Legislators agree volunteer firefighters need workers’ comp, but funding an issue


(UM Community News Service) Two bills being heard in the Montana Legislature this week focus on workers’ compensation insurance for volunteer firefighters. However, the bills’ sponsors don’t agree on how it should be financed.

House Bill 28, sponsored by Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, would create a tax on fireworks to help pay for workers’ compensation coverage for volunteer firefighters. Leonard Lundby, of the statewide Volunteer Firefighter Association, said about 2,000 Montana volunteer firefighters are uninsured. He spoke in support of the bill at a hearing on Tuesday.

“It is only meant to help the poorest of the poor fire departments,” Lundby said.

Lundby said this is a needs-based funding program, and that many fire departments already provide workers’ compensation insurance for volunteers. Others cannot afford it, he said.

Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, is carrying Senate Bill 29, which would require volunteer fire departments to carry workers’ compensation insurance. But he opposes the fireworks tax. Thomas said rural firehouses should find ways to build workers’ comp into their budgets.

Mike Maeder, owner of Liberty Fireworks in Great Falls, spoke against the fireworks tax.

“We’re going to get kicked in the teeth, we really are,” Maeder said.

Thomas’ bill gets its initial hearing on Wednesday. He said he usually disagrees with government mandates, but in this case it’s necessary.

“This is so important because volunteers, firemen, really put their livelihood on the line to take care of their neighbor,” Thomas said.

The Senate bill would allow fire departments three years to buy insurance. Thomas said if departments find they cannot afford the insurance, the bill could be repealed in two years.  

Shaylee Ragar is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.