Sunday, April 23, 2000 Missoulian Editorial Congress is on Easter break and lawmakers are back on their home turf, visiting friends, foes and newsrooms. Last week, both Sen. Conrad Burns and Sen. Max Baucus stopped by the Missoulian offices for a chat about some of the issues they're working on - prescription coverage for seniors, how to help family farmers, aid for asbestos victims in Libby, trade with China.
One topic that affects the whole state is economic development. Baucus is particularly energized on this subject because he is pulling together an economic summit in Great Falls June 25-26. The goal: to get Montanans talking, at all levels, about developing a better climate for growing and attracting business to the state.
So what's a federal guy doing talking about state issues like the Montana economy? Using his bully pulpit, mostly.
It is an election year. Congress is more focused on campaigning than on policy, so there's a lull in Washington. Burns is up for re-election but Baucus isn't, so he's organizing the summit.
Baucus has a unique, national view of Montana. He gets to see how all 50 states do business. He's convinced that Montana can improve its economy without sacrificing what it holds dear in nature, quality of life, and a healthy environment.
Baucus said he is concerned for a number of reasons, including:
€ Taxes. Montana's tax structure really does need attention, he says. Personal income taxes are high, he says, and that keeps people away.
€ Airline travel. Getting to and from Montana cities is expensive and inconvenient. Maybe communities and state government can help, he said.
€ Infrastructure. Can't be part of the "new economy" without better and faster computer access and connections.
€ Venture capital. Montanans don't always understand how it works, where to find it, or how to sell their ideas. Investors don't think Montana has creative people.
€ Worker training. Montana's vocational-technical schools are still second-class citizens, Baucus said; they can't remain so, or businesses will not seriously consider the state and workers cannot retool for new opportunities.
Montana has an attitude, an anti-business attitude, he said. It needs a "can-do" attitude. In electing a new governor this fall, voters should pick "a governor who is going to sell Montana," he said.
The senator sent one of his staffers to see how other western states approach economic development and is inviting nationally known leaders to talk at the summit. He also wants to hear from businesses that chose this state, and from those that didn't.
Baucus doesn't have magic solutions. He's not asking any different questions or raising different concerns than other state leaders do, whether Democrat or Republican. In fact, Montana lawmakers are gathering in Helena in May for a special session that has been expanded to talk about economic development, but these hard issues - taxes, training, infrastructure - are way too complex to handle in a few days of Band-Aid budget work. Montana legislators should tackle sustained economic development next year, when the 2001 Legislature convenes.
June's summit may even give them some ideas.
Two "listening sessions" are set up in western Montana to gather comments and ideas before the summit. The Missoula one is Wednesday, April 26, in the third-floor conference room at 127 E. Front St., First Interstate Plaza, from 2-5 p.m.
The other is in Kalispell on Wednesday, May 10, at the Kalispell Area Chamber of Commerce, 15 Depot Park, 10 a.m. to noon.
Think. Talk. Listen. Don't draw political lines. Keep an open mind.
Let the best advice and ideas bubble up so Montana doesn't just survive, but improves and grows.