A year ago, as the 2017 Montana Legislature was about to convene, The Gazette opined: “Let the spirit of compromise and our commitment to building a better future for all guide our leaders in 2017.”
The biennial regular session didn’t fulfill that hope. Constrained by lower-than-projected state revenues starting in 2016, the Legislature too often divided on rigid, partisan lines. For a third consecutive session, an infrastructure bill that called for state bonding failed to become law – despite having bipartisan, statewide support. Partisanship persisted in the November special session.
The Gazette editorial board on Jan. 1, 2017, called for action on state infrastructure, Billings airport improvements, strength and continuity in Montana State University Billings leadership, building up Downtown Billings and permission from state government for Montana cities of all sizes to decide on local tax options. The year brought a mixed bag of developments.
The Legislature, once again, failed to appropriate money for Montana public school facilities. Instead, it cut state funds for K-12 school districts, triggering automatic local school levy increases for the current tax year.
Although an infrastructure bill that would have financed long-awaited state and local government building projects failed, the Legislature did unite to boost road and bridge safety by approving the first increase in the state fuel tax in two decades. The boost in per gallon gas and diesel taxes assured that Montana will have the 14 percent match to draw down the 86 percent of federal funds that builds and maintains our highways. The state will increase the road funds distributed to city and county governments. The fuel tax hike also ensured funding for the Montana Highway Patrol.
Billings welcomed American Airlines to our city last summer, and travelers quickly took advantage of the nonstop service to Dallas-Fort Worth. The Billings Area Chamber of Commerce tirelessly promoted that direct air connection and worked with Billings airport administration to secure a combination of private and public funds to guarantee American Airlines a minimum revenue for adding the Billings service. The public contribution is a federal grant. Now the city and the Chamber are collaborating to get a nonstop connection between Billings and San Francisco.
One Big Sky Center captured our attention in 2016 throughout 2017, but the players changed over the past year. The original promoters have basically been replaced by the Hammes Co., which has a positive track record in large urban redevelopment projects in cities such as Minneapolis, Minnesota; Green Bay, Wisconsin; and Allentown, Pennsylvania. However, the Hammes proposal is still in pre-development with few details sketched in.
Meanwhile, the Billings City Council approved tax increment funding grants to the Alberta Bair Theater for its long-planned, multi-million-dollar facelift and expansion.
No local options
The Gazette also endorsed local option authority: allowing all Montana cities to vote on whether to institute a local sales tax for infrastructure projects as an alternative to property tax increases. No local option bills even made it out of legislative committee.
A coalition of Montana business and economic development promoters also tried to secure local option legislation. The group, called Authorize Community Transformation, proposed that local voters be permitted to impose sales taxes of up to 3 cents on the dollar. Business, banking, education and tourism leaders successfully lobbied the Billings City Council to add local option tax to its legislative priorities with a 6-5 vote. But the Yellowstone County legislative delegation was less supportive.
MSU Billings changed chancellors nearly a year ago, but still doesn’t have a permanent replacement for Mark Nook. Ron Larsen continues to hold the leadership post on an interim basis, although he is a candidate for the permanent job. Larsen also had to deal immediately with budget cuts while continuing to improve student recruitment and retention. This fall’s full-time-equivalent student enrollment of 3,447 was down slightly from last year, and down significantly from 10 years ago.
The long-delayed MSUB Science Building expansion and renovation still hasn’t started as the MSUB Foundation continues fundraising.
It’s important to review where our state and community stands at year’s end. But the disappointments of 2017 cannot discourage Montanans from moving forward in 2018. Monday’s Gazette opinion looks at great opportunities for the new year.