Nikki Dolan has been named the Food Insecurity Program Coordinator for the Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools (EFBPS). Dolan takes the newly created position to lead the BackPack Meals, Teen Pantry and Elementary Pantry programs that operate for Billings Public Schools students in need. Dolan started the position in August 2022, training with Dr. Ginny Mermel who started the food programs in 2007. Mermel ran the programs under the Foundation to benefit BPS students as a dedicated volunteer for 15 years. Upon her retirement, the Education Foundation created the Food Insecurity Program Coordinator position. Dolan has a degree in Business Administration/Marketing from the University of Montana. Her previous experience is working as the Special Events Coordinator at Billings Clinic and as an Account Executive at an Advertising Firm. “We’re thrilled to have Nikki on staff to lead these programs,” shared Kelly McCandless, Executive Director for EFBPS. “She has tremendous passion for ensuring the kids in our District facing food insecurity receive the nutritional support they need.” The EFBPS Food Insecurity Programs are currently responsible for feeding approximately 700 students each week. The program demand has grown significantly over the last two years, and the addition of a staff position to manage the programs is critical to the continued ability to care for students in need. “There are passionate people at every level of Billings Public Schools attending to needs far beyond academics for students,” explained Dolan. “I’m thrilled to be part of programs offering stability and certainty for kids who would otherwise face hunger.”

It is time once again to register for the 31st Annual Job Service Employer’s Committee (JSEC), Jobs Jamboree at MetraPark in the Montana Pavilion on March 15, from 11 am to 6 pm.

This is an opportunity to showcase your business at Montana’s largest job fair. The event is offering 3+ Premier Sponsorships (2/15/23 deadline) among the basic registration and event sponsorship.

The Jobs Jamboree is a valued event by both employers and job seekers; 100+ employers and over 1,100 job seekers attended the 2022 event. It’s an opportunity to interact and connect with qualified job seekers and network with fellow employers in one location.

This year the Billings Job Service Employers Committee (JSEC) has partnered with the Employer Support of The Guard and Reserve (ESGR) to offer Jobs Jamboree to Montana Guard and Reserve members, military spouses and veterans. Event proceeds go toward scholarships. Over the years, JSEC has used these funds to award 37 scholarships to apprentices and college students worth $29,500. JSEC is offering a convenient option of online registration and payment. All registrations are online, if you need assistance, contact Samantha Hensel 406-655-6061 or Brittany Lane 406-655-6057. To reserve a booth, register online at Lunch will be provided for up to two representatives. Additional meals can be purchased for $10 each.

By Chris Woodward, The Center Square

Montana’s population grew 1.5% in 2022, according to new annual state population estimates released by the U.S. Census.

That’s a net increase of 16,640 from July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2022. Montana’s total population is now an estimated 1,122,867, up from 1,106,227 in 2021, and 1,084,197 in 2020. 

Montana ranked among the top 10 states for percentage growth behind Florida (1.9%), Idaho (1.8%), South Carolina (1.7%), Texas (1.6%), and South Dakota (1.5%). 

“Eighteen states experienced a population decline in 2022, compared to 15 and D.C. the prior year,” said the Census Bureau. “California, with a population of 39,029,342, and Illinois, with a population of 12,582,032, also had six-figure decreases in resident population.” 

In 2023, the bureau plans to release 2022 population estimates for counties, cities, and towns. Information on demographics such as age, race, and sex are also expected.

By David Beasley, The Center Square

Gov. Greg Gianforte’s plan to provide more relief from the state’s business equipment tax could attract more businesses to Montana, according to one small business advocacy group.

The governor said earlier this month that he wants more reforms to the business equipment tax when the legislature convenes next year. In 2021, lawmakers raised the tax exemption from $100,000 to $300,000, which provided 3,400 businesses with tax relief, according to the governor’s office.

“Taxing critical business equipment makes it harder to grow a small business and is a wet blanket on job creation,” Gianforte said in a statement. 

“In 2023, we want to build on that success, further reforming the business equipment tax so small business owners can grow their operations and create more good-paying Montana jobs,” he added.

The price of equipment needed to operate businesses has increased with inflation, according to Ronda Wiggers, Montana state director for the National Federal of Independent Business.

“If you are a store owner who buys cabinets, or a farmer who buys a combine, or you buy freezers and refrigerators for your restaurant, in the state of Montana we tax those,” she told The Center Square. “We put a taxable value on that, and we tax them. Although the taxable value depreciates over time, you don’t just pay it once. You pay it every year. It’s an ongoing tax.”

When the state eliminated the first $100,000 of value from taxation a few years ago, “that took care of a lot of our small businesses,” she said. “Most of the stores, for example, probably don’t have over $100,000 worth of display cases.”

Since local governments obtain revenue from the equipment tax, the state last year covered any losses they might incur from raising the exemption to $300,000, Wiggers said.

Gianforte has not yet detailed what his proposal will be for raising the exemption this year, although there has been some speculation he may support increasing it to $500,000, according to Wiggers. 

A higher exemption could attract more equipment-intensive businesses like in the manufacturing sector, Wiggers noted.

“When you are trying to attract those kinds of businesses to the state, they are looking at the bottom line,” she said. “Having an equipment tax in one state and not having it in another would very much affect something like manufacturing.”

By Victor Skinner, The Center Square

Business leaders across the country have joined together to call on the Biden administration to boost domestic energy production and to abandon a proposal to ban new offshore lease sales.

More than 200 local chambers of commerce in 47 states and 14 national associations penned a letter to President Joe Biden to urge him “to strengthen our energy security by removing impediments to greater domestic energy production.”

“High energy prices remain a major concern for businesses throughout the United States and are a leading cause of inflation,” the letter read. “Businesses of all sizes are facing burdens from increased costs for goods, services, and transportation, which combined with tight labor markets, presents major headwinds for the U.S. economy.”

The letter argued that addressing climate change and energy security “are not mutually exclusive” and increasing domestic oil and natural gas production can “accelerate the energy transition” while simultaneously curbing cash to Russia and improving the lives of Americans.

“Also, Russian oil is among the dirtiest in the world, so displacing it with cleaner, less carbon intensive U.S. production would bring obvious environmental benefits,” the letter read.

Business leaders pointed to the Biden administration’s “mixed signals” on domestic energy production and outlined three major issues that should be addressed: Ending the ban on new oil and natural gas exploration on federal lands and waters, restoring canceled oil and gas lease sales and adopting a five-year plan for oil and gas development that allows the U.S. to maximize offshore potential.

“Federal lands and waters were responsible for 22 percent of all U.S. oil production and 12 percent of natural gas. Taking these resources off the table has a significant impact on U.S. and global energy supply, today and decades into the future,” the letter read.

“On July 1, the Department of Interior proposed a new plan that included an option to completely shut down offshore exploration by allowing no new leases, creating even more uncertainty,” it continued. “It is not reasonable to ask that companies make major, long-term investments without knowing whether exploration will even be permitted.

“We urge the adoption of a new 5-year plan by the end of the year that includes the maximum possible number of lease sales,” business leaders wrote.

The letter came around the same time the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries announced plans to cut back on oil production, a move that’s expected to contribute to a spike in energy prices in the U.S.

Louisiana organizations that signed onto the letter include the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, Chamber Southwest Louisiana, Greater Shreveport Chamber of Commerce, Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, Louisiana’s Committee of 100 for Economic Development, One Acadiana, and the Tangipahoa Chamber of Commerce.

“The world needs safe, affordable energy and thankfully America has plenty of it. It’s time to get America back in the game and the perfect place to start is the Gulf of Mexico,” said Louisiana Association of Business and Industry President Stephen Waguespack. “We know that producers along the Gulf Coast supply nearly 15 percent of our nation’s oil production, over 2 percent of our nation’s natural gas production and are capable of doing so much more. We need the Administration and Congress to stop tying the hands of our domestic energy producers at a time in which energy prices are rising and inflation remains at historic levels.

“America has the tools and resources, particularly right here in Louisiana and along the Gulf Coast, to maintain our position as a global energy leader,” Waguespack said. “It’s time to flip the switch on American energy and allow our energy creators to do what they do best.”

Last week, Yellowstone County Commissioners gave a green light to Mike Mayott, a member of the MetraPark Advisory Board and chairman of its Finance Committee to proceed with updating a study on the economic impact that MetraPark has on the Billings community.

The study will be done with the assistance of Patrick Klugman of Big Sky Economic Development Authority (BSEDA) and it will be funded by NorthWestern Energy.

By Casey Harper, The Center Square

Nearly three out of four Americans are becoming more concerned about rising prices, according to a new poll.

BMO Financial Group released survey data on the economy and inflation that showed that 74% of Americans say they are becoming increasingly worried about rising costs due to inflation.

“More than 70% feel their financial momentum is threatened by higher grocery bills (78%) and the rising cost of gas (76%),” the group said. “In order to prepare for a potential recession, 76% of Americans said they are making lifestyle changes such as delaying large purchases on a house or car, paying down debt, and cutting back on holiday spending.”

The poll, conducted with Ipsos, also found that “significantly fewer U.S. consumers feel confident about their financial situation compared to last quarter.”

That concern varies by age group.

“Older Americans report feeling more concerned than younger generations,” BMO said. “Between ages 55-64, 82% said their concerns about inflation have increased over the last three months, compared to 62% of those between ages 18-24 and 70% of those aged 25-34.”

The survey comes as the latest federal inflation data shows prices have continued to rise on a range of goods and service. The overall inflation rate has dipped in the past several weeks, but that is in part due to a decrease from record-high gas prices in June. After dipping for a couple of months, gas prices are now on the rise again.

Americans are also concerned about the impact of a recession.

“Nearly 8 in 10 Americans (76%) said they plan to adjust their lifestyles in response to recession concerns,” the survey said, with 34% “delaying major purchases, like buying a new home or car,” as well as 28% cutting down holiday spending, and 24% putting more money in savings.

“Americans who report being ‘more’ financially secure decreased to 39% from 50% a year ago and 47% last quarter,” BMO said. “Americans who said they feel ‘less’ financially secure, rose to 27% from 16% in the same quarter a year ago. The number of Americans who said they are making financial progress decreased to 54% from 62% a year ago. More than 40% of Americans under age 35 do not have enough savings to cover an emergency.”

Not everyone loses money because of inflation. When a business’ revenue is determined as a percentage of another business’ prices, profit margins automatically increase rapidly without relevance to costs. Such is the reality for a credit card company, whose fees are automatically included in the tab. Unaware of the invisible credit card charge, consumers tend to assume the higher prices are part of the profit margin of the small business with whom they are purchasing products and services.

In every case the small business takes it on the chin, often with little recourse.

Increasingly, small businesses are pushing back by itemizing the cost of credit card processing on the bill for customers paying with credit cards. Business owners report that actually seeing what they are paying to use a credit card often makes the customers angry –at the proprietor and not the necessarily the credit card company.  Fees can range from 2 percent to 4 percent.

Some businesses offer discounts to customers paying cash. And, increasingly, when possible, some businesses are refusing to accept credit cards, but not all businesses can do that.

Service providers who depend on tips also dislike it when their employer choses to itemize credit card fees because they tend to get smaller tips.

It’s a situation that largely exists because there is little competition in the world of credit card companies. Two bills in Congress are aimed at introducing more competition into the industry.

Small business owners often operate on razor-thin profit margins, margins that have been cut further in recent years as credit fees have more than doubled since 2012.

Explains the National Federation of Small Businesses Small (NFIB), businesses do not have the market power to negotiate with large credit card companies on swipe fees, so two identical pieces of legislation have been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate that would promote freedom of choice and allow small businesses the ability to choose between at least two credit card network options to process transactions.

NFIB has written letters of support and are urging members to also write letters to the House and Senate for H.R. 8874 and S. 4674. “The Credit Card Competition Act of 2022 would inject much-needed competition into the credit card processing market by allowing small businesses the freedom to choose between multiple processing networks,” said Jeff Brabant, NFIB Director of Federal Government Relations. “This legislation injects competition into the credit card processing market and reins in rapidly rising ‘swipe fees’ charged to small businesses that accept credit cards. It will harness the power of competition to give small business owners real choices when it comes to credit card processing networks. This competition will force networks to compete for business the same way that small businesses must compete for customers every day.”

Giving small business owners more credit card network options will force larger credit card companies to compete with each other to lower swipe fees and provide more options for small businesses.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that increasingly businesses are charging fees to process credit cards. Whereas five years ago only about two percent of the eight million US businesses that accept credit cards charged fees for processing credit card payments, that has been increasing, and now stands at about five percent.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) is also backing greater competition in the credit card industry, pointing out that the fees disproportionately impact small retail businesses. “It is small retailers who are calling for swipe fee reform more than any other segment of our industry. They pay the highest swipe fees and have the fewest resources to fight back against global credit card networks and Wall Street banks.”

Earlier this year Visa and Mastercard announced that it is imposing a $1.2 billion dollar increase in swipe fees. According to statistics from the NRF, credit card fees already account for more than $700 a year spent by the average American family.

Visa and Mastercard, which control 80 percent of the U.S. credit card market, centrally price-fix the swipe fees charged by banks that issue their cards even though many legal experts have said the practice violates federal antitrust law. The credit card “giants prevent their credit cards from being processed by competing independent networks, some of which could “do the job more securely and at lower cost,” according to NRF.

Not all of the fee charged goes to the credit card company some of it goes to the issuing bank.

 Visa processes 24,000 transactions a second, which in 2020 generated $21.8 billion in revenues.

Adaptive Performance Center (APC), a phenomenally successful veterans’ support organization that was founded in Billings just over two years ago, has received a $750,000 grant that opens wide the doors for its future and to be able to more completely meet the needs of its veteran members. One of APC’s  expansion goals is to open a similar facility in Helena.

The grant was part of $2.15 million in federal funding for Montana by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) under the Staff Sergeant Parker Gordon Fox Suicide Prevention Grant Program . Also receiving grants were the America Northern Rockies ($750,000), and the Rocky Boy Veterans Center in Box Elder ($650,000).

APC founders Karen Pearson and Mitch Crouse are ecstatic about winning the grant and the promise it holds for them to be able to expand the training and support they provide veterans and to expand those services.

APC is a gym for veterans and enlisted military, where they can meet and talk with like-minded individuals whose association helps to build inner strength and peace while building physical strength. Pearson and Crouse launched APC as a new concept, with no guidelines or guarantees or members. Today the non-profit organization has over 500 members.

So on- target was their concept that from Day One they began signing up members, and gaining sponsors who wanted to make sure no potential member has to be turned away because of any financial concerns. And, almost every day the APC trainers witness incredible success stories as one member or another achieves a goal.

The gym is almost a front for helping veterans get support and connection with other veterans and military people that they need, explains Pearson. And, it just happens naturally, as they regularly attend to work out.  The gym becomes a safe and comfortable place for them, where they find others who understand.

That they actually have an impact that helps troubled veterans who are struggling or who might even be suicidal is exactly the kind of outcome that Pearson and Crouse believed was possible given the opportunity for regular physical exercise. Now they can prove it.

Part of the grant requirements include the collection of data and documentation to prove their theory. Depending on how the first year goes with the grant funding they are eligible for grants in each of the next two years.  Pearson said that one of the purposes of the grant program is to show that there is programming available to impact the suicide rate and to demonstrate how APC can impact the suicide rate and help with mental health.

Pearson and Crouse each bring their own knowledge and unique experiences to APC. In each of their experiences in providing physical training for people, who had traumatic situations to deal with, they realized that physical exercise was hugely beneficial in that process. As Crouse frequently reiterates, “Move your body, heal your mind.”

Crouse learned that reality first hand in struggling to recover from a severe injury he suffered in a car accident. Pearson recognized the connection in dealing with patients who were veterans trying to integrate back into families and adapt to regular life after serving in the military. She saw them struggle with PTSD and knew those, who believing there was no hope, committed suicide.

With the grant funding, the first order of business has been to fill gaps in the support and services that they have identified over the past couple of years. “We can hire people to fill those gaps,” said Pearson.

They have hired four additional trainers in the gym, which means they don’t have to rely on volunteers and always have trainers available.

Two of the people they are hiring are Veteran’s Advocates – a man and a woman who will share a full-time position. The advocates are needed to help direct veterans how to deal with getting their needs met, and where to go, what processes are necessary. To help them fill out forms, etc. – “anything they need that is intimidating and frustrating and prompts them to give up,” said Pearson.

They are also hiring a part time therapist and acupuncturist, and a full time occupational therapist who will split their time between the gyms in Billings and Helena.

Getting a second APC off the ground has been a struggle because there is a shortage of the kind of space they need in Helena. But they have finally found a 9600 square foot building in which they will be able to duplicate the facility in Billings. They will also be hiring the same level of staffing in Helena.  Funding for most of the equipment and fixtures that will be needed has already been acquired from an early sponsor, said Crouse, and it is sitting in escrow waiting for a building. They plan to be open in January.

Montana ranks right at the top of having the highest suicide rate in the nation. Pearson noted that from 2018 to 2020 active duty suicide increased by more than 40 percent, and in 2020 in Alaska it jumped 15 percent.

The founding duo of APC urged that anyone who knows a veteran or active duty military, to urge them to check out their gym and services.

Anyone who has their D2-14 discharge papers can join ACP. It doesn’t matter where or when or how they served, they simply have to have served. The cost is $19.95 a month, but no one is turned away because of inability to pay. In fact, APC has numerous individuals, businesses and organizations, who have will pay the dues of anyone who can’t afford to do so. Between 35 and 40 percent of their members depend on such contributions, and they are very appreciative.

APC gym is located at 1420 Broadwater in Billings

By Evelyn Pyburn

Almost a fourth of Montana’s incumbent state legislators in Montana were ineligible to file for re-election this year because of term limits. It’s been over 30 years since Montana adopted term limits, amid much controversy and with lots of contrasting predictions about their impact.
So how have term limits impacted the state legislature and representative democracy?
Not very much, according to Brad Molnar, Laurel, who is a Montana State Senator, representing District 28. In fact, Molnar says there really are no term limits, given the options that state legislators may serve eight years in the House, eight years in the Senate, and then repeat.
In Montana, this year, according to Center Square, term limits accounted for 75 percent of the open districts in Montana, the largest percentage since 2014. The largest effect was on the state Senate, where they left 12 of the 25 districts holding elections open. In the House, 18 of the 100 districts up for election were left open.
Molnar is perhaps the only legislator who can compare the two eras as an active legislator. Not many people served in the state legislature 30 years ago and is a state legislator today. Molnar was first elected to public office in ‘93, as a Republican Representative. Term limits became a reality with the passage of Constitutional Initiative-64 in 1992.
After serving eight years in the House and being himself term-limited out, instead of running for the other house, as many legislators do, Molnar ran for the Public Service Commission, to which he was elected in 2004 and then re-elected in 2008.
Molnar then ran for Senator to represent District 28, in 2020. He assumed office on January 4, 2021 and his current term ends on January 6, 2025.
As a freshman legislator just learning the ropes 30 years ago, Molnar had an opportunity to gain some unique insights. He served with legislators who had already served 20 or 30 years when term limits went into effect and who were still able to serve another 8 years – so there were plenty of long-termers in the state legislature during Molnar’s tenure, and they were quite used to having things their way.
“In some ways the legislature was more constrained 30 years ago and in other ways it is more constrained now” says Senator Molnar.
Molnar discovered as a freshman legislator 30 years ago that the success of a bill depended upon “decisions of the leadership.” “The leaders determined if it would pass or not. It was not a partisan issue. You would stand in line because they had been in power so long and had developed friends over for so long – now you don’t see so much of that.”
The parties tend to stick together more now, said Molnar. Any horse trading that goes on tends to go on within the parties and there is considerably less bipartisanship negotiations.
And there are fewer caucuses. We used to have caucuses all the time. We would interrupt a debate and caucus to understand and talk it out. All of that has changed,” said Molnar. “Only two or three Senate caucuses were held last session.”
“We no longer talk together. We are preached to,” he added.
“First, ‘they’ would tell you not to bring a bill up,” if it was troublesome for some reason. But “if it came up, because the other side brought it up, then we had discussions, which we could do in caucuses because you could say things and you could change your mind as they were closed to the press.“
But now decisions are made in the “Solutions Caucus.” The Solutions Caucus, today, plays a key role in shaping state policy, according to Molnar — it is the center of power in the state legislature. “They call the shots…. that is where the money is. They join with Democrats on spending issues so the minority of the Republicans negates the majority of Republicans and tempers rise. Their ‘solutions’ are always bigger government. I am not aware of any of their solutions that do not now need solutions. ”
The Solutions Caucus has been described as a bloc of comparatively moderate Republicans who break rank with Conservatives to vote with Democrats in support of a measure. Explained one member of the caucus in a news report, “You get into the ring and you work to solve problems.”
Molnar has always been tenacious about any issue that violates the constitution – especially going back 30 years when the Constitution seemed far less in vogue as a political issue. Nowadays, the Constitution is on everyone’s lips, so is there more awareness of issues in relation to their Constitutionality?
Not at all, said Molnar, noting that there is a small cadre of legislators who do focus on issues from a Constitutional perspective, and they work together to try to bring awareness to others. “We fight for the rights of everybody,” he said. But, it is not a popular pursuit. There were several bills passed in the last state legislature, declared Molnar, which were “highly unconstitutional, and known to be so.”
In fact, Molnar said he is in agreement with about a third of the Court decisions that over turned 24 (so far) of the laws passed in the last session. He expressed concern, though, that the courts are activists attempting to write state law, usurping the legislature’s role.
Molnar lamented that today there is little depth to the discussion of issues. “It is all about talking points, not facts,” he said, “Before we dug into the facts. We listened to opposing points of view. There is a desire (now) to silence any dissent. Now it degenerates into name calling. I get in trouble for violating rules, when in fact the issue is the interpretation of a rule that seems to challenge dissent. Compared to past sessions, I have walked into an alternative reality.”
“Because I respect the constitutional limits placed on the legislature, I am a dinosaur now,” said Molnar.
One argument in opposition to term limits that was often raised was the claim that they would give the bureaucracy greater power. That didn’t happen, said Molnar. “The bureaucracy is more powerful, but not because of term limits, but because of the personal weaknesses of the legislators.”
Molnar said that the Republicans are so glad now to have a Republican Governor and to have a majority that that they are reluctant to rock the boat. This result is the silencing of many voices. “The Governor has a right to nominate his cabinet but legislators should ask challenging questions – you need people to ask questions, and get honest answers” said Molnar. Legislators are reluctant to ask questions and discouraged from doing so, according to Molnar.
CI-64 prohibited the following public officials from seeking re-election if they already held the office for 8 years in any 16-year period: Governor, Lt. Governor, Attorney General, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Secretary of State, State Auditor, State Representative, State Senator and US Congressional Representative.
In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down term limits on congressional terms, saying that states do not have the constitutional authority to regulate the tenure of federal legislators.