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Montana commercial driver's license policy could carry big impact

CDL Training Program
Posted at 6:48 PM, Feb 15, 2023

HELENA - Earlier this month, the Montana Senate voted down a bill that would have revised the state’s commercial driver’s license laws to comply with new federal requirements.

While the bill would have made a relatively small change, state administrators say there could be far-reaching impacts if it fails to pass by the end of this year’s legislative session.

Senate Bill 47 was sponsored by Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, and introduced at the request of the Montana Department of Transportation.

It would have directed the Montana Department of Justice to establish rules, ensuring that the department’s Motor Vehicle Division conduct additional checks when someone applies for a commercial driver’s license.

The most notable requirement would have been to check whether a person seeking their first CDL or upgrading a current CDL has completed a federally required “entry-level driver training,” (ELDT), before giving them a test.

It also would have required checking a federal database to make sure any applicant hasn’t been prohibited from getting a CDL because of alcohol or drug violations.

The federal government implemented the ELDT rule several years ago and set a compliance deadline on Feb. 7, 2022.

Supporters of SB 47 said Montana is the only state that hadn’t yet taken any action to move toward compliance.

They said the U.S. Department of Transportation has sent multiple letters to state leaders, warning them of potential federal action if Montana doesn’t get into compliance by the end of the 2023 session.

Those consequences could include withholding up to 4% of two highway-funding grants — around $18.3 million in the first year, according to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s budget office — or even decertifying the state’s CDL program.

“What that really means is, we couldn't issue any new CDLs, couldn't renew any CDLs,” said Brad Marten, administrator of MDT’s Motor Carrier Services Division, during a Jan. 11 hearing on SB 47. “So it would really exacerbate the driver shortage in itself and have a significant impact that would be very hard to put a number on for Montana's economy.”

During the hearing, the bill drew support from trucking industry representatives, who said it would provide greater legal clarity for motor carriers.

On Feb. 3, the full Senate rejected SB 47 in a 23-27 vote, after a floor debate. They then voted down an attempt to revive the bill on Feb. 6, 22-27.

Opponents of SB 47 said they objected to the federal ELDT requirement.

They said the cost and time needed for the training is a hurdle to would-be commercial drivers, especially those in rural Montana and especially at a time when workers are already hard to find.

Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, said during the floor debate that he has to have a CDL to drive a truck and trailer he uses to haul hay, and he didn’t believe people in that situation should have to go through the training.

He said he wasn’t convinced the federal government would go through with its threatened actions.

“The threat is that the feds are going to decertify us,” Glimm said. “Well, the feds threaten to decertify and withhold funding all the time.”

Glimm said it was his understanding that several states, including Alaska, are not yet in compliance with the ELDT rule.

Manzella said during the debate that failing to pass SB 47 wouldn’t stop the ELDT requirement.

“All of these regulations are already federal law, and we are out of compliance,” she said.

She said there are exemptions for some agricultural, firefighting and other drivers, and that there are options for addressing the costs — like when employers register their own self-certification programs.

In the initial vote, nine Republicans and 14 Democrats supported SB 47, while 25 Republicans and two Democrats opposed it.

On the reconsideration vote, 22 Republicans voted to revive the bill, and 11 Republicans joined all 16 Democrats in opposing the motion.

During the Feb. 6 floor session, Senate Majority Leader Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, said lawmakers had been having discussions about the bill and wanted another chance to hear the pros and cons.

Minority Leader Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, said they had given the bill a good discussion and it wasn’t necessary to reconsider it.

Great Falls College MSU began a CDL training program about six months ago, working closely with employers.

“The industry came to us and told us about this incredible need that’s out there for commercial drivers, and asked us to respond to that,” said Scott Thompson, the college’s executive director of community relations.

Students spend about three weeks on campus — in the classroom, with a simulator, and in a truck the program has on-site. After that, they are paired with a carrier and get hours of driving experience, while being paid.

ELDT is part of the GFC program, which costs between $2,500 to $3,500. While they’re certified to meet federal requirements,

Thompson said leaders are concerned about the impact on drivers who go through their training if Montana’s CDL system is decertified.

“That’s the potential consequence that’s out there — even if you’ve gone through a program that is ELDT-certified in the state of Montana, the federal government could still decertify your license,” he said.