Legislators and lobbyists have packed up and headed out of Helena, but the work of the 67th Montana Legislature is not yet complete. Governor Greg Gianforte has up to ten business days to sign, veto or ignore the bills that have reached his desk to determine the full fate of the session.
Still, it’s safe to say the 2021 Montana Legislative Session was favorable for Montana’s farmers and ranchers. Of the 69 bills we tracked closely which were tied directly to member-generated policy, around 50 have reached their final destinations in our favor so far. Here’s a rundown of the biggest victories for Montana agriculture, according to our Farm Bureau members’ policy.
NOW LAW – Senate Bill 65, Revise civil liability laws, introduced by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick (R), SD10. Farm Bureau member policy supports.
This law limits liability to the owners of a premise if a person is infected with COVID-19 on said premise, as long as that owner was not negligent. This bill is primarily intended to protect business owners, which includes farms and ranches. As one of the first bills signed into law in 2021, it set an important tone for session. This new law may not be specific to agricultural needs, but it did establish a theme and desire to get Montana’s small businesses and rural economies back open and running, and that means a lot to the farmers and ranchers who depend on thriving rural communities for their businesses to succeed.
NOW LAW – House Bill 303, Revise business equipment tax laws: Business Investment Grows (BIG) Jobs Act, sponsored by Rep. Joshua Kassmier (R), HD 27. Montana Farm Bureau member policy supports.
Farming and ranching are equipment-heavy businesses. Balers, combines, loaders, and more – the tools we need to efficiently raise the crop and livestock – are expensive, which is why this law’s new exemption increase on business equipment is a well-welcomed relief for farmers and ranchers. Class eight property includes agricultural implements and equipment, among other industry necessities. This bill made the first $300,000 of class eight property exempt from taxation, an impressive increase from the previous $100,000 exemption.
While this is good for farmers and ranchers, it’s also good for our rural economy. Those tax savings may encourage a farmer to add another piece of equipment to the lineup or allow a rancher to reinvest in upgraded fencing, all boosts to our local economies.
NOW LAW – House Bill 302, Require county approval to relocate bison, sponsored by Rep. Joshua Kassmier (R), HD 27, and House Bill 318: Clarify definition of bison, sponsored by Rep. Kenneth Holmlund (R), HD38.
Montana Farm Bureau member policy supported both of these bills, and we were excited to finally get to see them to fruition. The concept of requiring county approval to relocate wild bison has circled around the Legislature for several sessions, and it’s past time we had these assurances for livestock health, disease management and local autonomy in place. Now, local elected officials – county commissioners – have a chance to weigh in on the importation of wild bison to their local jurisdiction, which our members support.
House Bill 318 further clarifies wild bison defined as those animals that have never been reduced to captivity, have never been subject to per capita fees and have never been owned by a person. These are important clarifications that clear up any ambiguity between wild bison and bison as livestock.
These new laws, and many more, are important victories for rural Montana. Often, killing harmful bills is just as important as passing good bills. Here’s a rundown of some of the more important bills our member policy successfully rejected this session.
KILLED – House Bill 311 and 312, both titled Generally revise bison laws, sponsored by Rep. Marvin Weatherwax (D), HD 15.
These bills proposed that a state health certificate, permit or documentation not be required for bison leaving a national park destined for a Native American tribal reservation, and that a certification from the state vet not be required if the animal is transferred to a tribal entity to quarantine.
Montana Farm Bureau member policy opposed both of these bills on the premise of disease management. Brucellosis and other zoonotic diseases are a high risk for wildlife, domestic livestock and the public. The Montana Department of Livestock mitigates the spread of this disease, and the state has worked hard to implement systems and practices to control and prevent its spread.
The Department of Livestock has an established quarantine facility near Yellowstone National Park where Park bison are held and tested to ensure they are brucellosis free before they can be transferred to new locations. This quarantine and testing facility is located within the state’s brucellosis Designated Surveillance Area, which is another step to ensure potential cases are not spread or established in new parts of the state. Once the bison passes state testing and quarantine, they are prepared to be transferred to a tribal entity. This is a tried-and tested policy, and we’re glad to see it upheld.
KILLED – House Bill 324: Generally revise certain labeling laws, sponsored by Rep. Frank Smith (D), HD 31 and Senate Bill 210: Revise laws related to country of origin labeling, sponsored by Sen. Tom Jacobson (D), SD 11.
These nearly-identical bills were introduced in both chambers and came with the same fundamental flaws. These ‘placarding bills’ attempted to require grocery retailers to put a sign or ‘placard’ in the proximity of beef and pork products to indicate the origin of the product. These bills offer retailers two option to label beef and pork product: “Born, raised, and processed in the USA” or “Imported/Origin Unlabeled.” Montana ranchers are proud of the meat we raised, and we would love to see it labeled for consumers. We want transparency and a chance to distinguish our American products.
The problem was, these attempts at state laws keep trying to dictate federal regulations with no system or infrastructure in place to help the retail meet those requirements. Montana Farm Bureau members support Country of Origin Labeling that is compliant with WTO requirements, but these bills do not achieve that aim.
Instead, we were proud to support the passage of House Bill 660, Funding for Made in Montana program, sponsored by Rep. Josh Kassmier (R), HD 27. Our farming and ranching members believe this existing, voluntary marketing program satisfies the demand for consumer transparency. Through the Made in Montana program, Montana farmers and ranchers have the opportunity to tell their customers where their food comes from and proudly offer consumers a choice to support Montana’s family farmers and ranchers.
We’ll announce our full legislative report card and legislative awards soon. If you have questions or want a summary of results on all the bills we tracked throughout the session, voting Montana Farm Bureau members receive a full Legislative Update with more details. Not a member? Join today by clicking this link.
Nicole Rolf is the Senior Director of Governmental Affairs and a rancher from Miles City, Montana. Nicole works closely with our Congressional delegation on national issues affecting Montana agriculture. Additionally, this is her seventh Montana Legislative Session, lobbying in Helena on behalf of MFBF members. She also works as the Eastern Montana Regional Manager. Nicole can be contacted at email@example.com.
Rachel Cone is the Director of State Affairs for Montana Farm Bureau Federation. This is Rachel’s first session lobbying on behalf of Montana Farm Bureau. Rachel is involved throughout the interim session to track how bills will come to the session. She also coordinates the MFBF Water Committee, the Resource Management, Environment and Technology Committee and the Livestock Committee in addition to being the Treasurer for the Farm Bureau PAC. Rachel can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2021 Montana Legislative Summary
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