Old hands at past legislative sessions are calling this 64th meeting of the Montana Legislature one of the slowest starts in recent memory.
A modest number of state agency bills, legislative interim committee bills, and a gaggle of what are called cat-and-dog bills have made the circuit into House and Senate floor debate. The more important issue bills, and bills of interest to small-business owners, did not surface in hearings this week. Next week looks to be a little more exciting.
NFIB Victory on Minimum Wage
One victory NFIB/Montana had this week came in the successful tabling of Senate Bill 2 on January 23. This was the minimum wage bill by Sen. Jonathon Windy Boy of Box Elder. It would have raised the minimum wage from $8.05 currently to $10.10 per hour.
An inflation factor was also in SB 2, just as it is today. The Senate Business Committee tabled the bill on a 6-to-4 vote along party-lines. Republicans hold the majority in the Senate. NFIB/Montana strongly opposed SB 2.
The hearings on two bills reducing the individual income tax were held January 20, but no action has been taken on either bill. Meanwhile, two more bills have been introduced to cut income taxes, but they have not yet been assigned to a committee.
Balanced Budget Amendment
And, of course, the visit on January 21 by Ohio Gov. John Kasich was a hit among those supporting House Joint Resolution 4, which would put Montana as another state directing Congress to call a constitutional convention of the states to ratify a balanced federal budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A hearing on HJ 4 is set for February 3.
Also on January 21, a hearing on Senate Bill 123 was held in the Senate Business Committee. This measure calls for putting the Montana State Fund (workers’ compensation) under the overview of the Montana State Auditor (Insurance Commissioner), instead of the Legislature.
The effect would treat MSF like any other private insurance company doing business in Montana. It would review its rates, perform audits, and provide some administrative oversight of reserves and surpluses. No executive action has been taken on SB 123. NFIB/Montana supported this bill.
In other workers’ compensation activity, a new Senate bill is coming that would turn the old fund liability of roughly $60 million from the general fund back to the MSF.
Of particular interest to NFIB/Montana will be a hearing on House Bill 213 on January 29 in the Senate Tax Committee. HB 213 would increase the exemption on the business equipment tax from $100,000 to $500,000. It is sponsored by Rep. Mike Miller (R) of Helmville.
Also on January 29, a hearing will be held on Senate Bill 103 in the Senate Business Committee. SB 103 would give professional firefighters workers’ compensation benefits on certain presumptive diseases that are inherent in firefighters’ work for up to five years after the firefighter is off the job. NFIB/Montana will oppose this bill as it opens the door to all persons having certain diseases that work with hazardous materials under the equal protection clause in the Montana constitution. This could increase all workers’ compensation premiums. Firefighters enter hazardous situations on occasion, while people who work in auto body shops, agriculture, certain manufacturing, deal with hazardous material every day. To presume that a certain disease was caused by the work environment up to five years after exposure is not accepted by NFIB/Montana.
In the House Tax Committee that same day, a hearing will be held on House Bill 156, by Rep. Mike Miller of Helmville. HB 156 would exempt certain air and water pollution equipment and carbon-sequestration equipment from property taxes.
No Action Yet
Several major issue bills that have yet to see the light of day include:
- The bonding bill to fund statewide infrastructure like water systems, sewer systems, university buildings, and the new Montana Historical facility.
- The Medicaid expansion bill that would cover 70,000 uninsured, low-income folks is also not been scheduled for hearings.
- The creation of a pre-kindergarten school for four-year-old children is also awaiting hearings.
- A number of income tax bills have yet to be introduced.
Hopefully, the following week at the end of January, there will be more of the so-called “meat and potato” bills will begin to surface. The transmittal deadline is February 26. This is when all non-money bills have to be transmitted to the other house or they are dead.
Getting involved in the 2015 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 up to five legislators for each call, and delivery is within a half an hour. For those wanting more information on locating legislators, getting an e-mail address, looking to view committee meetings and floor sessions on television or over computers, and just to review all hearings and reading of the actual bills, they can go to www.leg.mt.gov
and access everything electronically.