First Bill Deals With Employee Theft

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The first bill to get a committee hearing at the 2009 Legislature would make it a little easier for employers to collect money from employees who steal, and is among the hundreds of lower profile bills that will hit the Legislature.

The bill was the first to be heard in part by scheduling chance and in part because committees are starting with simpler legislation.

“I’ve asked the chairman as they warm up the committees to do some easier bills,” said House Speaker Bob Bergren.

Bergren said both he and Republican leaders in the Senate have made an effort to get committees working on bills quickly. The Legislature convened Monday, and bills hit committees Wednesday.

Bergren said he has 200 bills assigned to committees. As many as 1,500 or more could eventually get hearings.

The first bill that is expected to actually get out of committee and hit the House floor, and to clear the same process in the Senate, is the $8.6 million “feed bill” that pays for the operation of the Legislature itself. It is likely to be completed Thursday, Bergren said.

Bergren said he is trying to schedule things quickly in hopes lawmakers can finish a few days early this year.

“We must hit the ground running,” he said. “Let’s not waste time here, that’s my message.”

The House Business and Labor Committee was the first panel to get started with hearings Wednesday morning, and Rep. Jeffrey Welborn’s bill came up first.

Welborn, a Dillon Republican, said the measure came from the Department of Labor and would let business owners withhold, for a longer period of time, the last paycheck of employees accused of stealing. Businesses support the idea, and testified that it is needed to give law enforcement more time to investigate such crimes.

Previously, the last paycheck could only be held for 22 days. If no charges were filed, it would have to be given back to the employee. Under Wellborn’s bill, the check could be held for 39 days.

“It’s very frustrating to have to pay an employee that you have captured on video stealing from you,” Town Pump attorney Eula Compton wrote in a letter to the panel.

Welborn, a first-year lawmaker, said it felt good to pitch the first bill to the panel. There were no opponents.

“I consider it an honor to carry the first bill,” he said.

The House Business and Labor Committee is expected to vote on the plan on Friday.