Goal: Present Montana policymakers, residents, and the media with alternative solutions to the problems that have left thousands of residents behind. Demonstrate how limited government and economic freedom are better solutions to the problems Montanans face.
Results: After the Frontier Institute published and promoted eight policy recommendations in the “Montana Recovery Agenda” report, Montana adopted seven of those proposals. These reforms will help all Montana residents thrive—especially those who have been left behind. The new policies will improve access to healthcare, make the state more attractive to businesses and entrepreneurs, and protect taxpayers by putting firm limits on spending growth.
Strategy: Frontier developed and shared eight specific policy proposals to put Montana back on the path to economic recovery and help residents after the pandemic.
There’s a saying that characterizes the least advantaged people who live in beautiful and scenic cities and states: these people have “poverty with a view.” For thousands of Montana residents, it’s more than a saying; it’s a reality they face each morning. While there are those who are thriving and prospering in one of America’s last frontiers, many are struggling.
What is causing this problem of widespread poverty, and more importantly, what policies will help fix it? For several years, powerful interests within the state told Montana residents that more government control, taxes, and regulations would help the least advantaged in the Treasure State. These powerful interests used this one-sided story to advance policies that expand the size of government. Montana was left without a voice to present alternative solutions to the challenges its residents face.
Enter the Frontier Institute.
Less than a year after launching, the organization is now one of the top sources for free-market policy solutions in Montana. In the 2021 legislative session, Montana adopted several of the Frontier Institute’s reforms that will help Montana residents recover and thrive after the pandemic. Let’s take a look at how Frontier—a one-person organization—is changing the narrative and helping Montana residents by advancing economic freedom and opportunity in the Treasure State.
Kendall Cotton is a Montana native and former policy advisor for the state’s Insurance Commissioner. He realized no one was promoting policies that didn’t involve more and more government—policies that protect individual rights, lower taxes, limit regulations, and empower Montanans to make choices for themselves. These solutions allow Americans to get a good job, access affordable healthcare, and receive a quality education.
This realization drove Cotton to launch the Frontier Institute in October 2020. The Institute enrolled in SPN’s start-up accelerator program, which provided strategy development, coaching, and targeted operational support to encourage the organization’s growth. Cotton, full of policy ideas and eager to help Montana residents, got to work. And just a month after launching the Institute, the November election results presented an extraordinary opportunity to influence the policy debate in the state.
Montana is historically known for ticket-splitting, when citizens vote for opposing political parties in a single election. But in the 2020 election, Republicans won up and down the ballot—in every statewide and federal race. Montana even elected a Republican governor, something that hasn’t happened for 16 years.
Frontier wanted to understand why voters chose this path. Exit polls showed that Montana voters were motivated by one thing: the economy. Cotton added: “We called it the Montana mandate. And it was clear: voters have had enough of the high taxes and regulations for the last 16 years. They don’t think it’s working, and they want a strong economic recovery.”
Frontier considered what lawmakers needed to do in order to deliver on this Montana mandate and listen to voters. The Institute came up with the “Montana Recovery Agenda” in December 2020—a report that identified three policy steps, with eight specific proposals, that lawmakers could take to drive Montana’s economic recovery in 2021.
Frontier then developed a strategy to get these ideas in front of lawmakers, the media, and the public. As a former government employee, Cotton had developed relationships with key policymakers throughout the state. These established relationships helped Frontier get their ideas in front of key lawmakers. Cotton added: “That was a huge benefit to us, because I could reach out to them directly, and a lot of them, in a lot of ways, were looking to me—and Frontier as an organization—for ideas.”
The new governor’s transition team reached out to Frontier about their policy reform ideas and recommendations. Frontier sat down with that team and explained how the ideas in the Montana Recovery Agenda will help all Montana residents, especially those least well-off.
After Frontier’s meeting with the governor’s transition team, the Institute shifted its focus to the Legislature. Frontier shared their recommendations with all lawmakers, but specifically followed up with legislative leadership and committee chairs. Frontier received excellent feedback from legislators, who were excited to hear about these ideas. In fact, within a few days of sharing the report, several lawmakers noted they wanted to carry a bill based on Frontier’s recommendations.
As lawmakers started to draft legislation, the organization made themselves available as a resource to give lawmakers the background, data, facts, stories—or anything else they needed. Throughout the session, Frontier met with legislators weekly to present ideas and answer policy questions.
Cotton added: “We really just tried to be their research team on these bills. What it led to was lawmakers who had a good grasp of the issues—who really understood what’s going on here and why these proposals were important.”
In addition, Frontier placed op-eds in key outlets and earned statewide media attention on the report. Several prominent television and radio outlets interviewed Cotton to discuss the findings. And notably, every NBC affiliate in the state featured the report on its prime-time evening news.
After the legislative session ended in May, Montana adopted seven of the Frontier Institute’s eight recommendations from the Montana Recovery Agenda.
Frontier’s first big win came in January 2021. Citing Frontier’s recovery agenda word-for-word, the Governor’s first executive order set up a task force to regularly review and reduce state-level regulations as outlined in Frontier’s Montana Recovery Agenda.
Second, in late April, Montana passed a law that permanently authorizes Direct Primary Care (DPC) in the state. DPC is a growing direct care model where Montana patients bypass insurance entirely to pay doctors, in the form of a membership, in exchange for unlimited access to primary care services for as little as $70 per month. Many low-income families struggle to afford healthcare in Montana. DPC gives these families an affordable option so they can access the quality healthcare they deserve. Frontier celebrated the passage of this bill and noted it will be the nation’s most expansive authorization of DPC to date, making Montana a leader in affordable healthcare options.
Third, also in late April, the Montana Governor signed legislation that repeals telehealth regulations for good. In the Montana Recovery Agenda, Frontier encouraged lawmakers to permanently eliminate regulations they had waived during the pandemic since those waivers had proven to increase telehealth access and lower costs. Frontier noted thousands of Montana patients can continue benefiting from telehealth, thanks to this bipartisan effort to remove unnecessary regulations.
Fourth, the Montana Governor signed a bill removing the state’s certificate-of-need (CON) laws. CON laws are regulations that require healthcare providers to get special permission from the government before adding or expanding healthcare services or facilities. In the Montana Recovery Agenda, Frontier explained repealing the certificate-of-need program could reduce costs and boost much-needed hospital capacity, allowing Montana to meet short-term needs and ready itself to respond to other unanticipated healthcare crises in the future.
Next, the Montana Governor signed a bill that allows medical providers to dispense prescribed medications directly to patients. Frontier noted that prior to this bill, Montana was one of only five other states that prohibited doctors from dispensing the medicine they prescribe in most instances, requiring patients to make an additional trip to the pharmacy. The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board described this win as a victory for competition and commonsense.
Montana also followed Frontier’s recommendations to pass a Conservative Montana Budget. This budget eases burdens on taxpayers by putting firm limits on spending growth—keeping spending below the growth of the economy. Finally, Montana lawmakers passed a law that expands privacy protections for Montana residents’ digital data.
Relationships matter, especially to a startup organization such as the Frontier Institute. Cotton leaned on the relationships he built during his career in government to spread the ideas in the Montana Recovery Agenda. Cotton added: “Money, staff, and resources are all great, but relationships can go even farther.”
For other state think tanks trying to build relationships with policymakers, Cotton recommended they focus on building trust, especially before the legislative session starts. Putting together events or working groups is one way to build that trust and develop a reputation as a resource in the state.
To prepare for the next legislative session in 2023, Frontier is continuing to focus on relationships. The Institute is organizing working groups of state lawmakers and stakeholders to discuss policy ideas, map out target issues, and find areas of consensus.
One of the reasons why Frontier was so effective was they took note of what was happening across Montana—politically, culturally, and economically. They observed the public’s attitudes, election results and their implications, and other trends in the state. This strategic thinking allowed Frontier to identify where they would have the best opportunities to advance their mission. It positioned them for success.
As a brand new organization, Frontier also faced the challenge of a general lack of understanding of what the role of a think tank is, or the value it could provide to the state. The Institute had to sell ideas without having anything to show for itself…yet.
With this in mind, Frontier was strategic about how they were going to engage with key stakeholders. In early 2020, with help from State Policy Network’s startup program, Frontier developed a strategic roadmap, policy agenda, communications, and fundraising plan. One of the key strategies Frontier developed was to provide the minimum effective dose of engagement.
Frontier put together proposals that they knew were solid, could be implemented this session, and that feasibly they would be able to talk about from a position of expertise. “We didn’t have lobbyists running around the halls of the state capitol for us,” noted Cotton. “We didn’t have to do this through a real robust advocacy effort either. This was truly developing the research, putting the work into developing the ideas, and then getting this in front of the right people at the right time.”
Before Frontier entered the picture a few months ago, the top source for policy ideas in Montana, besides left-leaning organizations, was lobbyists, or industry representatives. There wasn’t an organization promoting an alternative to the narrative coming from entrenched interests—which usually entailed more tax and spend policies and regulations.
There was a real need at the policymaking level for a nonpartisan organization engaging lawmakers with alternative solutions and ideas. But this gap didn’t just exist for lawmakers, the media, too, lacked a different perspective and opinion. They were hungry for a reliable resource that told the other side of the story as well.
Frontier filled a glaring gap in the Montana policymaking scene. And with these policy wins under their belt, Frontier has demonstrated just how quickly and powerfully a free-market think tank can change lives in Montana.