Today marks the official transmittal deadline, and halfway point, of the 66th Montana Legislature. While most farmers and ranchers across the state are busy digging out of the recent snow accumulation, legislators in Helena have been busy digging out of the pile of bills that were racing against the clock to meet transmittal.

Committee hearings concluded on Wednesday, February 27 and both the Senate and the House focused on completing their floor work. The Senate completed their work and adjourned for the transmittal break on February 27, but the House stayed in session for a couple days longer officially adjourning on the morning of March 2nd.  

Thankfully, all of the bills we opposed in the first half of the session were tabled in their committee and won’t be seeing the light of day. This is a positive sign for Montana agriculture and something that is certainly not always the case at this point during the session. There’s always the opportunity for bad bills to surface or for good bills to be amended in an unfriendly way; we’ll continue monitoring bills that are still alive to be sure they make it safely through the rest of the process.  

Things have a tendency to move very quickly at this point in the session. HJ 18 and HB 497, both carried by Rep. Wylie Galt and both dealing with elk management and shoulder season hunts passed the House. They will be assigned to a committee and have a hearing in the Senate sometime after the transmittal break.

HB 505 carried by Rep. Walt Sales requires a water user to provide notice to all other water users if they request a new permit or change in appropriation on a shared water conveyance facility. For example, if you’re a member of a canal company or share a ditch with several other irrigators and you want to make a change to your right or apply for a new permit you must verify that you have provided notice to all the other users before DNRC will give approval. This bill passed the House with flying colors and is also on the way to the Senate.

HB 286, Revise water right laws related to state water claims

Sponsored by Rep. Alan Redfield (R), HD 59, Livingston

HB 286, included in last week’s Boots on the Hill update, was amended heavily in the House Natural Resources Committee. While the bill’s intent has remained the same, it now clarifies that the state of Montana can only assert an ownership interest in a water right if the well or developed spring is located on trust land, put to use on trust land, and the state has exclusive rights in the groundwater development works (which is already required under state law). Farm Bureau’s support of the bill remains strong.  

HB 286 passed on the House floor with bipartisan support on February 27. 

SB 299, Generally revise laws related to sage grouse conservation

Sponsored by Sen. Mike Lang (R), SD 17, Malta

MFBF has been committed to the goal of Montana’s Sage Grouse Conservation Program since its debut, actively working with the program to prevent the game bird from becoming listed under the Endangered Species Act. The program seeks to protect sage-grouse habitat through compensatory mitigation, in which private landowners are compensated for restoration, enhancement, and preservation projects to sage-grouse habitat. Such projects create credits that developers can then purchase to offset the damages their projects cause to sage-grouse habitat.

Though Farm Bureau members will likely be involved in the mitigation system as credit providers, the vitality of the rural communities they call home depends on development. Protecting greater sage-grouse cannot be prioritized over communities who are also at risk of becoming extinct. This program needs to be flexible, and recognize that a model will not consistently create accurate results. Developers cannot be so financially burdened by this program that they will not invest in our rural communities.  

While we want to ensure management of the bird remains in Montana’s hands, our primary commitment remains in the hands of rural Montana’s citizens who make a livelihood producing fuel and fiber for the world; so Farm Bureau was happy to support SB 299 that clarifies that the program must equitably balance conservation and development together. SB 299 passed the Senate and was transmitted to the House this week.

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. This resolution came as the Senate Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation Committee’s response to SB 206. SB 206 would have required Montana retail businesses to post placards detailing origin information for beef and pork. MFBF opposed this bill because of the penalties and additional burden it placed on small, Montana businesses.  It was tabled in committee and in its place; the committee brought forward SJ 16. In order to have an effective COOL rule for beef and pork, it must start at the federal level. SJ 16 encourages congress to work with USDA to establish and implement an industry led, WTO compliant COOL rule for U.S. beef and pork. MFBF supported this bill and it passed the Senate on a strong vote of 46-4.