HELENA — A bill backed by Democrats to create jobs by training military veterans as truck drivers is gaining initial approval in the Senate despite Republican skepticism of such subsidies.
The measure heard in a Senate committee Thursday is estimated at around a $650,000 yearly expense to allocate state funds to train veterans and their spouses as truck drivers. The bill also opens up the training services to all unemployed Montanans.
Republicans and Democrats have dueled this session over what constitutes a "jobs bill."
Some Republicans are skeptical about a plan that spends state money in an effort to create jobs.
The measure is one of the few successes Democrats have had this session advancing a policy to stimulate job opportunities.
The proposal received an initial endorsement in the Senate last month drawing several Republican votes.
The measure has been cast as an initiative to help ease the shock of veterans returning from traumatic wars.
Ray Kuntz, CEO of Watkins and Shepard trucking company, supported the measure because of what he said the bill could do to boost the trucking industry and because of his personal experience with a combat veteran. Kuntz's stepson committed suicide after returning from Iraq, an act he attributes partly to his difficulty in reintegrating to regular life.
"I believe the best thing we can do for them (veterans) is give them a job that's meaningful and allows them to take care of their families as quick as we can to help them deal with the pressures," Kuntz said.
"You don't go from being a gunner in Iraq to handing out hot dogs at Target and feel good about yourself," he said.
Other supporters from the trucking industry said there was a huge demand for truck drivers and trucking is a means to boost the state's economy by bringing goods to and from the state.
The fact that the bill supports the trucking industry specifically and that the training is open to all Montanans drew questions from some Republican lawmakers.
Sen. Ryan Zinke, a former special forces combat veteran, said the bill wasn't about veterans because it is open to all underemployed or unemployed Montanans.
The Whitefish Republican also said the bills financial estimate that 100 people would take advantage of the program every year was far too low.
"If the demand is out there, then it's far greater than 100," Zinke said.
Zinke backed the measure during its Senate floor endorsement last month but he said the bill may need significant changes before it was a feasible measure.