HELENA — The Montana House gave initial approval Tuesday to a bill banning illegal immigrants from receiving workers' compensation insurance benefits, the first of several bills expected to deal with either immigration or the beleaguered insurance program for injured workers.
The measure was endorsed on a 60-40 vote Tuesday and faces a largely procedural final vote Wednesday before going to the Senate.
Backers of the proposal argue it sends a message to those wrongly employing illegal immigrants. They said it would help, admittedly in a very small way, fix the state's problem with high work comp insurance rates.
But the bill was more about illegal immigration than work comp, which is expected to be the subject of several reform proposals this legislative session.
Opponents countered that the workers will still get injured, and hospitals will be left picking up the tab for treating them in emergencies. Those costs will then be shifted to consumers and other insurance companies, they pointed out.
Businesses who, perhaps mistakenly, hire an illegal immigrant and pay for their work comp could be subject to a big lawsuit when the insurance doesn't pay, said one opponent. Testimony showed only perhaps four cases where work comp paid claims last year to illegal immigrants in Montana.
"This is dynamite. It might only be four cases, but it could put an employer out of business," said Rep. Walter McNutt, R-Sidney. "Think hard before you vote for this. You may not be doing the best thing you can for the business people and employers of this state."
Illegal immigration, although not nearly as big of an issue in Montana as other parts of the West, is expected to be the subject of several legislative initiatives.
A bill heard last week in committee would require the state to use a federal database to verify legal immigration status before issuing a driver's license. Supporters of that bill say it is needed to make sure illegal immigrants don't get a driver's license. Opponents argued it would subject many law-abiding Montanans to the federal background check.