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Addressing Montana’s economic challenges and opportunities

by Jason Ellsworth
| June 26, 2022 12:00 AM

As we begin to approach the 2023 legislative session, Montana workers, families, employers, and elected officials are all facing a unique combination of opportunities and challenges that we haven’t seen before.

In many ways, Montana’s economy is better than ever. Governor Greg Gianforte recently announced that our unemployment rate remains at a record low while more Montanans are working than ever before. The Treasure State’s economy and personal incomes are growing at the fastest rates in 40 and 15 years, respectively.

This success, along with our status as a freedom-loving state and our vast open spaces has spurred interest in Montana—as a place to start a business, to raise a family, to retire, and to buy property. The cost to own or rent a home has skyrocketed as demand has outstripped supply. Massive inflation created by reckless federal spending and the shortage of workers to fill all the open jobs add significantly to our economic challenges.

We can’t as a state completely overcome national and international trends on things like inflation, workforce shortages, or the possibility of a looming recession. But what we can do at the legislative level boils down to three main categories: cut costs where possible, enable innovation, and protect what we already have.

Cutting costs and enabling innovation includes removing red tape that is holding back Montana entrepreneurs, like when we removed barriers on telehealth and direct patient care health providers last legislative session. Next session we’ll be looking at unnecessary housing regulations that drive up the cost of building and buying a home, as well as lowering property taxes. Governor Gianforte’s administration also has engaged in a multi-year Red Tape Relief effort and I’m excited to see what proposals his team brings forward.

Enabling innovation and upward mobility also means both preparing the next generation and making Montana competitive for business. We took many steps in the right direction last year, including passing legislation to raise starting teacher pay, encourage career and technical education, cut business equipment taxes, and reduce and simplify income taxes. Senator Steve Daines, Governor Gianforte, and business leaders touted these and other reforms at the recent “Montana on the Rise” Economic Summit.

Going forward, we must build on these first important reforms and investments. The Legislature recently got all the major constitutional players in our public education system together around the same table to discuss next steps to better prepare Montana students for their future careers. We’re also in the middle of an historic investment in broadband Internet to close the digital divide, give rural communities a more level playing field, and create opportunities in every corner of Big Sky Country. Further, Montana’s potential to produce abundant and cheap energy should be unleashed.

Finally, we must protect what makes Montana the Last Best Place, including our traditional values and the rights and freedoms we cherish. It also means conserving and increasing public access to the great outdoors, such as the Legislature’s investments in the Lower Yellowstone and Somers Beach public access projects last year.

In the 2021 legislative session, we created a solid foundation that is already spurring job creation and wage growth. In the 2023 session, I hope Democrats will join us in building on that foundation to continue making the most of Montana’s opportunities and meeting the challenges we face. We all recognize those challenges. To address them, Republicans will bring policies to cut costs, enable innovation, and protect what we cherish about Montana. Those solutions should have appeal across the political spectrum.

Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, is the President Pro Tempore of the Montana Senate.

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