State infrastructure more than roads and bridges

James Grunke

By James Gunke

Montana, we have a lot of work to do.

On January 2, 2017, the Montana Legislature will convene for the 65th session. We only get a chance every two years to pass legislation and affect policy, and our state’s ability to support economic growth is on the line.

The Missoula Economic Partnership takes an active role in issues that affect the economic health of our community. From an economic development perspective, our priorities are clear: to preserve and maintain the key economic development tools that are currently working to promote economic growth, and to secure reliable and predictable funding for infrastructure.

Montana has several economic development tools that are currently funded and working well to foster business growth, entrepreneurship, and development. We must continue to support programs that provide grants and business assistance, such as the Big Sky Trust Fund and Primary Sector Worker Training. These programs provide incentives for job creation and workforce training, both of which are vital for a healthy economy.

Other elements of a healthy economy include the following:

• A competitive business climate that is affordable, predictable and ripe with incentives for growth across diverse sectors

• A robust private sector environment that works in partnership with the public sector to spur innovation and collaboratively problem solve

• A skilled workforce to fill jobs – talent is the new economic development currency, and a quality education is the best way to compete in a global economy

• Comprehensive and predictable infrastructure funding

This year will mark the third attempt at passing an infrastructure bill. In the 2015 legislative session, a $150 million measure funding infrastructure upgrades and building projects failed to pass by a single vote in the House’s final minutes. Our state’s economy cannot afford for this to happen again.

Infrastructure, at its most basic level, encompasses water, sewer, bridges and roads – the basic building blocks of development. As Montana Infrastructure Coalition Executive Director, Darryl James, says:

“Montana hasn’t adjusted our revenue tools and infrastructure funding formulas in decades, and we are unable to keep pace with growing physical and regulatory demands. Our goal … is to identify sustainable funding for the essential infrastructure required to build and maintain healthy communities and a robust economy.”

Public infrastructure is crucial for economic growth, and while water, sewer, bridges and roads make up the physical and structural components on which our economy is built, Montana has another critical infrastructure need: broadband Internet access.

We need to recognize that broadband, especially in a state as vast as Montana, constitutes basic infrastructure, and seek ways to incorporate broadband expansion into infrastructure priorities. This is not an urban vs. rural concern –  this is a Montana concern.

Broadband internet is an imperative for economic growth across the state. Current broadband infrastructure is sorely lacking, particularly in rural areas that would benefit the most from reliable broadband access. According to Broadband Now, Montana is the 50th most connected state in the nation. In other words, Montana has the worst broadband coverage of all 50 states.

Lack of reliable broadband access is one of the biggest deterrents for companies looking to relocate or expand, and as a result, Montana’s communities miss out on opportunities for job creation and economic growth.

To build a vibrant economy, Montana needs sustainable funding for the basic infrastructure that forms the foundation of our economy – and broadband access is a necessary component of that infrastructure.

Last year, I wrote a column about infrastructure investments, and my position hasn’t changed:

“As unsexy and politically charged as it is, Montana’s investment in infrastructure is absolutely essential to our economic growth and development – statewide and locally.

Every citizen of Montana has a stake in the maintenance and enhancement of our infrastructure. Doing nothing is no longer an option. We must come together now to make our voices heard if we truly want to set the stage for healthy economic growth and development.”

The Missoula Economic Partnership looks toward the Legislature for a sustainable, healthy infrastructure plan. We can’t afford to go yet another legislative session without adopting tools to address our state’s capacity to provide a healthy economy.

James Grunke is president and CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership. His column appears monthly in the local media.