- Associated Press - Sunday, February 28, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - As he introduces himself to Montana voters, Republican Greg Gianforte has tried to take the sheen off the state’s mostly glowing economic numbers.

Montana’s unemployment rate is a full point below the national number, and incomes are rising. And Gov. Steve Bullock, who is campaigning for a second term, is touting what some outside analysts call an “ecosystem of entrepreneurship.”

But as Gianforte makes his bid to oust Bullock from the governor’s mansion, the Bozeman businessman has pounced on one particular statistic: Montana’s rank as 49th in the country in wages - behind only Mississippi.

There’s little dispute that wages in Montana are among the lowest in the country, but the metric is a lot more complicated, economists say.

“When people have discussions about Montana’s economy, I have a problem with sweeping statements and people using numbers out of context,” said Ray Rasker, the executive director of Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan Bozeman think tank partly specializing in rural economies.

Wages in rural states like Montana, he said, should not be compared with the powerhouse urban-driven economies of California, Massachusetts and even Colorado.

“What drives up the wages in most states are the higher-paying jobs in the cities,” Rasker said. “We don’t have a Denver, or a Seattle or a Phoenix. We just don’t have a big metropolis.”

Rasker argues that a more fair comparison would exclude urban centers from the equation. So he developed an algorithm that sifts through federal wage data and controls for population. When excluding communities larger than Montana’s most populous county, Yellowstone County - home of the state’s largest city, Billings, - the resulting list buoys Montana into the middle of the pack.

“At the end of the day, the thing that matters to Montanans is the wage that goes into their pockets. Whether we’re 47th or 49th, there’s no denying that we’re near the bottom of the country,” Gianforte said in an interview. “So it’s no surprise our young people are leaving the state.”

The statistic Gianforte has been using on the campaign trail comes from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which analyzed 2013 federal tax returns. The analysis showed Montanans earning an average wage of $33,180 - $10,000 below the national average and $27,000 below that of the list-topping Connecticut.

“In politics, both the left and the right fight over competing informational frames,” said David Parker, a political scientist at Montana State University. “In this case, Republicans want you to think the economy in Montana is awful while Democrats want you to believe it has never been better. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle: the economy shows sign of vitality and strength, but we are behind relative to our peers on some measures.”

While average earnings might rank Montana low, a look at per-capita income shows the state ranked 37th in the country in 2014.

Focusing on one statistic, Bullock said, does not show the breadth of Montana’s economic health.

“I don’t think that trying to pick the worst number possible and tearing down Montana’s progress for political gain is responsible,” Bullock said.

Montana’s economy is indeed much more robust these days, according to Patrick Barker, the director of the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

But he doesn’t fault Gianforte for making an issue of the state’s low wages.

“It’s important because low wages limits how we can address things, from infrastructure to schools,” Barker said.

“It’s a shame it’s become politicized,” Barker said. “It should be a bipartisan issue that both sides are working to address.”

Barker acknowledged that Montana has for decades had among the country’s lowest wages, regardless of which party held the governorship. There are no easy fixes, he said.

“It’s not easy problem to solve,” he said, “it’s a very, very difficult one.”


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