Democratic legislators came to Havre Tuesday afternoon to hear ideas about stimulating the economy through long-term economic strategies and got an earful: People asked for state help to develop markets for renewable fuels like biodiesel and ethanol, help for training more health care workers, limits on workers' compensation liability for employers, and assistance for communities that want to spruce up their downtowns and put up signs to attract travelers.
Senate Minority Leader Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, said the purpose of the meetings the Democratic legislative leadership is holding around the state is to collect ideas from Montanans.
"The whole idea of these town meetings is not to hear us folks," he said. "This is really your meeting."
Rep. Bob Bergren, D-Havre, said the idea of the town meetings is to find areas where legislation could be proposed.
"This community has been involved in a lot of economic development meetings in the last few months," Bergren said. "We hope a lot of this will dovetail with that."
Tester and state Rep. Monica Lindeen of Huntley, who is the House minority whip, listened to comments while Bergren mediating the discussion. Sen. Ken "Kim" Hansen, D-Harlem, also attended the meeting. It attracted about 30 area people, including local elected officials, businesspeople, the superintendent of Havre Public Schools, economic development professionals and others.
The Democrats are conducting a series of town hall meetings. The Havre meeting followed stops in Wolf Point and Sidney last week. The Democrats plan to hold about 30 meetings in all, and hope to finish in late April or May.
Bergren said the Democrats plan to have an economic strategy developed by next September.
A multitude of issues were discussed during the meeting, which lasted nearly two hours.
Construction business owner Brad Lotton, chair of the Hill County Republican Party, said his exposure to liability is a problem for his business.
"It's astronomical. This is getting out of hand," he said.
Lotton said if he's paying someone $10 an hour to work on a roof, he has to pay $3 an hour for workers' compensation.
Leo Beardsley, who works in the insurance business in Havre, said one reason for the rising cost of medical care is the shortage of health care workers in Montana, particularly doctors. The state needs to find ways to ensure that more medical professionals are being trained and stay in the state, he said.
Lotton added that environmentalists are blocking the harvest of natural resources, which he said is driving up the cost of materials he uses in construction.
Several people said Montana should do more to promote value-added agriculture.
Beardsley said Montana should add its own spin to the idea of country-of-origin labeling. Montana is well-known for its excellent beef, he said, and should identify it when it goes to market.
"It would make a lot of sense, in my opinion, if we would just start doing that with our product," he said. "I think we need to educate our people, too: Here is a way to get a few more bucks out of the product."
Daryl Sather, who farms north of Havre, said the state also needs to promote other value-added products, like renewable fuels such as ethanol or biodiesel. He said plants in other states produce fuels using local products, but Montana ships its crops out of state.
"We ship everything out and buy everything back," he said. "Something in the country out here isn't being addressed."
Mark Peterson, who also farms north of Havre, agreed. Peterson has formed a partnership with people from the area and from around the state to create Peaks and Prairies Oilseed Producers, which has opened an oilseed-crushing plant in Malta to produce oil for nonpetroleum-based lubricants.
He said Montana should look to alternative crops that have a higher value and also add value to those crops. The reason farmers in the state grow the crops they do is because of federal policy, he said. Changing farmers' preference could be encouraged by expanding the emphasis of university research, by offering short-term crop insurance for new crops, by offering tax incentives and in many other ways, he said.
"It appears other states are doing it and we have to figure out why we aren't here," he said. "We need to change the way we grow crops here. We're a wheat and barley state because the federal government said we would be."
Gildford inventor Larry Green said the state needs to help Montanans who have innovative products find ways to market those products. Green said he has 16 patented inventions and employs several people making them and marketing them, but all of his marketing is out of state.
Other inventors have great ideas but don't have that much luck in marketing them, he said. Montana has a couple hundred inventors who would employ several hundred people if they received help marketing their products, Green said.
Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp., said the Montana Economic Developers Association is working on a bill to do exactly that. MEDA wants to create a marketing extension service similar to the Montana Manufacturing Extension Service at Montana State University.
Cameron Worstell, a professor at Montana State University-Northern, said one of the best ways to promote economic development on the Hi-Line is to promote Northern. Legislators often forget that the university offers both two-year and four-year programs as well as post-graduate work, unlike other communities where universities and technical colleges are seperate entities, he said. He asked the legislators at the meeting to make sure the Legislature knows about the benefits of the university, and invited them to bring legislators and candidates to Havre to view the campus "to see what is there."
Havre Public Schools Superintendent Kirk Miller said public schools are often one of the biggest, if not the biggest, employer in many Montana towns.
Miller said he hopes the Democrats place a major emphasis in helping K-12 education as well as the university system in their economic plan.
Craig Erickson, planner for Bear Paw Development, said common concerns for towns in eastern Montana are the lack of signs to attract tourists to the community, and the appearance of main streets where highways run through towns. The state could make it easier for communities to work on those projects, he said.
"I think that needs to be a priority in our communities," Erickson said.
Havre businessman Mel Gomke said the state needs to help people who want to expand their businesses or start a new business. Lending institutions aren't always very friendly to people looking for business loans, he said.
"It seems like you can get a loan to buy a house but not to buy a business," he said.
Tester said maybe the state could start a revolving loan fund to offer business capital.
"That's a good idea," he added.