Montana's wages are still among the lowest in the nation, but they are rising faster than the national average despite declines in the energy industry, according to a report released Tuesday.
Jobs and wages have emerged as key issues in this year's governor's race between Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and Republican challenger Greg Gianforte. Both candidates addressed jobs and wages in separate public appearances Tuesday as their campaigns kick into high gear two months before the Nov. 8 election.
Bullock presented the Montana Department of Labor and Industry's annual Labor Day report in Helena. The report says the average wage in Montana rose 3 percent in 2015 to $40,065, while inflation was only 0.1 percent, giving the state its biggest one-year jump in real wage growth since officials began analyzing the data in 1990.
During the past 10 years, state wages have increased by an annual average of 3.2 percent, compared with 2.7 percent nationally, according to the report.
A stronger economy and tighter labor market are driving the growth, the report said. It also cited the state's relatively low unemployment rate and high entrepreneurship as strong economic indicators.
Gianforte routinely criticizes the Bullock administration for Montana ranking 49th in the nation in wages, citing IRS tax data. Montana Labor Department chief economist Barbara Wagner put the state's wage ranking at 48th in 2015, though it ranks 37th in personal income, which includes earnings besides wages.
The report released Tuesday said the low wage rankings are partially explained by the large number of part-time workers in the state.
Bullock said the report shows that Montana is a good state to start and grow a business. He also took a shot at Gianforte while not naming his opponent.
"There are folks out there, especially during the political season, that'll try to twist and turn economic statistics for their own personal benefit, to pick and choose talking points in order to tear Montana's progress down," Bullock said. "But the data being presented here today largely tells a different story."
While Bullock was touting the jobs report in Helena on Tuesday, Gianforte held a news conference in Billings to revive a telecommuting campaign that he started last year. The Bozeman technology entrepreneur said he bought satellite radio and internet ads this week targeting Montanans working in Seattle and Denver, telling them to come back home and bring their jobs with them.
If he is elected, he said he plans to send mailers to alumni from colleges around the state, urging them to telecommute from Montana. "It's not the entire solution, but it's an important component," Gianforte said.
Gianforte's campaign later released a statement rebutting the jobs report. The governor tries to argue that everything is great despite revenue declines, job losses in the timber industry and anticipated job losses in the energy industry – and the state's low wages, the statement said.
"The fact is that we're stuck near the bottom the nation in wages, and we're last in income for millennials," Gianforte spokesman Aaron Flint said.
The Labor Department report also noted that mining and utilities – which make up more than 8 percent of the state's gross domestic product – declined nearly 14 percent, with oil and gas drilling being a particular drag. The transportation industry also fell more than 6 percent in 2015, likely because of decreased demand for trucking and rail by the energy industry.
Wages dropped about 2 percent in eastern Montana because of low oil prices, but the increases in the southwestern part of the state around Bozeman and Butte more than offset the fall, according to the report.