Challenges ahead for Montana economy


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    MISSOULA, Mont. - At the 41st annual economic outlook seminar, hundreds gathered in Missoula to hear the economic forecast. The study is released every year and is compiled by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana.

    This year's report called for mixed conditions, with good news for job-seekers and bad news for employers, depending on the industry.

    "Montana has recovered from the recession," said Patrick Barkey, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana. "We have reached full employment, and wages are rising."

    Barkey says several challenges are ahead for the Montana economy, namely declining international markets and the strength of the U.S. dollar.

    "There are several curveballs ahead," he said. "One being the strength of the dollar. A strong dollar makes everything we sell abroad more expensive, and similarly makes everything more expensive for tourists who visit."

    He estimates that Canadians visiting Montana would spend 20 percent more than they would have in years prior because of the current dollar value.

    Agricultural and mining commodities are also seeing a decline in their prices with barley, wheat, beef, oil, zinc and palladium, to name a few currently at five-year lows.

    Bright spots in the Montana economy are construction, manufacturing and retail, as consumers drive the economy forward. Currently, the mining industry is in decline, which the BBER says is shifting Montana's economy towards the western half of the state.

    "Low oil prices are going to be here for awhile," Barkey said.

    In Missoula, Paul Polzin, a director emeritus at the BBER, says Missoula will see a slowdown in its growth. He says 2015 saw around 3-percent economic growth, with 2016 and 2017 expected to have 2.6 and 2.5-percent growth. He blames declining enrollment and faculty cuts at the University of Montana and a slowdown in the trucking contribute.

    "The slowdown is simply due to the fact that there is a worldwide slowdown," he says. "Fewer and fewer goods are being transported through Missoula."

    The seminar also covered the topic of rising property taxes, noting that increases are expected in some communities across Montana. Changing community tax bases, public spending and changing population sizes were seen as factors in the anticipated increases.

    Speakers noted that property taxes are used to pay for public services like education, and are a "made in Montana" tax, not controlled at the federal level.

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