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Committee tables bill to boost Montana hiring

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HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A legislative panel on Thursday rejected Gov. Steve Bullock's plan to increase the mandatory percentage of Montana workers on state public-works projects, with opponents saying the measure didn't have enough support from contractors.

House Bill 490 would have required that at least 75 percent of the laborers on state or local projects be Montana residents — an increase from the current 50 percent requirement. The GOP-led House Business and Labor Committee tabled the measure in an 11-9 vote, with one Republican voting with the committee's eight Democrats.

The Democratic governor isn't admitting defeat yet. He said he intends to work with moderate Republicans to move the bill out of committee this session.

"What we are talking about is pretty simple. We should be putting Montana companies and Montana workers first," Bullock said.

Committee Chairman Tom Berry, R-Roundup, said the apparent lack of contractor support in the meeting swayed some lawmakers to table the bill.

"Suspiciously enough, we did not see a lot of contractors show up in support of the bill," Berry said. "And that really raised a red flag."

Helena contractor Dick Anderson backed the measure during a Wednesday news conference, but a single contractor doesn't signify support from the Montana Contractors Association, Berry said.

The bill, which was carried by Democratic Rep. Amanda Curtis of Butte, was introduced on Feb. 14. Committee members said an important proposal from the governor should have been submitted earlier.

Opponents also argued contractors from border towns may require laborers from neighboring states, and they expressed concern about meddling with the hiring practices of renewable energy companies that need workers familiar with their projects.

After the vote, Bullock said lawmakers would have had enough time to deliberate the measure thoroughly. He added the state Labor Department could provide exceptions in cases where there may be a shortage of workers.

"I wish they would have spent more time thinking about it," Bullock said.

The measure's supporters said it would put money in the hands of Montana workers and bolster local economies with tax breaks for businesses that abide by the law.

Curtis said neighboring states have even more stringent mandates: Idaho requires that 95 percent of public-works laborers are state residents, while Wyoming and North Dakota have similar rules.

"We are just trying to encourage businesses to do the right thing and hire Montana workers," Curtis said. "I think that our workers are worth more."

Montana union members called it a "commonsense bill." John Forkan, speaking on behalf of the Montana State Associations of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters, cited the measure's economic and employment benefits.

"It allows for some tax abatement considerations for employers," Forkan said. "It will put Montanans back to work on Montana projects."

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