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A state as vast and diverse as Montana needs a multitude of economic development tools — programs the fit different types of business and communities.

The Montana Legislature and Gov. Marc Racicot recognized that need 20 years ago by establishing a suite of economic development tools for Main Street businesses. These programs were re-authorized ten years ago and are now approaching sunset on July 1 — unless they are renewed this legislative session.

The Department of Commerce and an impressive list of Montana businesses have asked the Legislature to lift the sunset as proposed in House Bill 52, sponsored by Rep. Jim Keane, D-Butte. The proposal doesn't request an increase in funding, just level-dollar funding. HB52 has virtually no opposition, yet it remains in House Appropriations Committee a month after its hearing while the clock ticks toward the session's adjournment next month.

So we are calling on lawmakers to take notice of HB52 and give it the prompt attention it deserves. This is a very modest request for funding that would sustain these economic development programs. Without action, these tools will be lost to Montana businesses that create and retain jobs.

These financial and technical assistance programs have assisted more than 15,000 businesses and created or retained more than 12,000 jobs since 2012, according to the Montana Department of Commerce.

The programs in Keane’s bill would invest $3.36 million per fiscal year into Montana’s economy, according to Emilie Ritter Saunders, Commerce Department spokeswoman. Since 2012, these programs have leveraged assets of $667.5 million while assisting more than 15,000 businesses and creating or retaining more than 12,000 jobs.

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Although the total funding would remain unchanged, HB52 would shift some funds between programs to create the greatest positive impact. For example, funding for Small Business Development Centers would rise from $125,000 to $325,000. These centers are in Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Great Falls, Havre, Helena, Kalispell, Miles City, Missoula and Wolf Point. The bill would reduce funding for the Montana Board of Research and Commercialization Technology from $1.27 million to $500,000. Most of this program money has gone to research in Bozeman and Missoula in the past.

HB52 is supported by the Montana Economic Developers Association, Montana Association of Counties, League of Cities and Towns, the Department of Agriculture and the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. The list of private businesses calling for approval of HB52 includes Spring Back Physical Therapy, Havre; Sage N’ Spur, Harlem; Crossroads Coffee & Bistro, Malta; Fitness Central, Lewistown; Synthesis Industries, Lewistown; Kvichak Fish Co, Polson; Western Montana Growers Coop, Missoula; Agmor Incorporated, Belgrade; Resodyn, Butte; Shot Tracer, Billings; Spika, Lewistown; Camelot Ranch, Billings; Lasting Legacy Assisted Living, Billings; Lattice Materials, Bozeman; West Paw, Bozeman; and Lilja Precision Rifle Barrels, Inc., Plains.

Montana invests just $3.36 million in these programs annually through the state coal severance tax. If they sunset, the state stands to lose an estimated $2 million each year in federal matching dollars. The requested investment is small, the expected payoff is significant and time is short. Lawmakers should act now to send HB52 to the governor's desk.

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