We’re on the downhill slide of the 65th Legislature with just about a month of the session left, and bills are beginning to shake out of the process on the home stretch. 

This week, the Seed Bill – Senate Bill 155 – passed its last legislative vote by a wide majority and is in its final preparation process to become. Next stop: the governor’s desk. This bill will provide important regulatory consistency for farmers and ranchers across Montana. The Seed Bill is not about limiting local control; rather, it’s about putting the regulation of seeds in the hands of the people who are best suited for agricultural decision making: the Montana Department of Agriculture. City or county governments are not the place nor the people to dictate to farmers what they can or can’t grow in their fields. The Seed Bill will protect the private property rights of landowners by preventing a potential patchwork of regulation on a county-by-county basis, as we’ve seen in states like Colorado, California and Hawaii when special interest groups get a foot in the door at the local level to meddle in local farming practices.   

It’s important that Montana’s farmers and ranchers now reach out to Governor Bullock to tell him how much we value our right to make our own decisions about what we plant and grow in our fields.

Even as some bills are nearing the end of their Legislative process, others are still just coming to life. The pace of the session has picked up a gear and committees are just as busy as they were before the transmittal deadline back in February. Montana Farm Bureau is working diligently to track new bills impacting agriculture as they are scheduled and to monitor bills farther along in the process. Here are a couple new ones we’ve been tracking:

House Bill 614: Exempting pulse processing equipment from property taxation 

Sponsored by Rep. Rob Cook (R) HD-18, Conrad. Heard March 23, 2017 in House Taxation Committee.

Montana is the No. 1 pulse crop producer in the U.S. There’s no doubt that adding processing facilities in our state will expand markets and opportunities for growers while taking this industry to the next level for local farmers.

House Bill 614 will incentivize that growth by exempting pulse processing equipment from taxation, effective January 1, 2018. The exemption will only apply to actual processing equipment (sorting, cleaning, etc.), not the building nor other property included at the facility. Those new buildings and property will add to the tax base and provide jobs to local communities.

Montana Farm Bureau has a long history of supporting business equipment tax relief for farmers and ranchers. We are also supporting the passage of Senate Bill 327, which would raise the equipment tax exemption level from $100,000 to $350,000 to provide tax relief to many farmers and ranchers. Both of these tax exemptions will promote growth and development in our state’s leading industry. 

House Bill 339: Revise laws related to exempt appropriations of water

Sponsored by Rep. Carl Glimm (R) HD-6, Kila. Heard in Senate Natural Resources committee Wednesday, March 22.

Montana has long been in flux when it comes to exempt wells. Historically, this policy conversation ends with agriculture on the opposite side of the development industry. House Bill 339 is the culmination of months of work and collaboration by stakeholder groups to reach a solution regarding the usage of exempt wells. 

An exempt well isn’t subject to the typical permitting requirements of the Department of Natural Resources, as they are limited to 10 acre feet of water a year and pumping less than 35 gallons per minute. Exempt wells are often used by the development community for subdivisions. Agriculture also utilizes exempt wells, mostly for stock water and individual domestic wells, we have serious concerns regarding the density and concentration of these wells and the impacts that has on senor water right holders and irrigation.

Montana Farm Bureau members’ policy supports limiting the use of exempt wells to avoid individuals misusing the exemption to end run the full permitting process through DNRC. House Bill 339 utilizes requirements on well spacing and differentiates between open and closed basins in Montana to protect existing senior water right holders while allowing opportunity for development. 

In a closed basin, where all surface water has been appropriated, this bill would require 660 feet between exempt wells and any other well or developed spring. In an open basin, where surface water is still available for appropriation, there must be 330 feet between exempt wells and any other well or developed spring.

Exempt wells are not the only avenue to securing a water source. Water users also have the ability to go through the permitting process at DNRC and receive a permitted well. Because of the ability to get permitted wells, we support limiting opportunities in which an exempt well may be used.

As long as an exemption exists, there will be some level of risk associated with exempt wells; because of the exemptions there is no analysis of potential adverse effect and no opportunity for other water users to object. That is why it is so critically important to the agriculture community that the density and concentration of exempt wells be limited. House Bill 339 achieves this.

Nicole Rolf 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.org.  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. The Montana Farm Bureau Federation is a non-partisan, non-profit, grassroots organization that represents 22,000 member families in Montana.