The latest from Helena and Washington D.C.
J-1 Worker program back this summer,
Amtrak service a 'work in progress'
The Legislative Season is in full swing at the state capitol in Helena and in Washington D.C., with several bills affecting Whitefish moving forward ... for better or worse.
Two of the Chamber's top legislative priorities in 2021 are the restoration of both the J-1 Work/Travel Visa Program and daily Amtrak service on the Empire Builder, and we appear to be making progress on both fronts.
Last month the Chamber joined with hundreds of other organizations nationwide in pushing for reinstatement of the so-called J-1 Worker Program, which typically provides more than a thousand international workers to employers throughout the Whitefish/Glacier National Park area. The program was suspended last Spring with COVID-19 on the rise worldwide, and the absence of J-1 workers made hiring -- and keeping -- seasonal summertime staff more difficult than ever.
Fortunately, the J-1s will be back this summer, according to Senator Steve Daines' office. The order that suspended the program is set to run-out in March, and the Biden Administration has indicated that it intends to let the order expire.
Restoring Amtrak to 'full service' may take time
Efforts to restore daily service on the Empire Builder -- the Amtrak passenger rail line that connects Whitefish with Seattle and Portland on the West Coast, and Chicago to the east -- are also moving ahead, if a bit more slowly. Both of Montana's senators have been actively pushing for restoration of daily service, which was cut to 3 days/week last October in the face of the COVID crisis.
Tuesday, Sen. Jon Tester introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate that would reinstate furloughed Amtrak employees and return the Empire Builder to full, 7-day/week service. Representatives from both Tester and Daines' offices tell us that they're hopeful the Administration will support the bill, though it's too early to tell when full service could be restored on Montana's only passenger rail line.
COVID liability passes; workforce housing program threatened
One of the first bills signed this Session by Gov. Greg Gianforte was SB 85 -- the COVID Liability protection act -- which was supported by the Chamber in an effort to protect local businesses and other organizations from frivolous lawsuits related to COVID-19 as we continue to re-open the Montana economy. So put one in the win column!
On the flip side of the coin, a bill currently making its way through the state Legislature -- House Bill 259 -- seeks to ban so-called "Inclusionary Zoning" programs like the one we're using in Whitefish to spur the development of homes and apartments that are affordable to our large service industry workforce.
If approved, HB 259 would effectively gut the Strategic Workforce Housing Plan that was created in 2016-17 by the City, the Chamber and Housing Authority, and send Whitefish "back to the drawing board" in our efforts to help house hundreds of local workers who -- due to the explosive local real estate market -- cannot afford to live in the community they work.
Support workforce housing -- and let our Senators know!
Six years ago, our members told us that affordable workforce housing was one of the biggest challenges they faced in trying to attract -- and retain -- staff for their business. The housing shortage has become even more critical in recent years, shining a spotlight on the need for a community-based solution to the situation.
If you support our efforts to stabilize our workforce and provide affordable homes and apartments for the working men, women and families of Whitefish, CLICK HERE
and tell members of the Senate Local Government Committee to vote against HB 259 when it comes before them next week.
Near the bottom of the form, choose to have the email sent to a committee, and designate the Senate Local Government Committee as the recipient. Make sure you identify the bill -- HB 259 -- and tell them why you support Whitefish's effort to house our workforce, and to use Inclusionary Zoning to do just that.