By PHIL DRAKE
HELENA – Nearly 100 people representing businesses from all over Montana appeared in Helena on Saturday and gave legislators an earful on how they can improve the climate for commerce in the state and create jobs.
“This is the first time we’ve tried this,” Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo said in his opening remarks to one group. The Legislature held four meetings at the same time, having divided the businesses into four separate meetings. It seemed like a normal work day at the capitol with dozens of lawmakers, residents, state employees and lobbyists milling about in the hallway.
“Everyone in the Legislature realizes the importance of jobs in this state,” Peterson said after encouraging audience members to testify on the challenges of doing business in Montana.
The meeting was called by the leaders of the House and Senate who have listed jobs as the No.1 priority for the 62nd Legislature.
The speakers included people from business, retail, tourism, agriculture, energy, health care and non profits. Many of the speakers pounded the same themes at lawmakers: get rid of the business equipment tax, the state needs an educated work force, reduce property taxes, trim rules and regulations that hurt job growth, cut workers’ compensation costs and support the experiment station network at Montana State University. This network promotes studies, scientific investigations and experiments relating to agriculture, natural resources and rural life.
“Legislate in a manner that will enable us and not hinder us,” said Sky Anderson of the Hayhook Ranch in Livingston.
Some of these issues are already on the table as in Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s proposed biennium budget, he wants a refundable homeowner’s income tax credit to reduce property taxes by $36 million and to eliminate the business equipment tax for 98.6 percent of Montana businesses.
Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, who headed up organizing the event, proclaimed the listening session a success.
“A lot of people drove a long way just to talk for seven minutes,” he said.
And he said there were lessons to be learned from what people said.
“We need to have a business atmosphere conducive for producing certainty for venture capitalists,” Vincent said. “Those that take the risk for job creation need a business environment with enough certainty to take risks.”
He said the event was planned early enough in the legislative session that lawmakers would still have time to have some “bills dropped into the hopper” to address issues that people talked about.
Jerry N. Jerome, manager of field operations for Busch Agricultural Resources Inc. in Conrad, asked legislators not to increase beer taxes, maintain no sales tax in the state and to continue funding of MSU experimental stations, said Saturday’s event was a first for him. He said he had never spoken to lawmakers in Helena before.
“It’s very nice to be listened to,” he said.