Once again, volunteer firefighters are asking the state Legislature to find a way to pay for workers’ compensation for the poorest departments among their ranks, this time looking to a tax on wholesale fireworks.
But several fireworks retailers and wholesalers objected to that Monday, saying it was unfair to single them out and that the 5 percent tax would put them out of business.
For several sessions, lawmakers have tried to get money to help cover volunteer firefighters and also make workers’ compensation coverage mandatory. But without a funding source and with some departments in the state struggling to fill their fire engines with gas, the requirement has died year after year without money to support it.
This year, there are two bills aimed at covering volunteer firefighters. One is House Bill 28 from Rep. David Fern, D-Whitefish, to find money for workers' compensation by taxing wholesale fireworks.
Sen. Fred Thomas, a Republican from Stevensville, is carrying Senate Bill 29 to require workers' compensation for all volunteer firefighters.
Legislative estimates show there are about 8,000 volunteer firefighters in the state, about 2,000 of whom are not covered by workers’ compensation. The Montana Association of Counties provides coverage for eligible firefighters at $130 per volunteer per year, meaning that paying for everyone who now lacks coverage would cost about $260,000.
Fern said his bill is meant to tie the cost of workers' compensation for firefighters to a related industry.
"This was meant again to solve a problem through a product that has a relationship to it," Fern said, citing statistics related to fire department responses to fireworks calls. "We like fireworks, we want to see no harm to future fireworks. We don't want to see their demise."
The bill allows for a refund or credit for taxes collected on fireworks sold to tribal members on reservations, where the tax is not applicable.
Leonard Lundby, with the Montana Fire Alliance and chief of the Manchester Volunteer Fire Department west of Great Falls, said that while he doesn't want to see fireworks stands shut down, the state's neediest volunteer departments can't afford on their own to cover volunteers.
"It is only meant to help the poorest of the poor fire departments to provide and pay for workers' compensation coverage for their volunteers. … We're asking for a chance to do this, and lest you think that fireworks don't impact fire service in Montana and its ability to provide services, I would invite you to ride on any of my engines on the Fourth of July or the week leading up to the Fourth of July. I assure you it will change your mind," Lundby said.
Rich Cowger, chair of the Montana State Fire Chiefs' Association and chief of the Columbus Rural Fire District, said many of the smaller departments in the state debate "do we put fuel in the trucks or do we buy workers compensation for our folks that protect our people?"
Cowger said the money would not be used to subsidize larger departments who can afford the coverage.
Several people involved in the fireworks industry spoke in opposition to the bill Monday in the House Taxation Committee.
That included David Anderson, who runs a small fireworks stand outside Huntley. He said while he supports his local volunteer department, he has concerns about what he called a sales tax.
"Most Montanans that I have talked to have said that once you get a sales tax in place, it's going to spread to other things. There's always going to be a needy area," Anderson said.
John Cross, with Black Raptor Fireworks, said a 5 percent tax would be devastating to the industry. While the bill includes an expiration date for the tax, Cross said that wouldn't be necessary because the industry would shut down in Montana before then under the burden of the tax.
"You're going to find in five years, you're not getting any money because the wholesalers are not here anymore," Cross said, adding the tax will "flat put us out of business."
Mike Maeder, who runs Liberty Fireworks in Great Falls and is president of the Big Sky Pyrotechnics Association, said a better approach would be to pay for workers' compensation through local taxes.
"We're going to get kicked in the teeth. We really are. I just don't understand why fireworks are getting singled out," Maeder said.
The House Taxation Committee will vote to either pass the bill onto the full House or defeat the proposal in coming days.