Montana’s small businesses and employees deserve better

Guest Opinion By Scott Mendenhall
Thursday, July 30, 2020
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As a small business owner and someone who signs the front of paychecks, I understand what it’s like to stay awake at night with a pit in your stomach worrying if you are able to keep your employees on payroll during tight times.

For the past three months, Montana’s workers and job creators have understandably experienced this economic anxiety and worry. But instead of being nimble and forward thinking in addressing these challenges, Governor Bullock has imposed more worry and uncertainty onto employees and employers in the private sector and exacerbated the situation.

Without consulting cities, counties or those on the ground, Governor Bullock issued a top-down, one-size-fits-all statewide economic shutdown in March, ultimately forcing many small businesses to close permanently. There are still 11 counties in Montana without a single positive COVID-19 case, and another 14 counties that have had five or fewer cases since March. A small business in one of these rural counties without a positive case was treated the same way as a business in an urban area where there was spread.

Small mom and pop brick and mortar stores simply couldn’t weather the economic costs associated with a government-forced closure, especially while competing with online megaretailers and big box stores that were allowed to continue operating during Bullock’s shutdown.

We continue to read in our local papers the names of popular restaurants and retailers that are announcing permanent closures.

The University of Montana’s latest Bureau of Business and Economic Research report projected a loss of 75,000 jobs and a shortfall in state personal income of $6.4 billion, or 11.7 percent, in 2020.

But it didn’t have to be this way.

After his economic shutdown, Governor Bullock was given every opportunity to help these small businesses through billions in federal aid, yet he has failed to effectively and efficiently deliver this targeted relief to businesses most in need. It has been over three months since President Trump signed the COVID-19 recovery act, yet Governor Bullock has released less than 10 percent of Montana’s $1.25 billion share.

The Governor sitting on $1.25 billion in stimulus dollars while individuals, families, businesses, and localities across the state suffer is unacceptable.

The COVID-19 recovery act included money to be set aside for localities, yet some counties have written the Governor with requests for needed aid and have yet to receive a response.

Leaders bring people together, but all Governor Bullock has done is assemble a group largely comprised of his major political donors to advise him. Instead of seeking input from and listening to local and county officials, and state lawmakers, the Governor repeatedly declared “state of emergency” measures, allowing him to unilaterally make all decisions. He has met with Legislative leadership once in the past 120 days and he has never consulted with the Appropriations and Finance Committees on how to direct the $1.25 billion relief.

As the head of the state, Governor Bullock has an obligation to take care of the state’s fiscal health. Yet despite the Legislative Fiscal Division projecting double-digit shortfalls in the state’s revenue for 2021, the Governor has proclaimed that all is well and no action is needed. This is eerily reminiscent of his approach in 2016. This “kick the can down the road” approach will force the next governor, Democrat or Republican, to make the difficult spending reductions Bullock chose to ignore. Montana small businesses and families have had to tighten their belts during COVID-19, and the government should be no different.

Governor Bullock should also be working with the Legislature to provide protections for small businesses, schools, universities, nonprofits, and localities from overreaching and frivolous lawsuits as they work to safely serve our communities. According to a June Montana Chamber of Commerce survey, 92 percent of respondents agree this protection is necessary.

While many of these institutions have received federal loans and grants, they still face the threat of economic penalties via state taxation on this aid. Higher taxes are the last thing small business owners need while trying to weather the storm.

Over the past three months, Governor Bullock has demonstrated that he is either incapable or unwilling to offer the needed aid our small businesses, workers, and communities need in this exceedingly difficult time.

If Governor Bullock won’t step up to address these jobs and economic failures, the Montana Legislature should look at returning to a virtual special session. The small businesses that have hung on during this storm cannot wait any longer.

Scott Mendenhall is a small business owner, the president of the Montana Business Leadership Council, and a former state legislator.