Gianforte’s Goal: One Year, 10,000 Jobs, 50K Salaries
The dust has settled after a historic legislative session. Montana’s governor has now set a benchmark for measuring the success of his campaign promise to lead the state’s comeback from the pandemic.
Last summer amid the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, then Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte made a pledge.
"I’m Greg Gianforte and I’m ready to lead Montana's comeback."
Gianforte arrived in the governor's office with Republicans holding iron-clad majorities in the House and Senate. Voters got to see his so-called Montana Comeback Plan in action. Gianforte’s office confirmed 19 bills introduced during the 2021 session were tied directly to that plan.
Nearly all of those bills passed. So how will we know if Gianforte’s comeback plan works?
Gianforte says he’ll use one primary indicator to determine success.
“How many jobs exist in the state of Montana over $50,000 a year? And we benchmarked Q4 of 2020, and our goal this year is to add 10,000 jobs in Montana over $50,000. And I think that’s an achievable goal,” Gianforte says.
The Comeback Plan strives to boost the state’s economy, cuts taxes, roll back regulations, expand concealed carry of firearms and restrict access to abortion, among other social and fiscal policies.
Gianforte says measuring his plan’s success by that $50,000 wage benchmark is somewhat arbitrary, but it sets the goal of adding jobs above the state’s average wage. He says there were 132,000 jobs, 30% of employment in the state, that paid over $50,000 as of December 2020.
Gianforte’s 10,000-job goal equals about 2% of the state’s current workforce.
Carly Urban is an economist at Montana State University and studies how public policy influences behavior. She says that $50,000 wage measuring stick is useful for looking at how well the state’s middle class is doing.
Urban notes that a $50,000 salary is much different in Bozeman than, say, Superior. She says it may not be feasible for jobs in rural places to pay that much.
“I’d really be curious to see at present day how many of those [jobs] are in the more populated areas versus some of the more rural areas,” Urban says.
Indian Country in Montana is mostly rural and sees much higher rates of unemployment than the rest of the state. But Gianforte says he’ll use the same indicator for reservations.
“A strong economy floats a lot of boats. It doesn’t fix all of those downstream things, but it contributes to a healthier environment where people are self-sufficient.”
Gianforte’s goal of boosting the state’s economy is aided by roughly $2 billion in stimulus funds from the federal government. Montana will use the money to expand access to broadband, improve infrastructure and boost child care providers.
Gianforte says that money will help Montana, but that the federal government is fiscally irresponsible for spending it.
Urban says it’ll be difficult in the coming years to determine cause and effect when it comes to Gianforte’s policies or federal funding.
“If you’re saying, like, ‘Hey, labor force participation went up by blah,’ it’s like, why? Well, the federal government kicked in this much money, then there was this part of the plan, then there was this,” Urban says.
Urban says other policies will be simple to measure, like Gianforte’s incentive program to increase teacher salaries, another to get people into trades education and his overarching goal to bring more people to the state.
One sector of the economy that continues to spur growth in Montana, even during the pandemic, is the high-tech industry.
Christina Henderson is executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, a trade group Gianforte helped found when he was a tech entrepreneur.
“We’ve been able to for the last seven years say that high tech is growing seven times the overall Montana economy. It pays twice the median wage and last year, in 2020, represented $2.9 billion in revenue,” she says.
Henderson is citing recent survey results found by the alliance and the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana.
Henderson says the tech industry is growing and will benefit from the recent tax cuts backed by Gianforte. She also says the state’s tech industry would benefit from more skilled employees moving here.
However, some members of the high tech alliance are concerned that socially conservative policies, like those targeting LGBTQ Montanans, will push new businesses and workers away from Montana.
“Many of their clients and partners are part of industries that care deeply and have strong policies in favor of diversity and inclusion,” Henderson says.
Others question how the plan for Montana’s comeback will help low-income residents.
According to state data released in May of 2021, the median yearly wage in Montana is under $38,000.
Heather O’Loughlin, co-director of the Montana Budget and Policy Center, says the new tax cuts disproportionately benefit the wealthy and could impact the state’s ability to pay for government assistance programs.
“I think there is a lot of question about what those bills might mean in the long term,” O’Loughlin says.
O’Loughlin says housing costs, the lack of access to child care and behavioral health could disincentivize new workers from coming to Montana and hold current low-income workers back.
“The challenges we’re facing with housing, I imagine there are also some real barriers to families and the cost of living here in Montana,” O’Loughlin says.
It may take years to see the full impact of policies from Gianforte’s “Comeback Plan,” and some tax cuts won’t go into effect until 2024, while other laws are being challenged in court.
In the meantime, Gianforte’s office has rolled out a campaign to ask Montanans who’ve left the state to return home.
“These are our kids and our grandkids. We’ve been exporting them for too long and frankly, we want them back,” Gianforte says.
Gianforte’s comeback plan says when there's more good-paying jobs, those kids and grandkids will come back.
Only time will tell if his invitations to return are answered.