We Must Plan Ahead
The population of the State of Montana is rapidly becoming one of the oldest populations in the nation. I recently sat through a presentation by the economists of Montana State University and the University of Montana who project that by the year 2030, Montana will be the 3rd or 4th "grayest" state in the United States. The continued decline of extractive and agricultural jobs that have in the past provided employment for the young family primary wage earners has taken its toll on the smaller communities across Montana.
It is a well-known fact that as we move into retirement, our income transitions from wage earnings to social security and savings. The change from growing salary to living on a fixed income is the most troublesome. Fixed income individuals tend to be very selective in their expenditures and reluctant to pass bond issues, no matter what the cause. The wage earner tends to look to the future with high expectations and the vision of a better life for their children, therefore generally supporting the expansion of services and programs that promise greater opportunity.
I suspect that the student population in our schools will continue to decline because of the aging Montana population. Our own town of Darby is a prime example. After the closing of the saw mills, we have seen a steady decline in school enrollment, as well as problems for local businesses struggling to overcome the loss of stable income. However, the cost of running the schools continues to rise and the base funding for schools comes from property taxes. Here exists a potential serious collision between an escalating population living on fixed income and an increasing property tax load on homeowners. Elderly homeowners could be taxed out of their homes or school funding could dry up. The anticipated increase in health care costs for the state is also an area of high concern. Without a doubt, as our population gets older the increasing cost of providing care and services for our seniors will become the greatest general fund budget item requirement.
For the State of Montana to avoid the changes in tax policy and spending priorities that take place every legislative session, the type and level of the information we receive must be updated for every session and used to help make those decisions. Montana cannot afford to stay on the track of changing tax and business regulation policy every time the legislature meets without consideration of a long term plan. We must consider the effects of those changes on the economic well-being of the state for the future generations. Decisions must be made not just on the political expediency of the moment but on the long-term needs of Montana.
The Montana economy has always been driven by the philosophy of hard work, private investment and independent thinking. The proper role of government is a provider of needed services, not a "Big Brother" which attempts to control our every action. We must never lose the ideals that have made us who we are today - a strong-willed, nature- loving, fiercely independent, diverse group of proud people who trust their elected representatives to manage the state for the future of every Montanan and not just to gain votes for themselves in the next election.
No one can succeed without a plan of action. The State of Montana is no exception, and we must make long range planning an integral part of the management of our state and additionally, assert the fortitude needed to make timely decisions. I would like to see Montana develop a 10-, 20-, or even a 30-year plan that establishes taxation and spending policy that will take into consideration the trends in demographics, workforce needs, education requirements, and business incentives needed to encourage businesses to locate in Montana, and bring jobs to employ our young people with them.
Montana must offer stability if we expect to attract businesses that will make significant investments in a state that currently has an ever-changing tax and regulation policy. The main complaint of many out-of-state corporations doing business in Montana or researching a possible move to our state is the instability of our tax policy and regulations. To launch the strong economic growth necessary to pay for the services needed in our aging state and provide the well-paying jobs to keep our youth in Montana while they raise their families, we must stabilize our taxation and regulation policies. We may be an aging population, but let us not forget to utilize the wisdom that comes with that age. In the future, any changes to Montana policies need to be made with long-term results in mind, and not be founded on the political expedient of the moment.