As Labor Day approaches, the Montana AFL-CIO has released its official scorecard for the 2017 Legislative Session.
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Heading into the 65th Montana legislature, the Labor Movement faced a familiar, tenuous situation. On the first day, we faced a House of Representatives that had the exact same partisan breakdown (59-41 Republican Majority), as well as a similar leadership team as we suffered in the previous legislative session. The Senate Republicans, however, had vastly expanded their majority (32-18 Republican Majority) and elected one of their most conservative members as Senate President. A casual political observer might assume that the House would have remained workable, much like the 2015 House of Representatives, while the Senate would take a drastic anti-worker turn. In the end, that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
For the fourth session in a row, the Legislature failed to pass HB 13, the pre-budget bargained pay plan. Despite the relentless efforts of the sponsor, Rep. Moffie Funk (D-Helena), House Appropriations tabled this bill. In the end, thanks to the efforts of Rep. Funk, our public employee unions, and some reasonable Republicans, an altered version of the pay plan eventually passed in SB 294. While our hard work paid off in passing an altered pay plan, the future of pre-budget bargaining was certainly not answered this session.
Throughout the session there was a recurring theme of important bills making their way through the Senate’s near Republican supermajority, only to be stopped dead in the House of Representatives. There is probably no issue where this was clearer than with bonding for infrastructure. Throughout the whole session, a bi-partisan group from both chambers worked through coming up with a package that could pass both chambers. Contentious issues like funding for the Montana Heritage Center were dealt with in bills outside of the bonding bill. But unfortunately, like the three sessions before it, the bonding bill failed narrowly due to obstructionism of the Republican Speaker of the House, Austin Knudsen. Leaders from the Senate and the Governor’s office made multiple attempts to strike a comprehensive deal. Unfortunately, the Speaker’s extremism won out, and the bill continually failed by a couple of votes. Infrastructure needs in every corner of the state will once again go unfulfilled because of the Speaker’s stubborn political gamesmanship.
Montana remains one of four states in the nation that do not have a presumption for Fire Fighters that contract diseases due to their jobs. The Montana State Council of Professional Fire Fighters worked with a Republican legislator, who is a former wild land firefighter, to come up with a very narrow program to provide coverage to firefighters that develop cancer within five years of leaving their firefighting careers. This bill had never made it to the floor of a legislature before. However, this session the bill made it through the Senate with broad bi-partisan support. After a good hearing in House Business in Labor, the passage of this bill seemed imminent with multiple Republican committee members saying they would vote for the bill. Unfortunately, party politics at its worst reared its head, and Republican leadership made sure to kill these protections for our fire fighters.
The issue of Colstrip was one that dominated the 2016 election. It was one that was heighted, when extreme environmental groups cut a backroom deal with two out of state utilities to shut down two of the coal fired units in Colstrip. Failed gubernatorial candidate, turned body slamming congressman, Greg Gianforte and his friends in the MT GOP claimed throughout the election to be “Colstrip United”. Through the interim, Senator Duane Ankeny (R-Colstrip), Rep. Jim Keane (D-Butte), the Public Service Commissioner Travis Kavulla, Attorney General Fox’s office, along with Governor Bullock’s office collaborated on a bill to help coal communities when corporate interests decid to shut down large industry in their area. This bill ended up being SB 338. SB 338 developed a process to assess the societal costs of decommissioning a power plant, established a set of narrow impacts, that would empower specifically impacted persons to apply for grant funding in the wake of a closure. The corporations that profited so greatly from these power plants would be accountable for paying these costs, not Montana taxpayers. Great care was taken to make sure that the bill would be legally defensible and reasonable. Unfortunately, this was not enough for corporate American and their extremist environmentalist cronies. The out of-state executives on their private jets flowed into Helena, and convinced Speaker Knudsen to kill SB 338, after it had passed the Senate nearly unanimously. The vast majority of the House GOP politicians that claimed to be “Colstrip United” proceeded to turn their backs on Colstrip. This failure was a bi-partisan one, unfortunately. A small group of House Democrats decided to stand with corporate profits over the people of Colstrip.
Despite the difficulties this session, there were successes. Montana’s Labor Movement turned back multiple attacks on prevailing wages, played a pivotal role in increasing Montana’s Fuel Tax, and many other issues. These issues are covered in our scorecard.
The State Federation extends its heartfelt thanks to the Labor Lobby. More than 25 Labor Lobbyists and union leaders from around the state met on a weekly basis to share priorities, exchange intel, and formulate strategy to protect working Montanans. Without this solidarity, meeting the challenges that the legislature presented would have been an impossible task.
Get the Montana AFL-CIO’s Scorecard HERE >>>