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Legislature Discusses Wolf Hunting; Income Tax; Indigenous Peoples Day By Austin Amestoy, James Bradley

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 Wednesday, 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 percent 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 in order 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 percent of the employee’s monthly wages, a note attached to the bill indicates an expense of more than $9 million over the next five years in order 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.

The Montana House of Representatives 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.

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 Wednesday 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 currently 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.”

( Publisher’s Note: 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 [email protected] edu.)

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