Which Ratings to Believe

What may have an outsized influence on this gubernatorial race is largely out of either of these candidates’ control

By Kellyn Brown

Republican candidate for governor Greg Gianforte says he will focus on jobs during his campaign and has embarked on a “Regulation Roundup” tour across the state. The health of Montana’s economy will be the focus of this year’s elections and who controls the narrative may decide whether incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock keeps his job.

How is the state’s economy faring? The answer is complicated and depends largely in which part of Montana you live. At 6.2 percent, Flathead County’s jobless rate is much improved from four years ago, when it stood above 10 percent as the recession lingered. Montana’s overall rate stands at 4 percent, the 13th-best in the country, but now fears have surfaced in eastern Montana as the energy sector suffers and sheds jobs.

Beyond the jobless rate, which on its face would appear to bolster Bullock, Gianforte has highlighted Montana’s wages, which are some of the lowest in the country on average, and touted his experience in the tech sector as tailor-made to improve them.

According to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, our state ranks 47th out of 50 states with an average annual wage of $38,874, ahead of only Mississippi, Idaho and South Dakota. The agency points to several factors to explain why Montanans are paid less. For one, the state “has a high employment concentration in the leisure services industry, which tends to have both low wages and a high share of part-time employment.” Another contributor is that Montana has few large businesses, which tend to pay more than small businesses.

To Gianforte’s credit, he founded a company, RightNow Technologies, which grew into a big business in Bozeman and created hundreds of high-paying jobs. Gianforte sold his company in 2012 to Oracle for $1.8 billion.

For his part, Bullock can point to a solid record that shows Montana, while still lagging in wages, rates well in other areas. He cited many of them recently on his Twitter feed. Perhaps the most impressive, and which was covered by the national media, is Montana’s ranking by the Kauffman Foundation as the state with the highest level of startup activity for three consecutive years. Part of that entrepreneurship was out of necessity; about three in 10 of our residents created their own jobs directly from unemployment, but it’s still a big deal.

Other high rankings the governor highlighted were the number of Montanans over 25 with at least a high school education (No. 2 among states, according to the U.S. Census); business tax climate (No. 6, according to the Tax Foundation); and per capita income growth (No. 6, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce).

Expect to hear a lot about these ratings in the months ahead. And expect Gianforte to point to reports that show the economy’s vulnerabilities, like the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research report he quotes on his website that concludes, “Montana’s economy may not generate sufficient opportunities for young, college-educated workers.”

Bullock’s right; Montana’s economy is growing. So is Gianforte; wages aren’t keeping up with that growth and, thus, many young people leave the state seeking higher-paying jobs. And both men can point to their experience as evidence that they can do better.

What may have an outsized influence on this gubernatorial race is largely out of either of these candidates’ control. The national economy, which Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said could be rattled by weakness overseas and a recent sell-off in stocks, could be a determining factor in how we vote come November. By then, we may be more impressionable about which ratings to believe.

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