Montana Chamber of Commerce Presents Business Agenda in Bigfork

Focus on workforce, high-paying jobs, business equipment tax concerns

By Clare Menzel

State legislators, local representatives, and businesspeople met with Montana Chamber of Commerce staff Sept. 7 at Glacier Bank in Bigfork to discuss the chamber’s 10-year strategic plan and trends in the statewide economy.

The chamber’s new Envision 2026 plan aims to “create the opportunity for business growth and prosperity” in Montana over the coming decade by promoting legislative efforts to improve workforce development, general business climate, infrastructure, and entrepreneurship. Envision 2026 names four primary goals for the state: to remain among the top 10 states in per-capita personal income growth and GDP growth, and emerge among the top 10 in job growth and the top 25 in per-capita personal income.

Chamber President and CEO Webb Brown presented the organization’s endorsements for the upcoming election, which include Ryan Zinke for Congress, Greg Gianforte for governor, Tim Fox for attorney general, and Corey Stapleton for Secretary of State. In the interest of supporting a “balanced Supreme Court, resulting in a predictable business environment,” the Chamber also endorses Mike McGrath for Supreme Court Justice, and Kristen Juras and Jim Shea for seats on the court.

Montana Chamber Communications Director Nate Kavanagh also discussed the high school business challenge, an eight-week program during which high school students statewide compete in a stock market simulation to build the most valuable stock. Bigfork Chamber Executive Director Heather Burnham said both students and the community are looking forward to participating this year.

When opened up to the meeting’s attendees, conversation turned to the prospect of eliminating Montana’s business equipment tax, which requires businesses that own equipment valued between $100,000 and $6 million to pay a 1.5 percent tax, and businesses with equipment valued over $6 million to pay a 3 percent tax.

Interest in the tax has grown locally since Casey Malmquist, president and general manager of Columbia Falls-based SmartLam, cited it as one reason his company may look elsewhere to build the world’s largest cross-laminated timber development site. States including Washington and North Dakota offer exemptions for manufacturing equipment purchases or other similar incentives.

Though agreeing that the tax isn’t competitive, State Sen. Bob Keenan commented that the tax produces a valuable contribution to the general fund.

Brown said that while “we recognize where the money is and isn’t, it’s ultimately a goal of ours [to eliminate the tax,] and if it’s in 10 years, we want to keep working toward it. We’ve been chipping away at it.”

“We think it’s not competitive (and) we think it puts us at a disadvantage,” he added. “I just don’t think we’re going to see it in this [upcoming legislative] session.”

The meeting concluded with a discussion on the challenge of balancing the loss of skilled manufacturing jobs with the growth of the service industry, where wages are typically lower.

“We can see logging disappear and now we’ve lost Plum Creek,” Keenan said. “We can see the aluminum industry disappearing … We’re probably going to lose coal as well. Service industry jobs, I know those aren’t high-paying jobs. The jobs we’re losing are high-paying jobs.”

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