Victory! NFB Helps Win Liability Protection for Small Businesses

Date: February 13, 2021

Priority legislation to shield Main Street enterprises from unfair COVID-19 signed into law by the governor

State Director Ronda Wiggers reports from Helena on the legislative and political week ending February 12.

Last week brought a huge victory for NFIB and all small businesses in Montana—Liability protection against unfair COVID lawsuits.

NFIB had lobbied and testified extensively for passage of Senate Bill 65, which Gov. Greg Gianforte signed into law on February 10. Quite simply, the new law states, “a person is not liable for civil damages for injuries or death from or relating to exposure or potential exposure to covid-19 unless the civil action involves an act or omission that constitutes gross negligence, willful and wanton misconduct, or intentional tort.”

With his signature, the governor made Montana the 17th state to have some form of liability protection against lawsuits accusing small businesses of being the source of someone’s contracting COVID-19, which could have been contracted anywhere.

In a news release announcing his signing, Governor Gianforte included a quote from State Director Ronda Wiggers, “Montana’s Main Street businesses breathed a collective sigh of relief after Gov. Gianforte signed SB 65 into law today. The Governor’s action sends a clear message that he will not allow Montana small businesses to become victims of frivolous lawsuits. I commend Senator Fitzpatrick for shepherding this vital piece of legislation through the Legislature, and thank the Governor for signing it into law. Small businesses can now turn back to their normal, everyday struggles of keeping their doors open and working towards Montana’s economic recovery.”

Eight more states are racing to enact similar laws after Congress failed to come up with a national standard.

In other legislative news …

  • HB 254 – Revise Wrongful Discharge Act – Passed the House 66–34. The bill:
    • increases the probationary period from six months to 12 months
    • adds “the employee’s material or repeated violation of an express provision of the employer’s written personnel policies” as a reason to dismiss for good cause
    • adds being absent from work for more than five days without explanation as cause
    • and further limits the amount of damages a dismissed employee can receive. NFIB supported HB 254.
  • HB 228 Establish the Family Medical Leave Act – this bill proposes up to a 1% payroll tax to pay for a variety of family medical leave that would then be mandatory for an employer to offer. The bill only guarantees the benefits to employees until the fund runs out of money each year. NFIB opposed HB 228.
  • SB 187 Increase the minimum wage – this proposes an increase to $10 in 2022; $11 in 2023; $12 in 2024 and then adjusted for inflation after that.  This was heard in the Senate Tax Committee on Friday. Although the committee has not yet voted, it does not appear that it will pass.
  • HB 198 Revise Workers’ Comp death benefit law – Currently, if an employee dies on the job, Workers’ Compensation pays for the funeral costs up to $4,000.  As this does not cover the average cost, this bill would increase that to “up to $10,000” and adjust it for inflation in the future. Passed the House 99 – 0.           

Much of this week was dominated by Governor Gianforte’s Montana Comeback Plan that includes lowering the personal income tax rate; doubling the amount of the exemption to business equipment tax; changing the way we tax corporations in Montana and removing the sale of employee-owned stock from capital gains tax.

  • SB 159 Personal Income Tax Relief Act lowering the Montana personal income tax rate from 6.9% to 6.75%;  and the accompanying “trigger” bill  (SB 182) that will continue to lower the rate based on our ending fund balance were heard in the Senate Tax Committee on Thursday. No action has been taken.
  • HB 303 the BIG Jobs Act increases the exemption on business equipment taxes from the current $100,000 to $200,000. Passed the House Tax Committee on a 13–5 vote.
  • SB 181 Corporate Tax Modernization Act deals with moving from the apportionment method of taxing multi-state corporations to the sales-only method. This bill met with some opposition from existing Montana businesses at the hearing on Friday. No action was taken by the committee.

Previous Reports and Related News

Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick was the prime sponsor of the new liability protection law. Photo snip courtesy of the Montana Public Affairs Network.

 

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