Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte has signed into law a major COVID-19 liability bill, which soared through the Montana Legislature during its first month.
Senate Bill 65, sponsored by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, greatly reduces the extent to which businesses, healthcare professionals and manufacturers of personal protective equipment are liable for harm related to COVID-19. The bill sets a higher bar for lawsuits, changing the standard from “negligence” in previous law to “gross negligence.”
Gianforte previously said signing SB 65 into law and vaccinating the most vulnerable populations of the state were prerequisites to removing the statewide mask mandate put in place by his predecessor, former Gov. Steve Bullock. Gianforte announced during the bill’s signing that he would allow the mandate to expire as of Feb. 12. Local jurisdictions will still be allowed to issue their own mask mandates.
The bill passed through the Legislature largely along party lines, with most Republicans voting in favor of the measure and most Democrats against. Democrats raised objections to the bill’s broad protections, saying it went far beyond protecting from “frivolous lawsuits.” The bill also extends protections to nursing homes, something Democrats also resisted.
House Bill 102, which would expand concealed carry laws, is also on the way to the governor’s desk. It would allow Montana citizens to legally carry a concealed firearm anywhere open carry is allowed. That measure is likely to be signed by the governor.
HB 102, sponsored by Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, and two-dozen other Republican lawmakers, allows Montana citizens to legally carry a concealed firearm anywhere they had previously been able to open carry.
HB 102 also specifically prohibits the Montana University System’s Board of Regents from regulating the carrying of firearms on campuses in most circumstances, with exceptions made for athletic events and the safe storage of firearms.
Private businesses, property owners and tenants can still ban guns on their property.
Previous efforts to expand concealed carry rights ended in vetoes by former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
Bill would establish paid leave for Montanans with new children, health emergencies
For the third time in as many Legislative sessions, Montana lawmakers are considering a bill that would establish an insurance program providing paid medical leave for families.
Rep. Moffie Funk, D-Helena, introduced House Bill 228 to members of the House Business and Labor Committee on Feb. 10. Former Rep. Jennifer Eck, D-Helena, first introduced the bill in 2017, when the committee tabled the measure, killing it before it could reach the full House of Representatives. Funk tried again in 2019, but with the same result.
The bill would establish a fund to provide eligible employees in Montana with 12 weeks of up to 50% of their average annual wage in the event that person is dealing with a serious health condition, taking care of a new child or a sick family member. Employers, their employees and self-employed people would pay into the fund in amounts determined by the Department of Labor and Industry.
Funk acknowledged many committee members had heard the bill before but expressed hope for a different outcome.
“These can be extremely stressful times, and families should not have to struggle to make ends meet or keep their jobs while facing these challenges,” Funk said.
Heather O’Loughlin spoke in favor of the bill on behalf of the Montana Budget and Policy Center. O’Loughlin said access to family medical leave would attract more workers to Montana, and that nine other states have already implemented similar programs.
The bill got support from a number of small business owners and organizations, touting it as an affordable solution to the long-standing problem of affording paid medical leave.
Jennifer Clouse, owner of Skin Chic, a medical spa in Missoula, said her business started too small to offer any paid time off at all, but said she’d be willing to pay into the fund for each of her employees to assure them paid medical leave.
“Together, for so little, we can provide a value to our employees and our business that I can’t afford alone,” Clouse said.
Opponents of the bill said a new, large, government-organized program would be costly to implement and could negatively impact small businesses forced into participation in the program.
Ronda Wiggers, representing the Montana Small Business Association, said the expense to small businesses would add up over time, and that many businesses with a handful of employees would not be able to afford losing a worker for 12 weeks.
“We have small businesses struggling to come back from the pandemic,” Wiggers said. “So, although it does look like maybe this isn’t a huge amount, we maintain that it’s a program that these small businesses can’t necessarily afford to have.”
While the bill says contributions from employers and employees can’t exceed more than 1% of the employee’s monthly wages, a note attached to the bill indicates an expense of over $9 million over the next five years for the state to administer the program.
In her closing remarks, Funk urged committee members to approve the bill so it could be heard in front of the full House, rather than dying in the committee as it did before.
“I know that the idea of implementing a family and medical leave insurance program is a leap of faith for many. It seems an awesome undertaking,” Funk said. “But we’ve heard from people whose lives would be better today had they had this option.”
The bill must pass the committee before heading to the full House for additional debate.
Montana House of Representatives advances bills to expand wolf hunting
The House has approved two bills seeking to expand the season and methods by which Montanans can trap the state’s gray wolf population.
Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, a wildlife biologist of 31 years, sponsored both measures and introduced them to the full House during a floor session Wednesday.
House Bill 224 would allow trappers licensed in Montana to also use snares to trap wolves.
Fielder said the measure would help keep wolf populations down in the state.
“It seems wildlife managers need another tool to manage wolf populations that seem to be high in some areas of the state,” Fielder said.
Rep. Connie Keogh, D-Missoula voiced her opposition to the measure, echoing fears from other opponents of the bill that more snares on Montana lands would mean more accidentally caught deer, elk and dogs.
“This is another case of trying to micromanage Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks,” Keogh said.
Fielder said existing laws require snares to be set back away from trails, roads and campgrounds, and that he’s spoken with more hunters afraid of losing their “hounds” to wolves rather than snares.
Fielder’s second bill, House Bill 225, drew more arguments among lawmakers as they debated whether to extend the wolf trapping season by two weeks on either end. Under the bill, wolf trapping season would begin the first Monday after Thanksgiving and run through March 15.
Fielder, echoing his defense of HB 224, called the extension another “wildlife management tool.”
But Rep. Brian Putnam, R-Kalispell, said the bill would overstep the Legislature’s bounds.
“I’m not against hunting or trapping wolves,” Putnam said. “I just think we should leave this up to the Fish, Wildlife and Parks commissioners to determine the number of wolves that need to be hunted and killed, and also let them decide the season and dates.”
Lawmakers in favor of the change said cutting down Montana’s wolf population would help ranchers and hunters seeking game the wolves prey on.
“I miss not getting my organic meat in the fall,” said Rep. Becky Beard, R-Elliston. “Our elk populations are dwindling.”
Both bills cleared the House and are now heading to the Senate.
Lawmakers consider cutting top income tax rate
For more than two hours Feb. 11, lawmakers heard testimony from 20 proponents and 18 opponents on Senate Bill 159, which would slash the top income tax rate from 6.9% to 6.75%.
The bill’s supporters said it would help bring the state more in line with other western states with lower income tax rates, incentivizing business to move to Montana.
Montana has the second highest income tax rate among its neighbors. However, it is also the only state in the region without a sales tax.
Gov. Greg Gianforte’s Budget Director Kurt Alme said lowering Montana’s income tax would position the state well as it comes out of the pandemic.
“This is the perfect time for us to begin our move to move our top rate down to get competitive with the neighbors in the south,” Alme said.
Donna Arduin is the president of Arduin, Laffer and Moore Econometrics, a Florida-based business consulting firm. She said lowering Montana’s top tax bracket would help the state reach its “economic potential.”
The tax cut would cost the state about $30 million every year, a deficit Gianforte has said he would like to meet by streamlining government agencies and taking advantage of future recreational marijuana tax revenue.
Heather O’Loughlin spoke on behalf of the Montana Budget and Policy Center, which opposes the bill. She said making such a large cut is reckless. She pointed to Colorado as an example, which she said relies too heavily on recreational marijuana and sales tax revenue to offset its low-income tax rate.
Jon Ellingson spoke in opposition to the bill for Big Sky 55+, a nonprofit which advocates for Montana seniors. He talked about the ramifications such a large deficit in the state budget could have.
“Mark my words,” Ellingson said, “If this [bill] passes, you will create a revenue crisis and shortfall, and the budget will be balanced not by repealing this legislation, but by decreasing support for those of us who need it the most.”
Other opponents said the bill represents a handout to the richest Montanans with little benefit for middle- and working-class Montanans.
“This really is an insult to average workers trying to make an honest living and providing tax cuts for the wealthy does not help people like me,” said Rachelle Sartori, who lives in Helena.
If the bill passes, Montanans earning $60,000 or less would save $50 or less each year, while those making $2 million per year would save about $3,000.
Another bill aimed at tax relief, House Bill 303, would double the business equipment tax exemption to $200,000, which Gianforte has said would keep more money in the pockets of small business owners. It, too, received a landslide of support during the hearing and advanced out of the committee in a 13-5 vote.
Lawmakers introduce bills to protect and celebrate indigenous cultures
Bills seeking to establish Indigenous Peoples Day in Montana resurfaced for the third time in the Legislature with renewed support from advocates who said it’s time to celebrate the history of the state’s Indigenous peoples.
Previous measures to establish the holiday in 2017 and 2019 died in the process.
Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, is sponsoring Senate Bill 146, which would remove Columbus Day as a state holiday and replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day. Morigeau carried similar legislation last session, but it died in the Senate after receiving bipartisan support in the House.
Morigeau and many proponents of the bill said the measure was not intended to rewrite history.
“To the contrary,” Morigeau said, “I’m asking you to recognize the full breadth of history.”
The bill received overwhelming support from members of Montana’s Indigenous tribes, advocacy groups, and other concerned Montanans who said the holiday would celebrate the histories of all Indigenous peoples from all parts of the world.
Billings-based Indigenous artist Ben Pease said the bill celebrates diversity in Montana.
“We are all Indigenous, each and every one of us, to one hemisphere or another,” Pease said. “We have a responsibility to recognize our history, present and future.”
Kelli Twoteeth, a representative from Montana Native Vote, said the Legislature should continue its support of Indigenous causes and referenced the recent installation of the flags of Montana’s eight tribal nations outside the Capitol.
“If you want to put eight tribal flags outside and say you care for Indian country, we ask you to pass this bill,” Twoteeth said.
The committee also heard Senate Bill 94, sponsored by Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, which would establish Indigenous Peoples Day, but retain Columbus Day as a holiday as well.
That bill also received broad support, but many proponents noted they would rather SB 146 become law.
Webber explained that her bill came as a result of the measure’s failure in previous sessions as a compromise allowing Columbus Day to continue but said she would rather Morigeau’s bill be passed.
The House Education Committee heard a separate bill Feb. 10 intended to preserve Indigenous culture.
House Bill 286, sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, would require the Montana Digital Academy — an online learning program for public schools administered by the University System — offer courses on Indigenous language and culture.
Windy Boy previously sponsored a successful bill in 2013 that started a “Montana Indian Language Preservation Pilot Program” appropriating money to create dictionaries and audio and visual media capturing various forms of Indigenous communication. He said his latest bill would help expand the areas children learning Indigenous languages are able to practice by creating an accessible digital component.
Proponents of the bill cited a portion of Article X of the Montana Constitution that says the state “recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indians and is committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity.”
Robert Currie, the executive director of the Montana Digital Academy, said the program is not administering any Native language programs, which Windy Boy said the legislation is intended to address.
“In reality, they’ve been in violation of the state Constitution since 2009 when they created that program,” Windy Boy said. “If they’re not going to move on this, then this bill will make them do it.”
• • •
Austin Amestoy and James Bradley are reporters with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. Amestoy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.