Worker training program expanded; employer-silence proposal stopped
NFIB/Montana State Director Riley Johnson’s report from Helena for the legislative week ending February 17
The 2017 Legislature appears to be the slowest session in 16 years. With declining revenues and a divided government, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are paring down their ideas and wish lists.
This 65th session will likely consider fewer bills than any session since 2001. Legislators reviewed a low of 1,179 bills in 2001 and a high of 1,526 in 2007. This year both houses have considered only 798 bills so far, with less than 200 bills waiting in the wings with any hope of seeing the light of day.
The 35th day of the session passed on February 17. General policy bills are dead if they have not passed one chamber by March 1, which is the midway point of the 2017 session. Revenue bills have until March 30 to reach the second house. Democrats and Republicans alike say there is little point to advance a package of bills for which there is no money to fund.
Paycheck Transparency Act Defeated
One bill NFIB/Montana lobbied long and hard in opposition to was Senate Bill 217 by Diane Sands (D) of Missoula. This bill would have created the Montana Paycheck Transparency Act, allowing employees to discuss wages or benefits without penalty or retribution from an employer. It also prohibited an employer from asking a potential employee about past wages or benefits.
SB 217 was supported by Gov. Steve Bullock, the Department of Labor, and a bevy of equal pay for equal work advocates, and put more regulations on to small-business owners. The bill was tabled on February 17 in the Senate Business Committee on a 7-3 vote.
Incumbent Worker Training Program Expanded
With NFIB present, Governor Bullock signed House Bill 88 by Moffie Funk (D) Helena into law. This measure expands the Incumbent Worker Training Program for small businesses, by increasing eligibility of businesses that qualify to qualify from 25 employees to 50 employees.
This program earmarks more than $650,000 the unemployment insurance payments made by employers for worker training workers in advanced skills that can enhance an employee’s wages and job responsibilities.
It is aimed at such skills as Excel spread-sheets, accounting, payrolls, and advanced computer competence. Each year, grants, with a 20 percent match by the employer, are given to small-business owners with a cap of $2,000. The Department of Labor reports that these grants are fulfilled within six months by small businesses.
W2 and 1099 Forms
The governor also signed House Bill 63 into law, which changes the date employers must distribute W2s and 1099 tax forms from the end of February to the end of January. This is retroactive to the end of 2016 forms.
Gas Tax Increase
The first of the big bills that are wallowing in the basement of the Capitol awaiting final drafting came out February 17. This is House Bill 473 by Rep. Frank Garner (R) of Kalispell that would raise the gasoline tax by eight cents per gallon.
The money would be budgeted for
- state roads and highways
- bridge maintenance and building
- public safety on the roadways,
- and for matching federal highway dollars for highway construction.
It is estimated this bill would raise $65 million. The proposal is supported by the governor as well as many lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.
The question of how to raise money for highway infrastructure and matching federal dollars for highway construction will become the major contention when HB 473 is heard in the House Transportation Committee February 22. What NFIB/Montana is picking up in the halls of the Capitol is that even some legislators who have never voted for a tax increase in all their legislative years are looking favorably at HB 473 as the only way to address Montana’s long neglected highway infrastructure.
Reports have shown that over 50 percent of Montana’s bridges, and thousands of miles of road surfaces are in serious disrepair. NFIB/Montana will be monitoring this bill closely.
Income Tax Increase
Another set of measures of interest to NFIB/Montana are House Bill 330 and House Bill 452. These bills would raise the individual income tax bracket for wealthy individuals. HB 330 would raise the tax bracket to 8.9 percent (from the current 6.9 percent) for wages over $400,000. This bill was tabled in the House Tax Committee February 17. HB 452 would increase the top tax bracket for individuals to 7.4 percent on income over $282,600. Income over $500,000 would have a rate of 7.9 percent. This bill has a hearing in the House Tax Committee scheduled for February 21. NFIB/Montana will oppose HB 452.
House Bill 496 is also up for a hearing the same day, in the House Business Committee. It would exempt employees in seasonal and outdoor recreational positions from the minimum-wage and overtime laws.
Workers’ Compensation Claims
One bill NFIB/Montana vigorously opposed is House Bill 229. It would have allowed injured workers to choose their own treating physician in a workers’ compensation claim. This provision wasn’t allowed in 2011 rewrite of the state’s workers’ compensation laws, which resulted in in an 8.5 percent savings in premiums. HB 229 was tabled by the House Business Committee this past week.
Drug Reimbursement Bill Ahead
Coming up next week is a hearing on House Bill 276, which would revise reimbursements to private, small rural pharmacies for certain generic drugs by insurance companies. Many small-town pharmacies get only a negotiated rate of reimbursement that is below what it costs to purchase the drugs.
A number of pharmacies, including NFIB-member ones, asked NFIB for help in supporting HB 276. These members last year lost from $30,000 to more than $85,000 because of the negotiated rates charged by insurers.
Smaller pharmacies can’t negotiate lower prices from drug companies like large chain pharmacies can do. HB 276 passed the House last week 99-1, and will be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee February 21 in room 303.
Getting involved in the 2017 Legislature is easy. The best way to have your voice heard quickly is to phone 406-444-4800. Operators are on hand in the Capitol Building to take messages for up to five legislators on each call, and delivery is within a half an hour.
More information on:
- locating legislators
- getting an e-mail address
- viewing committee meetings and floor sessions on television or over the internet
- review all hearings
- reading of the actual bills …
… can go to www.leg.mt.gov and access everything electronically.
Previous Legislative Reports
[Tile photo of Sen. Diane Sands courtesy of The Montana Legislature]