The Billings Outpost

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Chamber’s legislative picks don’t please all

By T.J. GILLES - For The Outpost

Four area legislators were honored as “Champions of Business” last week by the Montana Chamber of Commerce during the chamber’s Mid-Year Outlook Conference in Billings.

At each of seven conferences around the state, area legislators were recognized for pro-business legislation they sponsored, voted for or supported.

Webb Brown, president of the state chamber, singled out Billings Sens. Jeff Essmann and Ed Walker, Red Lodge Sen. Jason Priest and Billings Rep. Cary Smith for their pro-business activities.

On the state level, Bigfork Rep. Scott Reichner received the MVP (Most Valuable Policymaker) Award for his lead in changing the State Workers’ Compensation program.

Mr. Brown said reform of workers’ comp was the chamber’s top-priority issue and reducing taxes on business equipment and ratcheting down state environmental regulations were among other key measures.

Some took issue with Sen. Essmann’s award, arguing that his chief effort – to usurp the voter-passed initiative that led to the growth of the state’s retail medical marijuana business until it was essentially shut down by Mr. Essmann’s legislation - is hardly pro-business.

Mr. Brown said authorizing medical marijuana use subjected businesses to increased liability if workers might be impaired while under the influence of the herb and thus expose co-workers or others to increased safety risks.

Sen. Essmann told Billings KULR-8 News that “the big issue was whether employers need to accommodate medical marijuana in the workplace.”

Jim Gingery, executive director of the Medical Marijuana Growers Association, said he was surprised that the chamber “would choose to honor legislators who in their last session carried or sponsored bills that destroyed thousands of small businesses and put many hard-working Montanans out of jobs.”

David Crisp, publisher of The Billings Outpost, said his publication benefited from advertisers in the fledgling industry from about March of last year until late summer when that advertising dried up.

Mr. Crisp said that if advertising revenue from all Billings’ medical marijuana storefronts were added up, the total during that brief period would have made the industry the paper’s sixth-biggest advertiser in 2010.

Among Sen. Priest’s proposals was Senate Bill 170, which would have opposed mandatory health-care insurance purchases mandated by the Affordable Health Care Act of 2010 (Obamacare). That bill passed both houses, only to be vetoed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat.

Among other chamber-favored bills vetoed by the governor was Senate Bill 233, to revise the state’s environmental impact requirements.

Mr. Schweitzer did sign House Bill 370, which reduced the state’s business equipment tax to 2 percent on a business’s first $2 million in equipment.

Among the four business champions, Rep. Smith received a 100 percent rating from the chamber while Sens. Essmann, Priest and Walker all had scores of 93 percent.

The chamber’s complete scorecard, including scoring methodology, may be viewed at www.montanachamber.com/What_We_Do/2011_Voting_Review.

Mr. Brown said: “In short, the 2011 Legislature is one Montana businesses can be proud of. More pro-jobs, pro-business bills were passed in this session than in the last 10 years combined.”

Not surprisingly, a scorecard released by the Montana Conservation Voters did not agree. Of the chamber’s honorees, the Conservation Voters gave Walker, Smith and Reichner a rating of 0, Sen. Essmann a rating of 13 and Rep. Smith a 6.

Theresa Keaveny summed up the 62nd session: “The legislature gave the coal industry unnecessary tax breaks, while hard-rock mining operations, which have served up multi-million dollar water pollution clean-up bills for Montana taxpayers, benefit from less permitting scrutiny.”

Freshman Sen. Kendall Van Dyke of Billings was one of four singled out by the conservation group for his efforts, notably “for sponsoring legislation (SB 332) to drive investment and development of new jobs in clean, affordable renewable energy.”

And four area legislators – including Sen. Priest – were among a group of six the Conservation Voters called “out of touch – vote them out.”

Mr. Priest’s failed SB 226, the group said, “tried to double-charge Montanans with roof top solar or backyard wind, asserting folks who produce more energy than they use and give it back to the grid should be charged a user fee.”

Billings Reps. James Knox and Doug Kary were chided for supporting “radical legislation in the House Energy committee and on the House floor, including efforts to repeal the renewable energy standard and bring back nuclear power to Montana.”

And Laurel Rep. Dan Kennedy “attempted to degrade our (Montana) Constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment” and also favored bringing nuclear energy to Montana and “side-step voters, who made law via initiative that any nuclear power must be approved by a vote of the people.”  Both of Mr. Kennedy’s bills  failed.

The conservation group’s ratings can be seen at www.mtvoters.org/files/Scorecard2011.pdf.

 

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