federal Trade Commission proposed a ban on noncompete clauses which the FTC said were often exploitative and suppressed wages and competition.

“The freedom to change jobs is core to economic liberty and to a competitive, thriving economy,” Chair Lina Khan said in a statement. “Noncompetes block workers from freely switching jobs, depriving them of higher wages and better working conditions, and depriving businesses of a talent pool that they need to build and expand.”

The federal agency said ending the practice of noncompete clauses could increase wages by almost $300 billion a year and expand career opportunities for about 30 million Americans. The FTC is seeking public comment on the proposed rule. The rule was based on a preliminary finding that such clauses constitute an unfair method of competition.

“Research shows that employers’ use of noncompetes to restrict workers’ mobility significantly suppresses workers’ wages – even for those not subject to noncompetes, or subject to noncompetes that are unenforceable under state law,” said Elizabeth Wilkins, director of the Office of Policy Planning. “The proposed rule would ensure that employers can’t exploit their outsized bargaining power to limit workers’ opportunities and stifle competition.”

The FTC’s proposed rule would make it illegal for an employer to:

* enter into or attempt to enter into a noncompete with a worker;

* maintain a noncompete with a worker; or

* represent to a worker, under certain circumstances, that the worker is subject to a noncompete.

The proposed rule would apply to independent contractors and those who work for an employer, paid or unpaid. It also would require employers to rescind existing noncompetes and inform workers that they are no longer in effect.

Once upon a time, in a land where our leaders tended to have more concern for their constituents then they do now–-though nothing as per their job descriptions in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense–-established the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).  The purpose of the FTC is/was to curtail potential monopolies causing a lack of competition in various segments.  A lack of competition puts the consumer “between a rock and a hard place” when purchasing their goods and services, especially necessities.


*Four international meat processing facilities control 80% of the total commercial processing in our country;

*The largest grocery chains merging;

*Airlines “joining” forces;

*Exxon-Mobil being bought out;

*There is a publication group that has approximately 300 livestock and livestock-related newspapers and periodicals.  Think of the impact they can have on issues relative to their readers.

One has to wonder if there is “anyone at home” at the FTC or are their offices being used for storage?  I ask this because of all the merging going on, no one ever hears of the FTC doing due diligence on these entities.

The only merger I have heard about that may be of benefit to a group of people, is the news group that is buying up the small newspapers in Montana.  If left to their own, some of these papers would not be able to continue.  I only hope the news group will continue to serve the relatively small towns in Montana by continuing the distinctive, individual papers.

Wally McLane

Billings, Montana

Evan Decker joined Visit Billings, managed by the Billings Chamber of Commerce, as the new Sports Tourism Manager in November 2022. In his new role, Decker is leading the ongoing recruitment and solicitation of sports related tournaments and events to the Billings area by supporting businesses, event coordinators, tournament owners, local and state sports associations, rights holders, and National Governing Bodies in the athletic field.

He promotes Billings as a sports tourism destination to grow existing and recruit new athletic events. “The sports market is the second largest segment for growing visitation to Billings and creates hundreds of millions of dollars in economic impact,” said Alex Tyson, executive director of Visit Billings. “Evan brings a wealth of knowledge to the destination and focus to help grow new and foster existing sports events. He will take the market to the next levels.”

Decker holds a Bachelor of Science in hospitality management from Northern Arizona University and has experience in the hospitality, tourism, and sports industries. He recently became a Certified Autism Travel Professional (CATP) and completed training to receive his designation as a Professional in Destination Management (PDM). Decker officially joined Visit Billings on November 1, 2022. He relocated to Billings from Tempe, Arizona for his new role. No stranger to Montana’s Trailhead, Decker has strong Montana roots through his family and enjoys skiing and recreation in the outdoors.

By Evelyn Pyburn

Having goals has long been understood as essential to achieve great things.

There’s no doubt that goals work! It hardly matters what the goal is or even if it is explicitly identified. That is why almost every organization establishes a mission statement.

One has to wonder, then, about the lure of investing in companies who loudly proclaim making money is not their primary goal.

Investing in ESG – greatly regaled by the media and pushed by government edicts – has become the politically correct thing to do. That in itself should present all kinds of warning flags – the very meaning of “politically correct” is essentially that of unthinking lemmings racing to the cliff’s edge.

So as people look at the businesses in which they want to invest, one has to wonder why they are so eager to invest in a business, that has declared to the world, its goal is not to make money, but to be obedient to government, surrender to environmental causes and to give what they have to others.  (ESG stands for Environment, Society and Government) Some wholly eschew the idea of making a profit as really being the evil that generations of school children have been taught.

If not making a profit is a company’s goal, be assured they won’t. And, neither will their investors. Ask any business owner— not making a profit is easy!

And yet it is, to be socially responsible, to accommodate for environmental issues, and most especially to abide by government edicts, requires that a business makes profits and lots of them.

With that being the case, what is the ESG crowd thinking? Unless it is nothing more than virtue signaling, one must assume that they are among the group that believe that business – especially “big business” – is inherently evil. Given the history of many businesses – most especially when partnered with the coercive powers of government – one can understand their concerns, because many companies are participating every day in corrupt and very evil things. All you have to do is listen to or read the daily news. But have you ever noticed that, most often, their corruption is in some way enabled by government – through laws that protect them from market forces, or suspend them from having to answer for criminal activity, or other policies of favoritism which sometimes include direct handouts funded by taxpayers?

It’s why one rarely sees “big business” espousing the beauty of Capitalism, which is nothing more than free markets – willing buyers and sellers voluntarily exchanging values with one another. The fact is there is a huge sector of the business world who hate free markets and fear them – – they survive because of their unholy alliances with politicians.

We don’t hear so much about the sound, ethical and, usually, politically unconnected businesses that function every day in our communities, working very hard to make a profit which in doing, they achieve, as a matter of course,  all the things that the ESG crowd say they want. Without businesses thriving in a community there is no community, and absolutely none of the ESG goals have a chance of being attained. That’s the way it has always been and how it will always be, because the reality is, business is where wealth is generated.

You cannot help the poor without the wealth generated in the business world. All social and civic efforts in any community come from businesses or the contributions of money and volunteer time of the people who work for them. 

Usually taking the actions required to protect the environment are costly and cannot be pursued without the wealth generated by businesses, which is one reason why the cleanest and most environmentally sensitive countries in the world are the wealthiest. People worried about where their next meal is coming from do not have the wherewithal to clean a polluted stream, and in fact their poverty is usually a contributing factor to the pollution. They most desperately need free markets – businesses making profits.

And, surely everyone understands that government generates absolutely ZERO wealth. Government has nothing and can accomplish nothing without the wealth it expropriates from the private sector – from its citizens and from businesses that make a profit in free markets.

Undoubtedly well-meaning people are making it a point to invest in ESG companies, believing that they will improve their communities and advance society, which are very strong American values. Of course, investors might be willing to accept less returns in exchange for better ESG performance, but according to sources like Harvard Business —  ESG companies don’t seem to deliver any better, and investments in ESG-touting companies are not doing well. While the ESG companies are undoubtedly achieving their non-profit goals, they are better in terms of complying with government rules, operating environmentally friendly, or contributing more to the needy.

It’s been found that the companies in the ESG portfolios had worse compliance records for both labor and environmental rules. Might that be because they lack the “profits” needed to comply? Government regulations on business have always been onerous, requiring greater investments – and companies need profits to pay employees more.

One reason for this, as pondered by the financial experts, is that perhaps companies not doing so well in the market, loudly proclaim an ESG status as a ploy to attract investors, who would otherwise be leery, just looking at their profit and loss statements.

So what are ESG proponents thinking? One has to conclude that either they are not, or their goal is not the success of business – of our economy – but instead they are seeking the destruction of the one thing that makes all others possible.

While survey respondents in Yellowstone County indicate that they are doing more physical exercise and they believe their mental health remains good, if not better, a survey about the overall health of residents indicates there remains a need for more mental health services and that substance abuse is an escalating problem.

In fact, most aspects of the health of Yellowstone County residents have worsened since the last Yellowstone County Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA), according to local health officials who reported, at a press conference, on the results of their most recent study.

Residents have trouble getting access to grocery stores in order to obtain healthy foods, which was identified as a reason for declines in healthy eating and over-weight issues. Also a contributing factor, according to the health experts, is a lack of trails and access to other options for physical exercise.

Being unable to access health care services is another detriment to good health, according to several speakers at the press conference, which included Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton, Montana St. Vincent Healthcare President Jennifer Alderfer, Billings Clinic Interim CEO Clint Seger and Rehabilitation Hospital of Montana CEO Jennifer Graves.

There were positive trends reflected in the survey, including the fact that more people reported having health insurance.

The CHNA survey has been conducted every three years since 2006. The number of respondents to questions posed in the survey were 400, which County Health Officer Felton said is a statistically valid sample for a community of this size, generating a margin of error of less than five percent. For the first time the survey accommodated for “health disparities by race/ethnicity” by providing a web-based survey option “among historically underrepresented groups by partnering with Community Health Workers.”

The declining health issues are most problematic for the lower income and those of minority ethnicity. An Executive Summary provided by the presenters states that residents may experience worse health outcomes because of “Differences in income, educational attainment and quality, neighborhood quality, healthcare access, and social experiences…”

The Executive Summary focused on “perceived discrimination” by residents of Yellowstone County toward groups in deference to race, age, gender, sexual orientation, etc. as a significant contributing factor to poor health. Calling the results “sobering,” the summary stated, “19% of residents strongly agree that Yellowstone County is welcoming to all races and ethnicities.” It also concluded, “People of color are significantly more likely than the general population to report being treated with less courtesy or respect, as less intelligent, and as a potential danger, and receive poorer service.”

It’s a community problem, contended the speakers, who represent a collaboration of health care institutions in the county, often identified as The Alliance, through which numerous programs have been launched in the past, since 1994, to help mitigate priority needs in the community. The data that has been gathered will be used to identify priorities and to forge programs that will be carried forward in the community through the Healthy by Design Coalition.

The survey included questions regarding COVID -19 and the accompanying mandates and economic impacts. With businesses forced to close and quarantines keeping workers at home, 23 percent of county residents say they were financially impacted by lost employment, wages, hours, or health insurance. Because of the uncertainties many – 15 percent —said they avoided medical care.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 22.6 percent of residents said a household member lost a job, hours, wages or health insurance. Other income or wealth issues emerged among 16 percent of respondents who said they worry each month about paying their rent or mortgage. And, also 16 percent said they do not have cash on hand to cover a $400 emergency expense.

Homelessness was also identified as negatively impacting health.

Part of the problems associated with increased mental health needs is associated with the “stigma” of mental health issues that keep people from talking about them – stigmas not associated with most other health care issues. Almost a fourth of the respondents said they have considered suicide at some point in their lifetime. In Yellowstone County, 26 people per 100,000 people commit suicide each year.

Substance abuse and safety are also contributing factors with 23 percent of residents drinking excessively and that worsening over time; 24 percent have experienced intimate partner violence, which is higher than the national average.

Deaths caused by unintentional injuries in Yellowstone County have nearly doubled in the past decade.

It was also pointed out that 30 percent of resident have an unlocked firearm at home or in their vehicle, which was said to be higher than in 2020. Despite this, said the survey, 85 percent of the residents feel safe walking alone in their neighborhood.

The summary also quoted a “community leader,” who stated that “Billings is Montana’s largest city and has the largest health care providers. Healthcare drives the Billings economy. Yet, Billings has a very hard time recruiting and retaining physicians. We must ask why. The community needs to change, or this problem will continue and will become a larger problem. Over the last three years, I have seen five doctors, four of them left Billings.”

The priorities of Yellowstone County were described as “areas of opportunity,” and include mental health support, services for substance misuse and safety (which includes falls, vehicle accidents and overdoses), better access to healthcare, and more physical activity and healthier eating. Health community leaders will analyze the priorities during 2023 to develop the next Community Health Implementation Plan.

Among other quotes in the summary reflecting various points of view were:

— “Chronic health issues are among the top 3 root causes of homelessness locally, according to a 2020 analysis by the Continuum of Care. This problem as a public health issue was exemplified by COVID-19.” –Social Service Provider

— “Billings is a small community. It is hard to form healthy relationships in the recovery process. There is a lack of services to meet the need. There is a lack of workforce to meet the need. Consuming alcohol is too culturally acceptable in Montana.” – Community Leader

—A large number of fast food or quick food restaurants are prevalent in the community. Affordable family style restaurants are limited, especially in the Heights. There are a lot of trails but not all connected. Limited option for non-trail walking exercise, such as Indoor pools, Frisbee golf, pickle ball, ice skating, and safe bike paths are limited. Free nutrition counseling would help as many do not want to pursue fad diets but would like inexpensive non-stigmatizing help.” – Public Health Representative.

In national news reports, prior to Christmas, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said that his company was experiencing incidents of theft “higher than what its historically been.” He explained that rising in-store theft, which often goes unchecked by local law enforcement, could force Walmart to raise prices “or even close some stores.”

His comments were buttressed by similar reports from Target’s CEO Brian Cornell a month earlier, saying that their company, too, had seen  a “significant increase in organized retail crime across our business.”

Year-to-date inventory shrink reduced Target’s gross margin by more than $400 million compared to last year, with an expected total loss of more than $600 million for the full year.

Across all retail brands, the average shrink rate in 2021 was 1.4%, according to the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) 2022 National Retail Security Survey. That represents $94.5 billion in total losses, up from $90.8 billion in 2020, the association found.

Organized retail crime was up 26.5% in 2021, according to NRF.

“This is an industrywide problem that is often driven by criminal networks, and we are collaborating with multiple stakeholders to find industrywide solutions,” Target CFO Michael Fiddelke told analysts.

Target, in a statement to WGB, said it was working with law enforcement, legislators, community partners and retail trade associations to address the “growing national problem” of retail theft.

The retailer said it is a strong supporter of the INFORM (Integrity, Notification and Fairness in Online Retail Marketplaces) Consumers Act that increases accountability and prevents people from selling stolen goods on online marketplaces.

At Walmart, the retailer has put safety measures in place on a store-by-store basis, a process that relies on proper staffing of local law enforcement, McMillon noted.

McMillon added that he would like to see firmer prosecution of shoplifters as well.

“If that’s not corrected over time, prices will be higher and/or stores will close,” he told CNBC. “It’s really city by city, location by location. It’s store managers working with local law enforcement. … It’s just policy consistency and clarity so we can make capital investments with some vision.”

Montana saw another year of record business registrations in 2022.

According to the Montana Secretary of State’s Office, roughly 53,000 new businesses were registered after registration fees were cut in half and other fees were eliminated entirely.

The Montana Secretary of State’s Office released the following information:

Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen announced another record number of new businesses were registered in Montana in 2022. Secretary Jacobsen made the announcement during the Montana Chamber of Commerce Business Days at the Capitol at the beginning of the month.