Stimulating Montana's economy was a campaign promise made by almost every politician running for office this year. State Chamber of Commerce President Webb Brown said Tuesday it's time for local business leaders to make sure that happens.
But just how is still foggy. There are more than 600 prospective bills awaiting attention in the 2001 Legislature, and many representatives still don't know which committees they'll be assigned to yet. Gov.-elect Judy Martz has not released her legislative agenda in detail, nor has she named many of the department heads who will be directing policy and legislative changes.
The state chamber itself is not planning to propose many legislative initiatives, Brown said at a gathering in the Missoula Chamber of Commerce. But it does hope to get the business community to play an active part in the state's economic policy development.
"There are a lot of folks working very hard on economic development (at the local level)," Brown said. "But a lot of other folks just don't know what's going on elsewhere. We're looking at ways to provide business information to outsiders, and I see that on more of a state level. A lot of people considering the state don't know where they'd like to come in Montana."
In particular, the business community will focus on:
n Worker's compensation. Brown said the Chamber of Commerce was concerned about lawsuits that might give workers more ability to sue their employers as well as collect work compensation payments. He said the original system gave businesses greater protection from lawsuits, but recent court decisions are eroding that.
Sen. Vicki Cocchiarella, D-Missoula, replied that a parallel move to reduce workers' benefits from the state insurance plans could be driving the move to more lawsuits. But tire dealership owner Gary Bakke said that work comp cases he'd been involved with bogged down when workers' attorneys counseled their clients to avoid compromises in order to win bigger cash settlements from the system.
n Business regulation. Montana Taxpayers Association President Mary Whittinghall said legislators should look at the state's bidder preference laws, which charge out-of-state companies extra fees if they out-bid local firms. She said some businesses had lost chances at out-of-state jobs because other states won't award contracts to applicants living in states with bidder preference policies.
n Taxation. Brown and Mayor Mike Kadas wound up in a polite debate on this point. Brown said the state Chamber of Commerce was concerned with the creeping increase of local tax levies. It also wanted to see a comprehensive review of the state's tax structure to find ways of making it more attractive to business and investment.
Kadas responded that the tax system has been studied extensively, and its biggest problem was that most of the taxation power was held by the state government. He called for more flexibility at the county and city level to request local option sales taxes or other tax changes, because that was also the level where most economic development actually happened.
"I'm afraid we're going to get bogged down in a statewide sales tax discussion and the local option tax idea will get held hostage," Kadas said. Instead, cities and communities should be allowed to compete against one another with locally designed tax systems, which would also give those local communities the ability to address their own residents' wishes and interests.
Brown countered that taxes were one of the few policy areas that government could affect, while business markets and economic indicators were untouchable. Changing taxes was one of the few tools Montana had to improve its competitiveness against neighboring states, he said.
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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