If a bill in the Senate Public Health, Welfare, and Safety committee gets approval from lawmakers, businesses could again allow smoking indoors, but only if people under the age of 18 are not permitted in the establishment when smoking is allowed.

Sen. Jeremy Trebas, R-Great Falls, is sponsoring Senate Bill 205, which would revise the Clean Indoor Air Act and allow private establishments to obtain smoking licenses that would allow individuals to smoke inside.

“This bill strips most of the Clean Indoor Air Act back. Why? Because individuals as adults should be able to make their own health choices and property owners should be allowed to do what they want with their private property, even if the public is allowed on their premises,” Trebas said.

The Montana Clean Air Act was passed in 2005, which prohibits smoking in enclosed public spaces with the intent to protect “public health and welfare” to “recognize the right of nonsmokers to breathe smoke-free air;” and to “recognize that the need to breathe smoke-free air has priority over the desire to smoke.” Casinos and bars were exempt from the law until 2009.

Senate Bill 205 would allow private establishments to allow smoking indoors but they would still need approval and a local county health department permit to be considered a smoking establishment. The bill would also require that the establishments put up signs outlining when the smoking hour goes into effect and that no indoor smoking can happen when people under 18 are allowed into the building.

Trebas said that the government has no right to strip private property rights away when adults know the consequences of their actions.

“If government banned every activity they thought was unsafe, we wouldn’t be able to leave our homes or have the right to breathe without a mask, but that’s a topic maybe better left in the recent past,” Trebas said.

One person testified for the bill and 18 people testified against it, including Dr. Richard Sargent, a retired physician.

Sargent helped publish a study 20 years ago that outlined a drop in heart attacks in Helena in the first six months following the city passing a local Clean Indoor Air Act.

Sargent said that the heart attacks immediately rose back up after a reversal of the city ordinance.

“There is no question that there is a health effect of secondhand smoke. I used to submit a large stack of paper detailing all the effects of secondhand smoke, and when the data got to be so big that it wouldn’t fit in a handful of papers, I started submitting a CD of all of the information on secondhand smoke,” Sargent said.

Sargent said that SB 205 fails in two areas — people have a right to a clean and healthful environment, and it also becomes an issue for worker’s compensation insurance by subjecting employees to hazardous environments for long periods of time and it also fails to protect children because the ashes, dust, and gasses given off by burning cigarettes infect establishments even after the smoke has cleared.

“So we’re not going to have kids in there while we’re smoking, but the next morning, sure, that will be fine because we’re not smoking now, so everything’s gone. It’s not. It takes about six months to clear up,” Sargent said.

He also said employers have an obligation to protect workers and that an employee working eight hours in a smoke-filled room inhales the same amount of secondhand smoke as smoking an entire pack of cigarettes.

Kristin Page-Nei, representing the American Cancer Society, opposed the bill, saying that dismantling the Montana Clean Air Act would be a mistake and instead, lawmakers should strengthen it.

She said e-cigarettes weren’t on the market when the act passed, so it needs to be revisited and updated.

“Currently, they are not prohibited indoors, and we strongly recommend that we look at strengthening the Clean Indoor Act to do so,” she said.

Page-Nei shared Sargent’s sentiments that employees’ health will be at risk if the committee passes Senate Bill 205.

“We advocate for everyone’s right to breathe smoke-free air so that no one is forced to choose between their health and their paycheck,” Page-Nei said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

Lawmakers discuss bill that would add training and yearly updates to school safety plans

The Senate Education and Cultural Resources committee heard testimony on a bill Feb. 1 that would add training for law enforcement and communities on school safety and update threat assessment teams across the state to pre-identify dangerous situations in schools.

Sen. Edie McClafferty, D-Butte, is sponsoring Senate Bill 213, which updates language on school safety precautions and forces all safety plans to be reviewed each year instead of periodically.

“We all believe that we have a responsibility to protect our students,” McClafferty said.

In 2013 the Legislature passed Senate Bill 35 that forced county commissioners to create child information and school safety teams. SB 213 would modify the language in that bill to modernize school safety task forces.

“Over the last couple of years, I had a constituent go to different schools throughout his community and visit with the administrators, and after visiting with them, they agreed that part of the language in Senate Bill 35 needed to be reviewed and looked at,” McClafferty said.

Senate Bill 213 would allow schools to use school safety funds to offer training programs to students, parents and community members. The bill would also allow people outside the school to come together to help devise school safety plans.

Rob Watson, executive director at School Administrators of Montana, said a threat assessment team is necessary to prevent dangerous situations in schools.

“We often hear about the tragic events, but we’ll likely never hear about the numerous events that were prevented when a school and a community team worked together to identify those early warning signs,” Watson said.

The bill would add details and expectations to what are called county interdisciplinary child information and school safety teams. Watson said that the existence of these teams would be a great preventive strategy for school safety.

He also said these teams have been in state law for several years but inconsistently implemented at the county level. Some have been working for several years already, and others still need to be established, and this bill would add accountability to the counties that still need to implement the team.

“Many times when there’s a child in need of services at school, chances are they’re also in need of services outside of school,” Watson said. “So when schools have the opportunity to work together with county agencies around common issues related to a child, we can all provide those wrap-around services for the child and the family.”

Supporters of the bill said that safety measures in schools fluctuate too much, with some schools being extraordinarily secure and others allowing people to walk through directly. They also noted that this bill is necessary to expand the schools’ programs and tools when it comes to safety.

Ken Vivrette, a Jefferson County resident who spoke in support of the bill, said that the tragic shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, “tipped” him over, so he went to every school in Jefferson County to test their security himself.

“Jefferson County goes from one extreme to another. I opened a door in one school and wound up in the middle of a classroom. I went to another school where I had to go through bulletproof glass and an intercom system,” Vivrette said.

Vivrette said that he couldn’t see how anyone would be against this bill and the protection of the children in the state.

There were no opponents that testified at the bill hearing.

Bill proposes raising the state’s minimum wage

A panel of lawmakers listened to testimony on a bill that would increase the state’s minimum wage to $11.39 per hour and remove the exception that certain businesses can pay $4 per hour when an employee is in training.

Rep. Kelly Kortum, D-Bozeman, is sponsoring House Bill 201, which would also restrict businesses from accounting for tips or internship experience when paying employees.

“The cost of living increases 14%, and you get less than a 14% raise. You got a pay cut, and that’s happened for our 24,000 hardworking neighbors who are increasingly falling behind,” Kortum said.

Kortum said he proposed a bill last session that would have increased the minimum wage in the state to $10, and the new number factors in the inflation rate since 2021.

The minimum wage in Montana is $9.95 per hour and has steadily increased because of inflation from the $6.15/hour base salary in law. The minimum wage increases yearly with inflation due to Initiative 151, which 70% of Montana voters voted for in 2006.

Kortum said according to the Economic Policy Institute, 1958 was the last time the inflation-adjusted federal minimum wage was as low as it is now.

Amanda Frickle, representing the Montana AFL-CIO in support of the bill, said that the federal poverty line is about $13,000 for one-person households and $18,000 for two.

“While Montana’s minimum wage is higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, workers who make a minimum wage salary in this state are merely hovering above the federal poverty line,” Fickle said.

Fickle said businesses have had to shut down and can’t get employees because individuals in the state can no longer afford to live in their communities.

Senate Bill 301, passed in 2021, prevents local communities from designating a minimum wage that does not align with state or federal laws.

Fickle said Senate Bill 301 gave the legislative body the power to determine the standard income for thousands of Montanans.

“It’s past time for our minimum wage to reflect the true cost of living in Montana,” Fickle said.

Brad Griffin, executive director of the Montana Restaurant Association, said in opposition that the bill is a bad idea because the minimum wage steadily increases yearly and recently jumped up 70 cents an hour.

Griffin said it is hard to live on a minimum wage salary, but a vast majority of minimum wage workers in the state are servers and said they work for minimum wage because they also make tips that aren’t equated into yearly salaries.

“I hear numbers from $20 an hour on up to $50 an hour in tips. So the reason they are mischaracterized as minimum-wage workers is that in Montana — this is the strangest thing. We have two definitions of the word wage,” Griffin said.

The two definitions come from the Department of Revenue, which does not include the word “tips” as part of income, but the Department of Labor does include tips.

Griffin said that the two definitions lead to a strange situation where restaurant owners have to pay for worker’s compensation insurance on tips, while the tips themselves are tax-free at the employee level.

“They get recorded as a minimum wage worker when in fact, they’re far from that,” Griffin said. “We do cartwheels for jobs that make $20/$30 an hour. Look right down the street at your favorite restaurant. That’s paying $20/$30 an hour when you include tips.”

Wyatt LaPraim also opposed the bill representing Americans for Prosperity.

“Raising minimum wages has serious negative consequences. When minimum wages were raised in the cities of Seattle, New York and San Francisco, many small businesses were forced to reduce employee hours and eliminate jobs altogether,” LaPraim said.

Other opponents of the bill echoed that while big chains and larger stores can easily adjust to the increase in wages, many smaller local businesses can no longer afford to operate with an entire staff.

LaPraim said there shouldn’t be government interference regarding wages because the free market is already adjusting due to the labor shortage.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

Bill proposes specialty licence plates for USS Montana crew

A bill in the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee would allow the crew members of the USS Montana, a fast-attack nuclear submarine part of the naval fleet in Norfolk, Virginia, to get Montana specialty license plates for their vehicles, even if they’re not Montana residents.

Sen. Barry Usher, R-Laurel, is sponsoring Senate Bill 221 at the request of the USS Montana Committee, which gives crew members the option to register their vehicle in Montana and get a specialty license plate that features the submarine.

The USS Montana is the second warship to carry the name, following an armored cruiser commissioned in 1908 that served in the Atlantic and Mediterranean until 1921.

“There’s 140 sailors, so hopefully 140 of them will be driving around Virginia with their USS Montana license plates, and the other sailors in Norfolk, Virginia will be jealous,” Usher said.

Gov. Greg Gianforte gave the principal address in Virginia when the ship was commissioned on Jun. 25, 2022. Throughout the sub, there are tributes to Montana, like a Native American ceremonial peace pipe, a picture of Glacier National Park that covers the wall in the crew nest and all the hallways are named after the state’s rivers.

Supporters of the bill said that many of the 140 crew members stationed on the USS Montana have visited different parts of the state and want to proudly display their connection to it through a specialty license plate.

”A lot of them have come to Montana to learn about our history, our heritage, our culture, and our diversity, that they can take to dangerous places of the world in defense of our nation,” Bill Whitsitt, chair of the USS Montana Committee, said. “All these sailors have been learning and appreciate what Montana is all about. They are proud of it, and they want to share it.”

Laurie Bakri, of the Motor Vehicle Division, said there are already four license plates sold to Montana residents that commemorate the sub and its crew. All the proceeds for these plates go into supporting the boating crew.

This bill would add a special plate for the crew members on the sub and supporters in addition to the already existing four.

Usher said that the residence part of the bill would only be for license plate and registration purposes and would not allow the crewmates to partake in voting or any other privileges given to people within the state.

There were no opponents at the bill’s hearing.

Lawmakers consider allowing sick leave for adoptions, miscarriage

Lawmakers listened to testimony on a bill Feb. 1 that would allow state employees to use paid sick leave for adoptions and when a family member has a miscarriage or stillbirth.

Rep. Laura Smith, D-Helena, presented House Bill 329 to the State Administration committee. The bill would allow state employees to use paid sick leave for child-related events.

“Imagine all the work that goes into preparing for a baby in a very short period of time,” Smith said about adopting a child.

Smith said parental leave provisions allow 15 days of leave for adoptions. She said with the shift in the family dynamic and new responsibilities when adopting, there should be an option for employees to use available sick leave.

The bill also allows people that work for the state to use any paid sick leave to be with a family member that is going through a miscarriage or stillbirth.

“If you have an adult child that has experienced one of these really difficult events, you're able to be there with them,” Smith said.

Smith said that not all state employees, including the legislators, receive the full benefits of sick leave or days off under these circumstances. She said this bill aligns the policy for all state employees.

Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, was the only person to testify in support of the bill.

No one testified against the bill.

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Caven Wade is a student reporter 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. He can be reached at caven.wade@umontana.edu.