The halls and hearing rooms of the Montana Capitol will echo with chatter about student debt, firefighter health and a deluge of bill requests the week of Jan. 14. Here are some topics to follow.

Lawmakers focus on firefighter health and safety

While Medicaid expansion is dominating health care discussions this session, Democratic leaders say they want to make firefighter health a priority, too.

During the 2017 session, lawmakers failed to pass a bill that would have granted workers’ compensation benefits to firefighters diagnosed with lung cancer or other respiratory diseases by presuming the illness was caused by the job.

The bill, which was introduced by former Sen. Pat Connell, R-Hamilton, died in the House Business and Labor Committee and couldn’t garner enough votes to be blasted to the House floor for debate.

House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, said Democrats will take up the issue this session.

“If you have a job where you get sick because of your job … your job should be somewhat liable for that,” Schreiner said in a press meeting on Jan. 11.

One of the first bills to address firefighters and workers’ compensation this session is HB 28, sponsored by Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish.

The legislation would impose a five percent tax on fireworks sold in Montana. Those funds would channel $250,000 each year to local fire districts to purchase workers’ compensation for volunteer firefighters. The remaining revenue would fund grants for emergency medical and trauma services.

The House Taxation Committee had scheduled a hearing for HB 28 on Jan. 15.

Meanwhile, a related bill has emerged in the Senate. SB 29 would require workers’ compensation for volunteer firefighters starting in 2022. The legislation is sponsored by Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, and scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Committee on Local Government at 3 p.m. on Jan. 16, in Room 405.

The Department of Justice wants to make rape kit testing and tracking mandatory.

The Montana Department of Justice requested a bill that could help with the backlog of sexual assault evidence kits. SB 52, sponsored by Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, requires that all rape kits be submitted to the state crime lab and establishes a rape kit tracking system.

The bill also requires the victim’s consent before sending a kit to local law enforcement. For a victim who declines to give consent, the kit would be anonymously sent from the health care facility where it was collected to the Department of Justice. If SB 52 becomes law, health care facilities and law enforcement will also have deadlines for when to hand off the kits and report them to the state.

“I’m hopeful there are some cold cases we can solve, that survivors of sexual assault can feel their voices were heard and their stories were heard,” said Jon Bennion, Chief Deputy Attorney General, who is asking lawmakers to support the bill.

The Attorney General’s office conducted a census of sexual assault evidence kits in 2015, ultimately finding that 1,140 kits hadn’t been tested.

The Department of Justice has since received nearly $3.2 million in federal grants to help track kits and end the backlog, but Bennion said additional funding might be needed from the Legislature.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing for SB 52 on Jan. 15.

Senator seeks to tackle student debt through education

Students are racking up loans to cover higher-education costs nationwide, and Montana is no exception. The Missoulian reports that the average University of Montana student borrowed $22,000 in 2017, while the average Montana State University student borrowed more than $27,000, as reported by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, would require that students receive financial literacy training before receiving their loans. Montana universities receiving state funding would have to provide information on the consequences of student loan debt, including monthly payments and accrued interest. Students would also receive information on the rates of employment and average salaries in their fields of study.

When students check their grade reports at the end of the semester, they’d also get information on the estimated monthly payments for their current level of debt, interest rates, and the average level of debt for other students in similar majors or programs of study.

The bill, SB 87, will have a hearing in the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee at 3 p.m. on Jan. 16.

Legislative Services juggles a record number of bill requests

Lawmakers might be feeling ambitious for the 2019 session. They’ve asked for an unprecedented number of bill drafts. As of Friday afternoon, Legislative Services Executive Director Susan Fox reported 3,122 bill requests. In 2017, there were just over 2,600 requests, and just under 2,500 in 2015. Fox’s office researches and writes bill drafts and amendments, but she’s not panicking yet.

“There’s an awful lot of placeholders,” she said. “Unless an awful lot of them come off hold, I think we’ll be in good shape. But it is a concern if they all come off hold.”

Legislative Services staff will put bill requests on hold if they don’t receive further instruction from the requesting lawmaker. Currently, almost 1,700 bill drafts are on hold.

Many legislators’ bill requests never end up being drafted. Some are used as placeholders in case a lawmaker anticipates introducing a bill, but later changes his or her mind.

Lawmakers are allowed to submit an unlimited number of bill draft requests before Dec. 5, then the pipeline slowly closes. After Jan. 7, a legislator can request only two bill drafts.

“So I think they were just trying to get them in while they were unlimited,” Fox said, “but we don’t anticipate all of them coming up.”

Fox said that, apart from bills on hold, the numbers track with past years. As of Day 5 of the session, slightly more than 200 bills had either been sent to the requesting lawmaker for review or are ready for delivery to the lawmaker. Another 104 have been introduced in the Senate, and 187 have been introduced in the House.

Lawmaker works to save Montana’s Indian languages

The Montana Indian Language Program sunsets in 2019, but Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, wants to extend it for another four years.

The Legislature approved $2 million per biennium for the pilot program in 2013, but it has taken some financial hits in the years since. Lawmakers extended the program with only $1.5 million in 2015 and $1 million in 2017, but a state budget shortfall in 2017 meant more funding was whittled away. The Indian Language Program received just $300,000 in 2018, according to a Montana Public Radio report.

Windy Boy said the number of people who speak languages like Piikani and Crow fades year by year. He said it’s imperative to protect such languages as a cultural resource.

“If you take a look at the Montana Constitution … it says, ‘we will uphold the integrity of the culture and the heritage (of American Indians),” said Windy Boy, who is a member of the Chippewa-Cree Tribe.

Windy Boy is sponsoring HB 33, which would extend the Montana Indian Language Program until 2023. HB 41, also sponsored by Windy Boy, extends the Cultural Integrity Commitment Act to 2023 as well. The act creates a language immersion program for school districts.

The House Education Committee will have a hearing on both bills at 3 p.m. on Jan. 14, in Room 137.

The bills don’t address funding for the programs, but Windy Boy said he plans to introduce future legislation that will again secure $2 million per biennium for Indian language preservation programs.

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Leia Larsen is an award-winning reporter who has covered the environment and public policy in Colorado, Utah, and now the Montana capital. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder. Contact her at llarsen@mtfp.org or 465-3386.