Montana Public Radio

Montana Lawmakers Vote On Government COVID-19 Liability Protection, Labor Bills

Mar 1, 2021
Originally published on March 1, 2021 6:43 pm

The Montana House Monday offered support to a bill that would limit government civil liability for COVID-19-related issues. Lawmakers also voted down two bills that would’ve impacted public unions.

House Bill 435 would protect governmental organizations and health care providers from coronavirus-related lawsuits unless they display gross negligence in preventing the virus’ spread.

On the House floor, sponsor and Billings Republican Rep. Bill Mercer said the policy is key to resuming pre-pandemic activities, like in-person education.

“When entities are making best efforts to do things in a reasonable way, we need to ensure they aren’t going to be liable when they have engaged in that conduct,” Mercer says.

Mercer said the bill is similar to another piece of legislation already signed into law limiting coronavirus liability for businesses.

Helena Democratic Rep. Robert Farris-Olsen opposed HB 435, saying it allows governmental agencies and school districts to lower their standards for keeping employees and students safe.

“That is particularly problematic because we should be doing everything we can to protect our community, our students, our employees against COVID-19 and making our state a safer place,” Farris-Olsen says.

HB 435 needed two-thirds support to pass the House because it would impact government liability. It met that threshold by a razor-thin 67 to 32 vote margin Monday, and will now move to the Senate.

Over in the Senate chamber, moderate Republicans sided with Democrats to vote down two GOP sponsored bills opposed by labor unions.

Senate Bill 89 would’ve prevented a public employer from deducting union dues from an employee’s paycheck. It failed on a 22 to 28 vote.

After referencing a list of 350 organizations authorized to receive paycheck deductions in Montana, Republican Sen. Jason Small of Busby questioned why the Legislature would single out public unions.

“I don’t think it’s the state of Montana’s position to tell people how we can spend our paychecks at this time,” Small says.

Senate Bill 228, which would’ve widened the timeframe when workers can withdraw from public unions, failed on a tied vote.

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