Business interests can pop up in strange places at the state capitol during the legislative session.
It’s why organizations representing business groups and various commercial industries keep a close eye on the primordial stew of proposed and developing legislation, and often send lobbyists to Helena during the legislative session.
Christina Henderson, executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, which represents a handful of Billings companies as well as other technology businesses from across the state, pointed to a proposed software bill in the Montana House that could have an adverse impact on independent contractors.
“We’re not heavy into lobbying,” she said. “However, we do try” to monitor proposed legislation and represent the concerns of members.
One of those concerns deals with a House bill that would require state agencies to install monitoring software on the computers of the independent contractors they hire to track their activity.
“That caught the attention of our members,” Henderson said. “Might be overreach.”
One of the biggest concerns for members of her group is finding and keeping employees. The state is in desperate need of a qualified workforce within the tech sector, she said, and the Montana High Tech Business Alliance pushes for legislation every season that would help create and retain tech-savvy workers.
There’s no reason the state couldn’t produce that talent locally, especially when opportunities are given to communities that are traditionally overlooked, she said.
Programs to promote STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — education at Montana schools, specifically reaching out to the rural corners of the state, to the reservations and to many of the girls who wouldn’t otherwise consider tech-related careers, is one of the alliance’s top priorities.
“Those issues related to workforce are important,” she said.
For Dan Brooks, the business advocacy manager for the Billings Chamber of Commerce, having a voice at the state legislature is vital to ensuring the needs and interests of Billings businesses are heard and protected.
The chamber keeps the focus mainly on smart economic development, support for tourism and good public safety policy — an issue vital to downtown business growth.
“We’re viewed as the statewide business hub,” Brooks said of Billings. “One of every six dollars that goes to the state comes from Billings.”
Each session the Billings Chamber pushes for legislation that would add tools to the city’s economic development tool belt, Brooks said. They also work to protect the tools they already have in place.
Preserving the state’s tax abatement program and tax increment financing districts is a battle the chamber fights every session. Broadly, tax abatement and TIF districts work by temporarily reducing or eliminating property taxes for new businesses that relocate, remodel or rebuild within a certain area.
Billings has used the programs to attract new business downtown and encourage businesses already there to update or modernize their facilities.
“That’s led to successful downtown development,” Brooks said.
The Downtown Billings Alliance is heavily invested in protecting TIF districts. Katy Easton, the DBA’s chief, sees it as one of the most effective means the organization has for urban redevelopment.
“As one of our state’s only economic development tools currently available, it’s a priority to the Downtown Billings Alliance,” Easton said. “We are currently working with the State TIF Working Group led by Kelly Lynch with Montana League of Cities and Towns.”
Maybe the biggest priority for the DBA and the Chamber this year will be the legislation sponsored by Sen. Roger Webb that would create specially designated improvement zones that would then allow the state to appropriate money to certain development projects.
For Billings, it would be the One Big Sky District, which could receive up to $125 million of state money over two decades. In order for private developers to access that money, they would first have to invest $300 million in the district.
“This bill would add an extremely valuable tool to the State of Montana and our efforts in economic development and statewide growth,” Easton said. “Billings is poised to become a regional destination and a city ready and able to attract much needed workforce and private investment.”
The other big battle at the state Legislature that business groups will be closely watching is legislation that would give cities the option to seek local tax increases from their voters. Currently that’s something only the state has authority to do.
“It’s tough to tell if it’s going to get legs,” said Sam Loveridge, executive director of the newly formed Yellowstone Area Chamber of Commerce.
The Yellowstone Area Chamber opposes local option tax authority and will be pushing legislators on issues like economic growth, public safety and simplifying the tax code. It will also be “monitoring any bill on the One Big Sky District,” Loveridge said.
Loveridge said his organization is in the process of hiring a lobbyist.
Billings is the best place in the state to do business and Loveridge hopes to push the Legislature in creating more market freedom to allow business to thrive here.
“We have not only great people but we have the infrastructure in place and the work ethic in place,” he said.
Brooks describes himself as a glass-half-full kind of guy and believes that eventually they’ll get the local option in some form passed even if it’s not this session. Billings and all of the eastern side of the state need the tools to help its economy grow, Brooks said. Repairing and improving critical infrastructure is part of that.
“When Eastern Montana does well, Billings does well,” he said. “That requires investment.”