Preaching the high-tech gospel at Steve Daines' jobs summit

The speaker lineup at Sen. Steve Daines’ event included executives from Microsoft and T-Mobile—and Rep. Greg Gianforte, who told an awkard joke about a Christmas party.

The Montana High Tech Jobs Summit began with what President Donald Trump might call a "low energy" moment. During his welcome speech, Sen. Steve Daines expressed his excitement for Congress' upcoming push for tax reform. He was met with tepid applause, to which he responded, à la Jeb Bush, that the audience ought to have clapped "a little louder."

It was 8 a.m., and the audience of 700 in the University of Montana ballrooms had come to hear the technology gospel, not politics. The speaker lineup featured executives from Microsoft, T-Mobile and VMware, each of whom clicked through slides showing how the world is changing, and how their companies are improving it. But tech and politics are intertwined, especially in a state where two of three elected federal representatives were executives at the same Bozeman software company. When Greg Gianforte stepped onstage to deliver the first keynote—his highest-profile public appearance in Montana since assaulting a reporter in May—Daines introduced him not as a congressman, but as "putting back on his hat as an incredible entrepreneur."

Daines inherited the biennial event from former Sen. Max Baucus, and has given it an explicitly high-tech theme. The message is that Montana's tech sector can jump-start the state's sluggish, low-wage economy. Panels featuring Missoula and Bozeman entrepreneurs served to underscore that potential, as did VMware COO Sanjay Poonen, who compared today's tech field to the natural-resource extraction industries of yesteryear.

Poonen also pointed out the lack of diversity in the room. Gianforte likewise apologized for a photo of RightNow Technology's first Christmas party that showed only men. "We did hire women," he joked, "but they knew better than to show up for the Christmas party."

The only damper on the summit's celebratory mood came during a Sunday reception. Thirty-odd protesters with progressive activist group Missoula Rising stood in the building's atrium demanding that Daines host an in-person town hall. "Some of us purchased tickets for tomorrow so we could see what's happening, but the point is, his constituents shouldn't have to spend $20 to speak to him," said organizer Erin Erickson. The senator was unfazed, later telling the Indy that technology has allowed him to reach more constituents, including senior citizens and remote farmers and ranchers, through "tele-town halls." He then opened his wallet and retrieved a business card with information about the call-in events.

The hot-button issue of net neutrality, thought to be under threat by FCC chairman Ajit Patel, received nary a mention during the keynotes. But the summit did feature Q&As with new SEC Chairman Jay Clayton, who advised Goldman Sachs during the last decade's financial crisis, and FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. Both Microsoft and T-Mobile are pushing the FCC to adopt rules that favor their approaches to providing broadband, with T-Mobile in particular seeking use of a new spectrum band called the Citizen Broadband Radio Service so it can develop 5G. During his speech, Chief Technology Officer Ray Neville pledged to bring 5G to Montana by 2020.

But Clyburn, a Democrat, said broadband infrastructure must not leave poor and rural Americans behind. "I feel the big guys are not necessarily going to be interested in serving this area in a manner and in a speed that is most beneficial to you," Clyburn told Daines, suggesting that the FCC create rules that help small, regional carriers provide service in remote and tribal areas. "Not everybody in the room might be happy about that," Clyburn said.

Microsoft President Brad Smith sought to reassure the crowd that automation does not spell doom for American workers. Rather, he said, the tech economy will require employees with new technical skills, and he highlighted the company's efforts to boost computer science education in high schools, much like Gianforte has attempted in Montana.

Though he didn't raise the issue at UM, Smith has taken to cable news in recent weeks to express his company's support for tax reform, telling CNBC that Microsoft looks forward to a tax structure that doesn't create "economic incentives to keep profits offshore."

Daines told the Indy he sees the Trump administration's tax proposal as "a start," but that Congress must ensure the middle class is "an important beneficiary of the outcome of this policy." As an example, Daines said, he opposes raising the lowest personal income tax bracket from 10 percent to 12 percent. He said lowering the tax bracket for wealthiest Americans to 35 percent was "a good place to start."

After his initial plug fell flat, Daines told the audience that Congress ought to rebrand tax reform.

"I would call it the American Jobs Act," he said. "This is how we can enable American small businesses—American companies—to better compete in this global economy."

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