Steve Bullock and Greg Gianforte (MTN News file photos)
Steve Bullock and Greg Gianforte (MTN News file photos)
Steve Bullock and Greg Gianforte (MTN News file photos)

(MTN News-HELENA) If you listen to Montana’s two leading candidates for governor, you might think they live in different states, judging from their view of the economy.

Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, often brags about the good marks Montana is getting on fiscal prudence, low unemployment and job and income growth.

“Montana is experiencing strong business and employment growth,” he said at a recent Capitol news conference. “Wages are increasing and our government is operating effectively.”

Yet Republican Greg Gianforte, a Bozeman businessman, repeatedly says Montana is “49th in wages” and that the state is headed for tougher times.

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“I can tell you, as I talk with folks today … Montanans have noticed a shift in our economy, and they’re concerned,” he says. “Our kids have become our most precious export.”

Who’s right? Both, on certain points – although economists following the state economy say it has been performing relatively well, in recent years, and has rebounded strongly from the 2008-09 recession.

“(Last year) was a year where we saw considerable wage growth,” says Patrick Barkey, director of the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research. “We saw total wages grow faster than total employment, but total employment also grew impressively.”

Gianforte and Bullock use figures from a variety of sources and subjects to bolster their respective points.

Those figures aren’t necessarily wrong, but, in many cases, they’re not based on jobs and employment data from the U.S. government, which is considered the gold standard by economists.

“It’s well-funded, it’s one of the best things that the federal government does,” Barkey says. “It’s consistently measured state by state, so you can really make comparisons.”

Barkey says he often relies on the feds’ Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, which counts employment and looks at wages and salaries covered by unemployment insurance.

These data placed Montana at 47th in average wages in 2014, at almost $800 a week, ahead of only Idaho, South Dakota and Mississippi.

Yet those same data say Montana’s job and wage growth has been strong for the last three years, sometimes near the top of the region.

Montana’s unemployment also stands at 4 percent, tied for 13th lowest in the nation, and below the national rate of 4.9 percent.

Another stat used by economists is gross domestic product (GDP). For 2014, the latest available year, Montana’s GDP increased 1.8 percent – the lowest increase in the Rocky Mountain Region, but in the middle of the pack in the West.

Joe Mahon, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, says growth has slowed somewhat in Montana, in part because of the drop in oil prices, as well as other commodities.

But unemployment remains low and the number of people employed has continued to increase, he notes.

“We’re optimistic for the coming year, but less so than last year,” Mahon told MTN News. “I would say the outlook for the coming year and the broader region is for continued moderate growth.”

Gianforte, co-founder of a Bozeman software development firm that sold for $1.8 billion in 2012, has made the economy the focus of his campaign.

He argues that Montana’s economy can do better and that its natural-resource sectors – timber, coal, oil, other mining – face pressure from regulations and national policy. The state should cut regulations, build infrastructure and lower taxes, Gianforte says.

“The Bullock administration is only making these issues more difficult and yet, at the same time, they try to tell everyone how great everything is,” he says.

Democratic Party spokesman Jason Pitt says the Bullock administration has maintained a sound state budget, with a $300 million cushion to handle any crises, and is collaborating with small businesses on workforce training and other efforts.

Gianforte’s “fiscal recklessness” of tax cuts for the wealthy and getting rid of the budget surplus would harm the state’s bond rating and fiscal health, Pitt says.