The Montana Farm Bureau was thrilled to learn that the Montana agreement for the Cooperative Interstate Shipping (CIS) program has been finalized by the United State Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service. Authorized in 2008 and launched by USDA in 2012, the CIS program permits selected state-inspected establishments that comply with federal inspection requirements to ship their product in interstate commerce. Montana joins only nine other states approved and certified for the CIS program.

During the 2021 Montana Legislative Session, there was extensive discussion regarding the expansion of meat processing capacity, as well as value added opportunities for all segments of agriculture. The Montana Legislature elected to invest American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds and regular state managed dollars into many different projects including meat processing, addressing the need for more meat processing capacity.

At MFBF’s request, the Montana Legislature allocated funding and directed the Department of Livestock could pursue CIS certification. This action supported value added agriculture even further, by helping give ranchers expanded access to consumer markets outside of Montana’s borders.

“I first learned about the Cooperative Interstate Shipping (CIS) program in 2020, when our former MFBF president, Hans McPherson and I were participating on American Farm Bureau’s Livestock Working Group, which was tasked with looking into ways to improve state and federal laws and regulations for the benefit of cattle ranchers across the country,” said MFBF Senior Governmental Affairs Director Nicole Rolf.

“The CIS program preserves and strengthens state meat inspection programs and expands existing plants’ abilities to market meat across state lines, giving cattle ranchers more marketing opportunities and broader markets,” noted Rolf. “The timing just seemed to be right for Montana, where we are lucky to have a healthy blend of custom exempt, state inspected, and federally inspected plants already. When the Montana Legislature decided to pursue this USDA-FSIS approved program with the goal of expanding marketing capabilities for Montana ranchers, MFBF was very appreciative.”

Montana State Veterinarian Marty Zaluski said the agreement benefits the state two-fold. “It no longer restricts our processors from selling across our borders, as they will have the same privileges as USDA-inspected plants. In addition, the CIS certification means the program is funded so the inspection service does not cost the plant any more money. Having a state inspector at a plant is a cost share with the USDA of 50/50, meaning fifty percent comes from the federal government and the Montana General Fund matches it. With CIS, because we have to do things exactly as the federal inspectors do, the USDA increases their share to 60 percent.”

In a Department of Livestock questionnaire on becoming CIS certified, Zaluski noted that 15 plants expressed interest. “That’s nearly 50 percent of all our 31 state-inspected establishments, which includes state-inspected processing and slaughter facilities. We will be meeting with the FSIS regarding how to bring these state-inspected packing plants on board,” said Zaluski. “We believe the FSIS plans to visit those plants to work out the details on how to do an inspection to achieve CIS certification.”

“MFBF is ecstatic to see this program signed into existence for our state,” concluded Rolf.  “As state-inspected meat plants opt in to the program, ranchers seeking to market beef directly to consumers will have one more avenue to do so, no matter where in the country those customers and potential customers live. We appreciate the support from the Governor, the work of the Department of Livestock, and the support from the Montana Legislature to get this done in such a timely fashion.”

IRS Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI) released investigational statistics about COVID-related fraud investigations conducted by the agency over the past two years.

The agency investigated 660 tax and money laundering cases related to COVID fraud, with alleged fraud in these cases totaling $1.8 billion. These cases included a broad range of criminal activity, including fraudulently obtained loans, credits and payments meant for American workers, families, and small businesses.

“The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was signed into law nearly two years ago as a safety net for Americans in light of an unprecedented health crisis. Unfortunately, even during times of crisis, criminals pop their heads out to look for ways to take advantage of those in their most vulnerable state. Thanks to the investigative work of IRS-CI special agents and our law enforcement partners, we’ve ensured criminals who try to defraud CARES Act programs face consequences for their actions,” said IRS-CI Chief Jim Lee. 

As a result of the investigations, the consequences include a 100% conviction rate for prosecuted cases with prison sentences averaging 42 months.

The IRS Criminal Investigation Denver Field Office conducts investigations throughout Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. IRS-CI encourages the public to report known or suspected fraud attempts .To report a suspected crime, taxpayers may visit IRS.gov.

Some states are suspending their gas taxes in order to make gasoline cheaper for their citizens. Georgia and Maryland are such examples, where taxes add 30 cents and more to the cost of a gallon of gasoline. California adds 67 cents. In Montana, as of Jan. 1, 2022, tax on a gallon of gas was 33.3 cents, ranking Montana 21st for the highest gas tax.

Gas prices are hovering near all-time highs in the United States. The average price of a gallon of regular gasoline stood at $4.24 as of March 23 – up 70 cents from a month ago.

What Americans pay at the pump is subject to a number of factors – the most important of which is the price of crude oil, which is determined by global supply and demand. As major markets around the world have banned Russian oil imports amid the ongoing war in Ukraine, the global energy market has tightened considerably, sending gas prices to record highs.

While shocks to the global energy market are largely out of the control of U.S. policymakers, other factors affecting gas prices are not, namely taxes. The federal government levies a tax of 18.4 cents on every gallon of gas sold to American motorists.

On top of the federal gas tax, as of January 2022, Montana levied an additional tax of 33.3 cents per gallon – the 21st highest gas tax among states. Currently, the average price of a gallon of gas in Montana stands at $4.02. Including the federal tax, taxes account for 12.8% of the average price of a gallon of gas in the state.

Gas taxes are typically used to fund road and highway repair projects to fix damage caused by usage and wear. In Montana, vehicle miles traveled per year total about 14,670 per driver, the 14th most among states.

Not only are taxes adding to the pain Americans are feeling at the pump, but the revenue they generate has failed to keep up with infrastructure maintenance costs and inflation. While many states are adjusting tax rates to address the shortfall, the federal gas tax has not changed since 1993.

Montana’s unemployment rate hit another record low in February, dropping to 2.6% for the month, down from January’s rate of 2.7%. Montana’s total employment and labor force continued to show strong growth in February, both setting new all-time highs.

The struggle for employers to find employees may be more to do with the increase in the number of jobs and income opportunities than to the common refrain that “no one wants to work.” Montana’s total employment, which includes payroll, agricultural, and self-employed workers, rose by 2,328 in February to 542,086, the highest level of employment recorded in Montana history.

Montana’s unemployment rate is the 5th lowest in the nation. Ranking higher than Montana is Indiana, Utah, Nebraska, and Kansas, according to WalletHub.com. Rounding out the top ten after Montana is Oklahoma, Alabama, New Hampshire and Arizona.

District of Columbia has had the least bounce back, ranking dead last. California is then 50th below, Hawaii, New Mexico, Maryland, Massachusetts, Texas, Alaska, Connecticut, and Delaware.

While Montana’s unemployment rate was 2.6% in February, the unemployment rate for the U.S. was 3.8%.

Montana gained nearly 4,000 construction jobs during the pandemic period dating from February 2020 to January of 2022. This equates to an 11.4 percent increase in the number of construction workers in the state, leading the nation according to a press release this week from the Associated General Contractors of America.

While almost half of the country – 21 states and the District of Columbia – lost construction jobs during this same time period, Montana’s employment levels have remained strong. “I think the message is clear – construction is open for business and we’re hiring,” says David Smith, MCA Executive Director. “While most industries have struggled through these difficult times, construction continues to provide stable employment with wages that offer higher pay, great benefits, and the opportunity to grow your career.”

Construction has also been hit considerably hard with the nation-wide supply chain shortages. As supply chains began flowing again after Covid mandates started to ease across the country, many contractors were faced with not only materials shortages, but also steep increases in the costs of those materials. Despite all these challenges, construction in Montana picked up 3,500 jobs in the past two years. “Construction was deemed an essential industry, and Montana contractors worked hard keeping worksites open,” Smith said. “While many industries and businesses had to close their doors temporarily, construction in Montana was able to take advantage of the opportunity that allowed us to keep workers employed.”

The Montana Contractors Association, a chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), is a trade organization representing commercial, industrial and public works construction firms. Our Mission is simple: Working together, we advocate for quality contractors, people, and projects by providing value and opportunity for our members. Learn more at www.mtagc.org.

Plowing of Glacier National Park’s roads has begun. Crews started on the east side of the pass on March 25 and the west side clearing of Going-to-the-Sun Road should begin during the first week in April. Backcountry reservations opened last week for the 2022 season.

The founders of Alchemy Lounge on Kalispell’s First Avenue, owned by the Costa family, has opened the newly remodeled lounge. Alchemy Lounge is located at 139 1st Avenue West in Kalspell.

West End Farms, a development that would be a mix of high- and low-density housing with various components such as community gardens is asking the neighborhoods around Hellegate Elementary School for their response to the 240 housing unit development.

Montana gained roughly 3,500 construction jobs during the pandemic from February of 2020 to January of 2022. That’s an 11.4% increase, the highest percent increase of any state in the country, according to the Associated General Contractors of America. Almost half the states in the U.S. lost construction jobs during that same time period.

The Higgins Avenue Corridor Plan began last year with efforts aimed at understanding the priorities of residents and business owners for this part of downtown Missoula. With this input  in mind, the project team has developed several alternatives and is seeking comments. The community will have multiple opportunities to view the Higgins Avenue Corridor Plan and provide feedback.

Desert Mountain Broadcasting purchased five radio stations in Bozeman, formerly owned by Reier Broadcasting Co. recently. Desert Mountain Broadcasting is building brand-new studios for the five stations as they come back on the air.

Backcountry, an online retailer of outdoor gear and apparel, plans to move into the Gallatin Laundry Company building in Bozeman, at the corner of East Babcock Street and South Bozeman during the summer of 2022. The Utah-based online retailer has three retail storefronts. Two are in Utah in Park City and West Valley City, and the other in Boulder, Colorado.

Clean up of the Ponderosa building property has remained on hold since the February 13 fire in downtown Glendive. The Glendive City Council recently heard concerns from several business owners about the effects and threat the Ponderosa building has on their businesses. Following the  fire that destroyed the property, two freestanding walls of the Ponderosa building  remain and half of the block is fenced off, preventing traffic in the area.

According to oil industry analysts they do not think high oil prices will cause a surge in drilling  wells in North Dakota and Montana’s Bakken. Rig counts are up a small number in both states. Higher oil prices have been prompting some companies to restart marginal wells that had been uneconomical at past prices, Most of these wells are in Montana. Lack of workers and supply chain logistics remain challenges in both Montana and North Dakota,

Older workers, workers with disabilities, veterans and workers who have been involved in the justice system all offer labor opportunities for businesses willing to get creative with their recruitment. Retirees are the largest population of potential workers who aren’t involved in the labor force, according to statistics from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry indicating 60% of those not in the labor force list retirement as their primary reason for non-participation.

Pursuit Glacier Park Collection has announced their purchase of the Glacier Raft Co. in West Glacier. Glacier Raft Compnay has been in business for 46 years. The sale includes 50 acres, equipment, 14 log cabins, a main lodge, retail store and wedding venue. Pursuit owns the Glacier Park Lodge, the Grouse Mountain Lodge in Whitefish, the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park plus other lodging and recreational businesses in the area. Glacier Raft Co. runs raft trips down the Middle Fork.

Crumbl Cookie had their grand opening on the 1st of April in Helena. The address is 2030 Cromwell Dixon Lane #J. 

Montana’s latest oil sale ran from Feb. 22 to March 1. Roosevelt County had the highest prices per acre — ranging from $110 to $285 an acre. Western Shale put in the winning $285 per acre bid, for 360 acres. Irish oil, meanwhile, took the other three tracts totaling 779 acres for a total of $210,225.

Schlumberger, Halliburton, and Baker Hughes have all announced they have begun to draw down activities in Russia and will make no new investments.

Butler Machinery Company president announced  the purchase of existing buildings in both Watertown, South Dakota, and Sidney, Montana—a brand new territory for Butler. The Sidney facility, formerly B&B Rentals near the intersection of MT-16 and MT-23, will open as a Butler Ag Equipment store and will be Butler’s first store in Montana and 20th store location overall. Butler Ag Equipment is a division of Butler Machinery Company, focusing only on agriculture equipment lines. The new Sidney location will be Butler’s fifth store branded as Butler Ag Equipment and will offer the full line of AGCO equipment brands, select CLAAS equipment and other smaller ag-focused lines, as well as ag technology, parts and service.

Fort Harrison VA Medical Center in Helena has received a five-star patient experience rating from Becker’s Healthcare Hospital. The Becker’s Healthcare survey compiles a list of the best hospitals around the country. Fort Harrison VA has many services for former and current military men and women, such as primary care, specialty services and mental health.

Hamilton based Cultured Travel LLC is a boutique travel agency founded on the belief that travel can change the world through connection. The company owner is Valerie Edman. The company specializes in arranging luxury experiential travel.

U.S. shale oil and gas producers Oasis Petroleum Inc.  and Whiting Petroleum Corp  have merged. The combined value of the two companies would be around $6.07 billion, according to Reuters, based on Oasis valued at $2.80 billion and Whiting at $3.27 billion. Both companies filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2020 after the energy industry reeled under an unprecedented crash in oil prices due to the COVID-19 market mandates, with Whiting the first publicly traded shale producer to file for bankruptcy when it did so in April of that year.

North Dakota’s biggest oil driller said it will commit $250 million to help fund a proposed pipeline that would gather carbon dioxide produced by ethanol plants across the Midwest and pump it thousands of feet underground for permanent storage. Continental Resources, headed by Harold Hamm, discussed the investment into Summit Carbon Solutions’ $4.5 billion pipeline at an ethanol plant in eastern North Dakota. The plant is one of 31 ethanol facilities across Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and the Dakotas, where emissions would be captured and piped to western North Dakota and buried deep underground.  The project is one of at least two major CO2 pipelines planned for the Midwest. Navigator CO2 Ventures is planning a 1,200 mile pipeline through Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota and Illinois. The Trump administration in 2018 gave North Dakota the power to regulate underground wells used for long-term storage of waste carbon dioxide.  The state has since invested heavily in carbon capture and sequestration technology.

Gallatin County’s residential real estate market with low inventory and strong demand continues to fuel higher prices. The median sales price for condos and townhomes saw the most significant increase at 85.3%. In year-over-year numbers, median sale prices are up 47.9% for all property types. New single-family listings were down 26.3% in February 2022 compared to last year, falling from 118 to 87. Pending sales decreased 10.4%, from 96 to 86, and closed sales decreased 6.1%, from 82 to 77. The average number of days homes spent on the market was down 11.9%, from 42 to 37. Median sales prices jumped 48.7%, from $602,500 to $896,000, and sellers received 99.5% of their list price, a slight increase from 99.1% last February. The inventory of homes for sale fell 36.8%, from 144 to 91. The months supply of inventory decreased 30%,

Montana will be receiving $43 million of federal funds to subsidize the building of charging stations for electric vehicles along US Highways over five years. The funds are part of $7.5 billion that was included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Of that total, $5 billion will go to states under the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Formula Program.

The funding will be administered by the Montana Department of Transportation in collaboration with the Energy Office at the Department of Environmental Quality. A plan must be submitted by Aug. 1 on how the money will be used to subsidize private investment. “The Montana Energy Office at DEQ has developed expertise in electric vehicle charging infrastructure through the 2017 settlement with Volkswagen,” said DEQ Director Chris Dorrington. “Efficient distribution of these new federal funds will support on-going private investment in this growing area of need for electric vehicle charging infrastructure in Montana.”

The federal funding can cover up to 80 percent of the costs associated with the electric vehicle charging infrastructure and the remainder will come from private investment—meaning state funds will not need to be used to match. DEQ’s Fast Charge Your Ride Program awarded funding in 2021 using the same cost share model to partner with private entities.

 “The Montana Energy Office at DEQ has developed expertise in electric vehicle charging infrastructure through the 2017 settlement with Volkswagen,” said DEQ Director Chris Dorrington. “Efficient distribution of these new federal funds will support on-going private investment in this growing area of need for electric vehicle charging infrastructure in Montana.”

 “This is a great opportunity for Montana to combine federal funding with private investment to create 21st century transportation infrastructure,” said MDT Director Mack Long. “Government works best when it works together with the private sector. This program will be a great opportunity to display effective public-private partnerships that serve the traveling public in Montana.”

The funding will initially be limited to highway corridors that have been designated as Alternative Fuel Corridors by the Federal Highway Administration. In Montana that includes Interstate 15, Interstate 90 and Interstate 94, along with U.S. Highway 2 and Highway 93.

Montana must develop and submit an “Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Deployment Plan” by Aug. 1. DEQ will lead the development of the plan in coordination with MDT. A virtual information session is planned for April 4 from 1–2 p.m.

By Bob Pepalis,The Center Square

Montana’s favorable ranking for low taxes doesn’t mean that property owners aren’t concerned with taxes, according to the head of the Montana Taxpayers Association.

WalletHub recently ranked Montana third after Alaska and Delaware in its report on “States with the Highest and Lowest Tax Rates.” The state has a 7.11% median tax rate, which includes state and local taxes, according to the personal finance website.

“We’re highly dependent on income and property taxes. The property taxes are a concern to a lot of people,” Bob Story, executive director of the Montana Taxpayers Association, told The Center Square.

The nonpartisan group researches tax and government spending, and works with the public and private sectors to develop fair, equitable and predictable tax policies, according to its website.

The state has a corporate income tax. Businesses to some extent that are invested heavily in property and equipment as opposed to those mainly invested in personnel would be affected by the tax rates WalletHub measured, Story said.

“I don’t know how many businesses are really greatly concerned about income taxes in the state, as long as they’re not extremely out of the line,” Story said.

Businesses generally move more for aesthetic reasons unless they are involved in something like mining or heavy manufacturing that requires them to be in a specific location, he said.

People moving to Montana are driving home prices, Story added.

People moving to Montana have a significantly higher income than the average in Montana, according to a recent report by the Montana Legislative Fiscal Division.

“They’re buying houses as a sight-unseen case deal, and they’re just getting out of, getting away from wherever they were, and getting into a more rural area,” Story said.

The report said the growth of Montana’s population accelerated in calendar year (CY) 2020 and especially 2021.

“With these new individuals comes an increasing tax base, and if trends continue with those seen in CY 2019 and CY 2020, these new taxpayers will bring incomes typically larger than existing Montana residents, especially for those aged over 65,” according to the report.

A lot of people who moved to Montana keep their job because they can work over the internet and don’t have to be at their original location, Story said, noting that’s a big change in the economy that has an effect on the tax systems. 

The National Association of Home Builders and Montana Building Industry Association endorsed former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke for Montana’s first Congressional District. The Montana Building Industry Association is made up of 1,500 construction companies and allied tradesmen from across Montana.

“Quality and affordable housing is becoming an endangered species in Montana, but the answer cannot be for the government to simply spend more taxpayers’ money and build government housing,” said Ryan Zinke. “A better solution is for the government to keep compliance and regulatory costs low, do their part to streamline permitting, fix the broken supply chain, encourage education in the skilled trades, and help ensure the goal of homeownership is achievable for qualifying Montanans. Whether one rents or owns, we rely on the skilled tradesmen and small businesses in the homebuilder industry to put a roof over our head. I’m honored to have their support.”   

“The Montana Building Industry Association is happy to stand behind the NAHB and their endorsement of Ryan Zinke for election to Congress,” said Cory Shaw, Executive Director of the Montana Building Industry Association. “Ryan has continually supported our mission and we are confident that he will continue to push housing affordability as a primary focus in his initiatives. We are proud to support Ryan as he seeks to drive development and our economy and we look forward to celebrating his success.”

According to a presentation to the Montana State Legislature in October 2021 by the Pew Charitable Trust, Montana’s population “increased by 10% between 2010 and 2020, while the number of housing units in the state grew by only 7%, in part causing a shortage of homes and an increase in home prices.” Additional factors for radical increases in home prices are short term rentals, availability of materials, and inflation.

A January 2022 report by the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) details housing prices rose 21.3% in Missoula, 13.1% in Billings, 12.3 % in Great Falls, and the highest spike was in “Gallatin County, where the median home price soared 30% to nearly $700,000.”

“During his time in Congress and as Interior Secretary, Ryan made housing and homeownership a top national priority and understands that working to address America’s housing affordability challenge and expanding housing opportunities for all Americans is essential to the economic and social well-being of our nation,” said NAHB Chairman Jerry Konter.

Governor Greg Gianforte has invited Minnesota small business owners to bring their businesses and good-paying jobs to Montana as they face massive tax hikes in Minnesota.

“As a business leader and entrepreneur, I understand it’s critical for the success of your business to have tax and regulatory stability and certainty, which allows you to thrive, create jobs, and increase opportunities. Anything less than certainty and stability is bad for business, the governor wrote in an open letter to Minnesota small business owners.

“I write to offer you greater tax and regulatory certainty as well as a business-friendly climate in Montana,” the governor continued.

State leaders in Minnesota failed to replenish the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund after borrowing funds from the federal government during the pandemic. The fund, which is $1.3 billion in debt, will now be filled with revenue from a 30% tax hike on first quarter payroll tax bills for Minnesota businesses.

Writing to fellow entrepreneurs and business owners in Minnesota, Gov. Gianforte outlined what makes Montana the best place to do business, including a stable, predictable climate for business, a recently overhauled pro-business, pro-jobs tax code, and a 2021 tax cut that provides $120 million in permanent tax relief for Montanans.

“These are just a few reasons why Montana was recently ranked the best state to start a small business,” the governor wrote.

The governor also emphasized Montana’s excellent quality of life, rich outdoor heritage, and Montanan’s work ethic which set the Treasure State apart.

Reflecting on his success building a business in Montana and creating 500 high-wage Montana jobs, the governor wrote, “We only succeeded because of Montanans’ strong work ethic. I’m confident you can find success here too.”

Gov. Gianforte concluded, “If you value freedom and free enterprise and are looking for a location to do business that has a stable, predictable, business-friendly climate, look no further than Montana.”