Recap of Montana's 2021 Legislative Session -- Jason Todhunter

Well, Montana’s 2021 legislators have declared the Sine Di and the following are some of the highlights of the session. We started with a new governor and he was quick to put into play his campaign promises; “Cutting Red Tape” and “Improving Montana’s Business Climate”. With Republicans holding both the house and the senate, the goals of the legislature and the governor’s office were aligned fairly close.

Forestry/Natural Resources; issues this session were a fix on the HRA Law (HB 173) that was needed for the DNRC to be able to reallocate a HRA or spend $ if one was defaulted. The other big one was HB 594 which exempts the DNRC from having to do MEPA on Fuels reduction grants. This was classic red tape and will speed up these greatly needed projects; in talking with the DNRC this bill has already saved them several hundreds of hours of work and will make these badly needed fuels reduction dollars get to work quicker. Lastly, there were several bills HB 262 and 263 that helped with the taxation on forest lands as their taxable valuation program was not working with what they actually produce in Montana. Other issues were DNRC budgets and funding for the Good Neighbor Authority…this was a positive outcome as well.

Work comp issues; there several good bills that were business friendly like HB 254 that revised the wrongful discharge act, and SB118 which limits work comp benefits if the employee intentionally lies or misrepresents a pre-existing medical condition. There were several bad ones as well that undid some of the key work comp legislation we got passed in 2011. There was also another consorted attack on the Montana State Fund (MSF) by a private insurance company who with 5 bills would have made the MSF no longer competitive and would have forced them to raise rates to the small high-risk insureds like loggers. These bills among other things prohibited the MSF from issuing dividends to policy holders. We also supported increasing the work comp death benefit as it was not enough to cover the funeral of a loved one who lost their life on the job. This passed as well and will be negligible for a cost to insurers. HB 655 has also passed and is waiting a signature by the Governor. This clarifies Marijuana in the workplace and even though its legal in the State; if someone is under the influence at work it will limit their work comp benefits. All the good have passed and the bad are dead for this session!

Taxation was a good discussion this session as well with a lowering of the top income tax rate (this will lower taxes on individuals making more than $18,400 per year, HB 303 increased the threshold from 100 to 200k for business equipment and then it made it to the Senate who increased it to 300k. So, all businesses that are currently paying business equipment tax will be seeing some relief; many small businesses will not have to pay this tax anymore. HB 252 also gives a tax credit for employers to provide training for employees. There were multiple bad tax bills as well and thankfully they are on the table.

Trucking issues were a win this year as well with HB 77 changing how we measure the load length on a truck and pup configuration (now from the front bunk of the trailer not the front log) and let us do rules to allow truck scale bypass. HB 55 will help the snowplows get some more recognizable lights and maybe decrease some winter time accidents and HB 56 will make for some higher fines if the chain sign is on and a commercial truck doesn’t chain up then spins out on the pass and blocks it…the current fine was very cheap. It seems it is usually a highway truck from down south that plugs up our passes!

Covid was a topic obviously this session as well with SB 65 raising it to a gross negligent standard for the anticipated covid litigation that could be hitting businesses and individuals. This will ease the worry for businesses and establishments in these troubled times. There were several bad covid bills as well that died in the committees. The Federal covid $$$ that came into the state were very clear where they could be spent and the Biden administration put a claw-back provision in so they could ask for the money back if they didn’t like where it was spent. I was hoping we could put some $$ into badly needed fuels reduction but anything forestry related was left out of this by the Feds.

The legislature got through the process and left ten days of their 90 in case they have to come back over the federal Covid dollars. Thanks to all of you who helped with input and ideas for this last session. Also, to those who came and testified or sent messages to their local legislators. This helps tremendously when lawmakers are trying to decide which way they are going to vote.

Overall, I feel that this was a great session for improving Montana’s business climate. We were involved with many more bills however these were the highlights for this session…. time to hang the ties back up and put my nametags in a spot where I can find them two years from now!

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