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

“Recruiting and retaining workers is emerging as the No. 1 challenge for Montana businesses,” said the Montana Chamber of Commerce’s Bridger Mahlum, who made the comment this week about signs.

Mahlum was among proponents of a bill that aims to help students with student loan debt and employers with recruitment. In testimony this week, sponsor Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, said the bill would give companies the option to contribute as much as $5,000 a year to an employee’s loan repayment with the amount exempt from Montana income taxes.

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

As part of his argument, he noted the skyrocketing cost of student debt; undergraduates in Montana count on average debt of $33,000, and 60 percent of students leave school with student loans, Morigeau said. He said employers would know they were helping their employees because the full $5,000 would go toward debt.

His argument didn’t land with all his colleagues. The bill was heard Wednesday but further action was not yet scheduled as of Thursday.

At the hearing, Senate Taxation Committee Chairman Brian Hoven, R-Great Falls, said some students choose lower wages — and more debt. He pointed to a worker who didn’t want to suffer working for him in a hot grain bin for $12 an hour and opted instead to work at a pool for $8 an hour.

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

Sen. Greg Hertz raised a different criticism.

Hertz, a businessowner and Polson Republican, said an employer is financially much better off taking advantage of a federal income tax exclusion toward student loans, and businesses couldn’t take advantage of both. At the hearing, a Department of Revenue representative agreed there was no double dipping.

Morigeau, though, said the federal exemption expires in 2025, and there’s no guarantee it will continue (the federal exclusion is up to $5,250, and Morigeau said he would be happy to amend the $5,000 in his bill to match it). He also stressed the bill provides an option for businesses, but it doesn’t make any mandates of them.

As for the growing costs of a college education, Sen. JP Pomnichowski said society encourages young people to get a degree, and society as a whole then benefits.

“I don’t think it’s a choice to incur debt,” said Pomnichowski, a Helena Democrat. “That is the cost of the higher education that employers benefit from when that person then graduates … and can enter one of our good paying jobs.”

No members of the public spoke against the bill. In addition to the Montana Chamber, supporters of the bill included Forward Montana, which works on behalf of youth, Bozeman Democrat Rep. Alice Buckley, the Montana Public Interest Research Group, and the Montana Associated Students.

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

“Many of my classmates and peers struggle to pay off their student loans,” Reinhardt said. “And I’ve witnessed firsthand many of my friends prioritize work over school.”

Katjana Stutzer, with MontPIRG, said in 1989, a student could totally pay for college by working fulltime in the summer and 23 hours a week in the academic year at minimum wage. But today, even at $9 an hour and more than 40 hours a week all year, an aspiring college graduate still needs more money.

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

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