With more than 3,000 bill draft requests filed, just a few over 300 have been introduced in the 2021 Montana Legislature so far. This means much of our time now is spent analyzing, researching, and talking to sponsors and agencies here in Helena to better understand the intent and ramifications of potential bills before they’re heard in committee. We work proactively to suggest improvements, ask for changes, and help ensure that when and if a bill is introduced, it will be positive for Montana’s agriculture industry.

We continue to get to know our state’s new administration. This week, we met with a number of Governor Greg Gianforte’s key staff members, including policy advisors Glenn Oppel and Michael Freeman and attorney Rachel Meredith. We appreciate that Gianforte’s team reached out to us for this meeting, seeking input from Montana’s agriculture organizations on the issues that matter most to our state’s No. 1 industry.

Our conversation covered an array of important topics that impact our state’s farmers and ranchers, including exempt wells, wild bison, meat processing capacity and the state’s new veterinary diagnostic lab. These executive staff members were helpful and informative. They made it clear that this administration will support private property rights, the growth of value-added agriculture in our state, and the proposal put forward by the Department of Livestock to build a new Veterinary Diagnostic Lab. This is good news for farmers, ranchers, and the population at large.

The Montana Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory provides disease diagnostic support to veterinarians, livestock producers, companion animal owners, and the Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, as well as many other state and federal agencies. The laboratory supports the Department of Livestock's Animal Health Division and Milk & Egg Bureau, includes the State Central Milk Laboratory and helps protect public health by testing for zoonotic diseases.

It’s clear we need a new lab to provide the services that livestock producers and the public in general needs to ensure a safe, wholesome food supply and healthy human and animal populations. The Department of Livestock has worked hard to develop a funding proposal that is equal parts privately funded by rancher and farmer per capita fees and publicly funded with General Funds appropriations.

Funding for the new Diagnostic Lab is included in House Bill 14, which is currently working its way through the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Long-Range Planning. HB 14 also includes funding for a new wool lab and our state’s agriculture experiment stations, which Montana Farm Bureau members also support. We’ll share more updates throughout the session as this appropriations bill makes it way to the final budget.

While there is a bevy of bills on our radar, we have testified on 14 that Montana Farm Bureau members have specific policy directive on. Here are two of the many we testified on this week:
Senate Bill 55: Revise the Process for Water Right Ownership Updates, sponsored by Sen. Jill Cohenour (D), SD 42, hearing in Senate Natural Resources Committee. 
The Water Policy Interim Committee was busy in the time leading up to this legislative session, and this bill is the result of that work. First, some background: This is a joint, bi-partisan committee that studies water quality and quantity issues between sessions and provides suggested legislation to the committees. It’s often referred to by its acronym, WPIC, which sounds a lot like “Whippic” when pronounced to those not as familiar with legislative lingo.

Senate Bill 55 amends the process for water right ownership updates and creates a certification process to resolve ownership disputes. If passed, this legislation would more precisely require the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to update its records of water right ownership within 30 days of receiving notification regarding a change in water right holdings. It is the personal responsibility of a property buyer and seller to file the proper paperwork concerning a transfer of water rights, and this legislation requires the DNRC to keep those records up to date and accurate, which is an obvious necessity.

House Bill 142: Generally Revise Hemp Laws, sponsored by Rep. Joshua Kassmier (R), HD 27, hearing in House Agriculture Committee.
Montana is one of the nation’s largest hemp producing states. Hemp growers in Montana currently operate under the guidance of a pilot program launched in the state in 2014. Hemp is a highly regulated product in a quickly evolving market. It’s a crop that many farmers in Montana have been excited to add to their cropping rotations.

This bill generally revises current Montana hemp laws to comply with federal hemp laws, and it allows the Montana Department of Agriculture the rule making authority it needs to adhere to ever-evolving federal laws or regulations. This bill allows our Department of Agriculture to keep our state’s hemp program current so that our farmers can be assured they are complying with a consistent set of state and federal guidelines, ensuring the long-term success of the program.
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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 nicoler@mfbf.org.

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 rachelc@mfbf.org.