The focus in Helena is turning away from committee hearings on new bills to amending, fine tuning and passing what legislation remains in volley. Farm Bureau didn’t testify on any new pieces of legislation this week; rather we focused on monitoring bills still at play and doing what we can to get them the rest of the way through the process.

Legislation doesn’t automatically become law just because it passes through both chambers.  Once through the House and Senate, it faces one final hurdle and lands on Governor Bullock’s desk. The Governor has several options; he may sign the bill into law, issue a veto, issue an amendatory veto, or if the Governor takes no action for ten days, bills automatically become law whether they’re signed or not.

SJ 16, Resolution urging federal country of origin labeling

Sponsored by Senator Al Olszewski, (R) SD 6, Kalispell

SJ 16 is a resolution urging Montana’s congressional delegation to again pursue a federal country of origin labeling rule for beef and pork products.  Montana Farm Bureau member policy supports Country of Origin Labeling rules that are WTO compliant and aren’t detrimental to livestock producers in the U.S.  

In order to have effective COOL rules for beef and pork, we need federal collaboration and partnership to make sure these rules are implemented as efficiently and effectively as possible.    SJ 16 encourages our members of Congress to work with USDA to establish and implement an industry led, WTO compliant COOL rule for U.S. beef and pork. SJ 16 passed the House of Representatives on April 8 with 63 Representatives voting yes and 34 voting no.

HB 52, Revise funding for various economic development programs

Sponsored by Rep. Jim Keane (D), HD 73, Butte

HB 52 revises and extends the funding for a variety of economic development programs in the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Commerce.  The funding for these economic development programs comes from Coal Severance Tax interest that would otherwise go to the general fund.  Of specific interest to Montana Farm Bureau is the Growth through Agriculture (GTA) program whose funding increases by $275,000 under HB 52.   

The GTA program offers funding in the form of a grant or loan for the purpose of strengthening and diversifying Montana’s agricultural industry through development of new agricultural products and processes.  Funding is determined by a seven member Agriculture Development Council appointed by the Governor.  GTA funding requires the investment of at least a $1 in matching funds for every $1 in program grant or loan assistance received.

MFBF members have utilized and benefited from the GTA program, so we were happy to support HB 52.  The bill was heard in the Senate Finance and Claims Committee on April 10.

HB 431, Create farmer loan assistance program by revising GTA laws

Sponsored by Rep. Zach Brown (D), HD 63, Bozeman  

High tuition costs and low commodity prices have created the perfect storm in which the decision for young people to return to production agriculture is simply not financially viable straight out of school.  However, agriculture is an ever-evolving industry that needs more than just our young people’s two hands.  Our farms and ranches need the knowledge and innovative ideas of our young people in order to remain the number one industry in the state of Montana.  

Hence, the need for HB 431, which gives the Agriculture Development Council the authority to spend $100,000 or less of their funds toward student loan repayment assistance for qualified beginning farmers and ranchers.  Were the Council not to receive qualified applicants for this program, the money would still be utilized for other GTA grants and loans across the state.

Eligibility in the program is dependent upon a few things.  First, the individual must be a Montana resident whose primary occupation is production agriculture. Second, they must have graduated from a post secondary institution with an associate or baccalaureate degree.  Third, they must be the primary owner of a farm/ranch or be the heir or successor who plans to continue the agricultural operation.  Lastly, the applicant must commit to operate the farm/ranch for at least 5 years after applying for loan repayment assistance.  Were an individual who received loan repayment assistance to cease operation of the farm or ranch before the end of their 5-year commitment, they would be responsible for repayment of the financial assistance they received.  

Montana Farm Bureau supports this legislation. The program isn’t intended to provide handouts, but rather a hand-up to beginning farmers and ranchers.  For this reason, the granted assistance may not exceed 50% of the total amount of the applicant’s outstanding educational loans.  

HB 431 was heard in the Senate Finance & Claims Committee on April 12.