HELENA — Republicans running the state Legislature successfully advanced on Wednesday their top two initiatives aimed at helping businesses add jobs — one aimed at reducing the cost of worker's compensation insurance and the other tilting the state's main environmental law in favor of industry.
Work comp reform has been staked out as a priority for both Democrats and Republicans this session — although Democrats don't like the way the Republican majority proposes to do it.
House Republicans advanced on a partisan 68-32 vote their plan to lower worker's compensation insurance costs largely by curtailing benefits paid to injured workers. Republicans argue that the plan, which is expected to face more scrutiny, will immediately save millions of dollars that companies can use to hire more workers.
"What we have heard time and time again is that our businesses need to have some changes now. They want relief," said Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork. "This bill addresses it and it addresses it now."
Both sides agree that state businesses pay way too much for the insurance. But Democrats and the Schweitzer administration don't like the way the GOP's industry-backed bill would reduce those costs at the expense of injured workers rather than dealing with other costs like fees paid to doctors and insurance companies.
The battle is expected to last the length of a legislative session expected to run through April. Democrats argue it is unfair to stop benefits at five years when in some cases injuries are so severe that they need to continue.
We are letting those people down, we are absolutely letting those people down," said Rep. Carolyn Squires, D-Missoula. "We are doing everything in our power to make sure they don't get a darn dime."
Republicans counter that the system is being abused and never-ending claims are driving up costs.
Schweitzer has so far taken a dim view of the Republican proposal. His administration has favored a proposal that was four years in the making to reduce workers compensation costs, but that measure was opposed by doctors for cutting their payments and was never the favorite of the insurance industry.
Key Senate Republicans are hoping to blend the two ideas together if possible.
Senate Republicans on Wednesday were focused another top priority for GOP leaders this session: environmental regulation.
The Senate endorsed two plans to rewrite the state's main environmental law in favor of extractive and other industries. One aims to make permitting faster and easier, and another carried by a Butte Democrat aims to make it harder to sue to block development projects.
Republicans said they want to send both bills to the House to make sure they get some sort of reform to the Montana Environmental Policy Act this legislative session.
Critics argue that MEPA is being wrongly blamed, and point out that several legislative efforts to remake it in favor of industry have not resulted in the development supporters seek.
The Senate also on Wednesday entered into the politically sticky issue of using cyanide to extract gold in the mining process. A proposal endorsed in a 29-21 vote modifies voter-approved ban on the process to allow the grandfathered facilities to also expand their cyanide operations.
Critics, coming from both sides of the aisle, said voters made it clear they oppose the process and argued lawmakers should not make any moves to allow for more of it to occur. Supporters, mostly Republicans joined by some Democrats, argued it is necessary so the Golden Sunlight mine near Whitehall can expand and create more jobs.