Opinion

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Like I Was Saying

Predictions for 2019

From Medicaid expansion to Flathead County's population growth, here's what I expect in the new year

Medicaid expansion continues, with caveats.

Republican legislative leaders, many from the Flathead, have already conceded that the debate over how to continue Medicaid expansion would likely overshadow everything else at the upcoming Legislative Session. What appears clear is that Medicaid expansion, which provides health insurance coverage to about 100,000 Montanans, will continue. The question is how. I’ll guess that Republicans win some concessions from Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, and work requirements or asset testing will be required of Medicaid enrollees, or both.

Construction in the valley slows, but barely.

I think construction will continue at a brisk pace across Northwest Montana, but it will soften — just a bit — from the previous years’ breakneck pace. Retail development has already showed signs of slowing, or, at least, catching its breath. Residential development will fill much of the void, but perhaps contractors will have better luck finding skilled trade workers.    

University of Montana’s enrollment increases, finally.

Enrollment at one of the state’s flagship universities and my alma mater has fallen for eight consecutive years. Last fall, it dipped below 11,000 for the first time since 1993 to 10,962 students. That’s the bad news. The good news: In October, according to the Missoulian, the school reported that it had received 123 percent more applications from prospective students than it had at the same time a year prior. The bleak streak will finally be broken.

Liquor license laws get a ton of attention, but nothing changes.

Another Legislative Session means more buzz about Montana potentially changing its alcohol regulations, particularly the contentious quota system limiting the number of bars, restaurants and casinos that can sell alcohol. The law dates back to 1947, after Prohibition ended, and has been argued about during every Session in recent memory. During a Chamber of Commerce event last month, Rep. Mark Noland, R-Bigfork, chair of the House Business and Labor Committee, said he had already received more than 30 bills to address the state’s liquor licensing laws. A license in one of Montana’s fastest-growing cities can fetch $500,000, or is unavailable, which critics contend prevents new businesses from opening. The question is how to make changes to the quota system without devaluing current licenses. It’s a question lawmakers have been unable to answer and likely won’t this Session either.

Someone leases the old Herberger’s, please.

Just a year after the local Herberger’s completed a massive expansion and renovation, the Kalispell Center Mall anchor department store announced in April that it would close following its parent company’s bankruptcy. Left behind is roughly an 80,000-square-foot vacancy in downtown. The updated space could be attractive to a variety of businesses. And, with the adjacent Kalispell Trail inching closer to breaking ground, I think a new tenant signs on the dotted line by the end of the year.

Flathead County added another 2,000 people, at least.

The U.S. Census Bureau will release county population estimates in the coming months, and I predict that we added at least 2,000 residents between 2017 and 2018. That’s lower than the previous year (2,307), but slightly higher than our population growth from 2015 to 2016 (1,955). The Census released statewide population estimates last month that showed Montana grew by about 9,000 people between 2017 and 2018, slightly down from the previous year.