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Montana’s jobless rate is better than the nation’s, but it still leaves thousands of Montanans out of work in the wake of the great recession.

This is a time to focus on creating new jobs in our great state. We need new businesses to provide good jobs, and we need to encourage hiring by employers already doing business in Montana.

Among the tools that Montana communities have used to attract and support new jobs that pay well are workforce training grants. In Billings alone, $2.7 million in state workforce training grants have been used since 2007 in connection with the creation of 550 new jobs. According to Steve Arveschoug, executive director of Big Sky Economic Development Authority, this state training investment leveraged $140 million in capital from other sources.

Within the next two years, the Billings area has the potential of attracting 400 new jobs that would qualify employers for the state workforce training incentives.

However, the money won’t be available if current legislation becomes law. First, a cut of nearly $3 million remains in the state budget for the Primary Sector Job Workforce Training Grant. This training grant money has been available to employers who are paying at least the state average wages and benefits and that have 50 percent or greater out-of-state sales.

Separately, House Bill 140 proposes to divert $3 million over the next two years to the general fund from the Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund. The economic development trust fund was established by the Legislature several years ago with a portion of state coal tax revenues. Interest earnings from the fund are available annually for grants to employers for training and equipping workers in new jobs paying more than the average county wage.

Together, these two 2011 legislative proposals would slash $6 million in employer incentives that local economic development agencies from Libby to Ashland have used to bring new businesses and new jobs to their communities.

The cuts themselves would be problematic in good times, but in this period of slow economic recovery, other states are continuing or stepping up their economic development incentives.

According to the Montana Economic Developers Association, Montana’s neighbors aren’t reducing their incentives for businesses to choose them for new job locations. Idaho reportedly isn’t considering any cut to workforce training and incentive programs. Wyoming has set aside $15 million just to attract two data centers. North Dakota has beefed up its workforce incentives, while South Dakota is keeping all economic development programs intact.

Many factors help a business decide where to locate or expand. Quality of life, availability of workers, business taxes and regulation count, but so do incentives such as the training grants.

Without these incentives, Montana will be less able to compete successfully with other states. And worse, as Arveschoug said, Montana communities will have to compete against each other for too few dollars.

Slashing both of these job training incentive programs will handicap economic development efforts. We ask Montana lawmakers and Gov. Brian Schweitzer to reject this double whammy on good-job creation.

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