We’re barreling down on the transmittal deadline, so bills are flying around the Capitol like cotton in June. The Senate is planning to conclude their work on Saturday, Feb. 25, while the House will likely hold floor sessions through March 1 before heading out of town for a transmittal break.

The transmittal deadline is when all general bills (bills that don’t have an appropriation with them) must be transferred to the second house. For example, if a bill started in the Senate, it must be transmitted to the House by the transmittal deadline; otherwise the bill is dead.

Senate Bill 155 – the “seed bill” – did pass Senate approval with a 33-17 vote. That’s good news for Montana’s farmers and ranchers. It’s important that we now follow up and thank those Senators for their support. Voting records on each bill can be found at www.mt.gov/leg by navigating to the “LAWS” section and searching by bill number.

We’ve also been following Senate Bill 203, the animal confiscation bill. It passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, after being amended. While the amendments did improve the bill, it still poses a threat to Montana’s livestock industry. It was defeated on the Senate floor 23-27 on the evening of Feb. 23, and a subsequent motion to indefinitely postpose was passed, which would kill the bill. However, there are rumors the sponsor will move for reconsideration. We will continue to follow this bill.

Here’s what was new this week:

Senate Bill 281: Revising use of fire suppression account funds

Sponsored by Sen. Chas Vincent, (R) SD 1, Libby. Heard in Senate Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday, Feb. 20

Sen. Vincent’s bill allows for extra fire suppression monies to be used to more proactively manage the state’s timber resources. This would hopefully prevent some of the massive and devastating wildfires we’ve become accustomed to in Montana.

Senate Bill 281 doesn’t appropriate any new money, but it does revise the use of the state’s fire suppression account funds. It would require the state spend $5 million for these preventative uses if the fund balance exceed $40 million at the end of each odd-numbered fiscal year. The bill adds new criteria for how the money should be spent including; fuel reduction and mitigation, forest restoration, forest management projects on federal land and litigation support for local governments related to federal forest projects and more.

Montana Farm Bureau Federation policy supports this bill, because we support the responsible management of our state’s natural resources.

Senate Bill 247: Prohibiting the outdoor use of neonicotinoid insecticides

Sponsored by Sen. Mike Phillips (D) SD 31, Bozeman. Heard in the Senate Agriculture, Livestock & Irrigation Committee Tuesday, Feb. 21, heavily amended Thursday, Feb. 23 and passed out of committee for Senate consideration. 

Senate Bill 247 proposes to ban the use of a class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids (neonics) in Montana. Neonics are common and very effective when used to treat seeds. Spring wheat, canola and field peas commonly rely on the use of neonics to control harmful insects.

Proponents to Senate Bill 247 will assert that neonics are responsible for Colony Collapse Disorder and the disappearance of pollinators around the world. However, there are a variety of other factors that negatively impact pollinators, including habitat loss, pathogens, viruses and beekeeping practices.

While Colony Collapse Disorder is a serious concern, the USDA has data stemming from the 1880’s of documented, inexplicable disappearances of hives. In the 1980s, the varroa mite made its way to the U.S. It’s a nasty little parasite that has arguably had the largest detrimental impact on pollinators in recent history. Neonics have only been available for use in the U.S. since the 1990s.

A May 2016 survey released by the USDA showed slightly fewer honey bee colonies than the previous year (down to 2.59 mil down from 2.82 mil).  Beekeepers with more than five colonies reported varroa mites as the leading stressor affective colonies.

It’s important to note there is not conclusive scientific evidence that a ban on neonicotinoids will solve problems associated with the disappearance of bee hives and such a ban could mean dramatic crop losses for Montana agriculture.

Montana Farm Bureau member policy does not support the prohibition of this useful insecticide. We believe that cooperative efforts among federal and state regulators, beekeepers and other agriculturalists, coupled with ongoing research by USDA, offers the most promising means of finding an answer to this problem.

On Thursday, Feb. 23, the bill was heavily amended in the Senate Agriculture, Irrigation & Livestock committee. The amendments to the bill removed language referencing a ban on the use of neonics in Montana, which is a step in the right direction. However, the bill does still call for the Department of Agriculture to conduct a state-wide pollinator report, which would be costly. Stay tuned to Montana Farm Bureau’s Facebook page for updates.

Senate Bill 262: An act prohibiting the restriction of public access on certain roads or rights of way used by the public.

Sponsored by Sen. Eddie McClafferty (D) SD 38, Butte. Heard in Senate Highways and Transportation Committee Tuesday, Feb. 21, tabled (effectively dead) by committee Feb. 22.  

Senate Bill 262 was a repeat of a bill that was killed in committee during the last session. There were very few changes to the 2017 version, and it looks like it will meet a similar end.

As it was presented, this bill would allow any non-designated road or right-of-way that is used by the public and “appears” to meet the conditions of a prescriptive easement or public road to automatically be considered open to the public.

The true road owner would not be able to install any type of barrier to prevent the public from accessing and using the road unless they first went to the county commissioners and declared their intention to do so. They would have to appear before the county commissioners in a public hearing and provide documentation proving that the road is indeed private. The county commission would be required to obtain an opinion from the county attorney and collect evidence of their own, before making a determination that the road is private or public.

This, in essence, would shift the burden of proof from the person or people who wish to use to road onto the landowner. It would also set up the county commissioners as a judge and jury as to the proper designation of the road.

Current law governs how the determination of a road’s legal status is to be determined, giving due process to all interested parties and protecting landowner rights. Senate Bill 262 is not only harmful to private road owners and landowners, but it’s also unnecessary. With strong opposition from the state’s agricultural organizations and county governments, this bill was tabled in the committee and is now effectively dead.

Chelcie Cargill is Montana Farm Bureau Federation’s Director of State Affairs and a fifth-generation rancher from Melville, Montana. Chelcie can be contacted at (406) 930-2299 or chelciec@mfbf.org. Nicole is the Director of National Affairs and also a rancher from Miles City, Montana. Nicole can be contacted at (406) 951-2429 or nicoler@mfbf.orgThe Montana Farm Bureau Federation is a non-partisan, non-profit, grassroots organization that represents 22,000 member families in Montana.