Bridger Mahlum, Director of Government Relations for the Montana Chamber of Commerce

The most common sign a business will display in Montana these days – in addition to “Masks Required” – is “Help Wanted.”

“Recruiting and retaining workers is fast becoming the # 1 challenge for Montana businesses,” said Bridger Mahlum of the Montana Chamber of Commerce, who made the comment this week on the panels.

Mahlum was among the supporters of a bill to help students with debt and employers to recruit. In testimony this week, the sponsor, Senator Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, said the bill would give businesses the ability to contribute up to $ 5,000 a year to pay off an employee’s loan. with the amount exempt from Montana income tax.

“It’s good for employees, it’s good for employers and it’s good for our workforce and our economy,” said Morigeau.

As part of his argument, he noted the skyrocketing cost of student debt; Montana’s undergraduates have an average debt of $ 33,000, and 60% of students leave school on student loans, Morigeau said. He said employers would know they were helping their employees because all of the $ 5,000 would go into debt.

His argument did not land with all of his colleagues. The bill was heard on Wednesday, but no further action was scheduled for Thursday.

During the hearing, Senate Tax Committee Chairman Brian Hoven of R-Great Falls said some students are choosing lower wages – and more debt. He singled out a worker who did not want to suffer by working for him in a hot grain silo for $ 12 an hour and instead chose to work in a swimming pool for $ 8 an hour.

“The vast majority of these people are able-bodied and they took on the debt voluntarily,” Hoven said. “No one has put a gun to his head to take on this debt.”

Senator Greg Hertz raised a different criticism.

Hertz, business owner and Polson Republican, said an employer was much better off financially by taking advantage of a federal income tax exclusion for student loans, and that businesses couldn’t take advantage of the of them. At the hearing, a representative of the Ministère du Revenu agreed that there was no double deduction.

Morigeau, however, said the federal exemption expires in 2025 and there is no guarantee that it will continue (the federal exclusion can be up to $ 5,250, and Morigeau said he would be happy to change his bill’s $ 5,000 to match it). He also pointed out that the bill provides an option for businesses, but does not mandate it.

Regarding the rising costs of college education, Senator JP Pomnchowski said society encourages young people to graduate and society as a whole benefits.

“I don’t think it’s a choice to go into debt,” said Pomnchowski, a Democrat from Helena. “That’s the cost of higher education that employers get when that person next graduates… and can move into one of our high paying jobs. “

No member of the public spoke out against the bill. In addition to the Montana House, supporters of the bill included Forward Montana, which works on behalf of young people, Bozeman Democratic Representative Alice Buckley, the Montana Public Interest Research Group and the Montana Associated Students.

Allison Reinhardt, on behalf of Montana Associated Students, said the bill would help people pay off student loans sooner and help local economies.

“A lot of my classmates and peers are struggling to repay their student loans,” Reinhardt said. “And I have seen with my own eyes that a lot of my friends prioritize work over school.”

Katjana Stutzer of MontPIRG said in 1989 that a student could pay totally for college by working full time in the summer and 23 hours per week during the school year at minimum wage. But today, even at $ 9 an hour and over 40 hours a week all year round, an aspiring college graduate still needs more money.

“We know that loans make a difference,” Stutzer said.

This story originally appeared online at Daily Montanan and is republished here with permission.