“Don’t ever think your voice isn’t important.”  This was the key message we hoped to impart on the Young Farmers & Ranchers who attended our Calling on the Capitol event this week in Helena.  Attendees met with agency officials, bill drafters, committee chairmen and had the opportunity to participate in committee hearings.  These events are a highlight of our time in Helena; getting farmers and ranchers in the halls of the Capitol is one of the key priorities to passing strong agricultural policy.

In last week’s column we predicted the pace in Helena might be starting to pick up—and we were right.  Bills have been scheduled quickly this week and all signs point to this pace continuing.

SB 131, Revise WICHI/WWAMI laws

Sponsored by Sen. Roger Webb (R) SD 23, Billings

The WICHI, WWAMI and WIMU programs are important educational partnerships to rural Montana and agriculture. The selection process is rigorous for these programs; students must pass exams and display a strong academic record. Those meeting the first set of criteria then participate in a stringent interview process. This bill proposes to use a lottery system to make the final selection of qualified candidates.  A lottery system would be flawed on many levels. 

First, it assumes that all students are created equal and they all possess the same academic skills, work ethic and interpersonal skills.  Most importantly, using a lottery to select students during any part of this process threatens the accreditation of these programs.  Several partner universities have already reached out to MSU indicating that passage of SB 131 would prevent them from allowing Montana students to continue participating in these programs.  The current selection process is very important to rural Montana because the selection committee puts a heavy emphasis on qualified candidates who are dedicated to returning to rural Montana to practice in their designated field.  The livestock industry certainly needs more large animal veterinarians returning to the state and our rural communities want medical providers in their towns providing important health care services. Montana Farm Bureau policy opposes this bill; we want to preserve any program that helps a dedicated Montanan pursue higher education and bring their talents and passions back to the Big Sky State.

WWAMI is the Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho Medical Education program, WICHE is the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education and WIMU is the Washington, Idaho, Montana and Utah Program in Veterinary Medicine.

HB 132, Clarify definition of wild bison

Sponsored by Rep. Ken Holmlund (R) HD 38, Miles City

Currently in Title 81, the Livestock title, wild bison are defined as a bison that has not been reduced to captivity and is not owned by a person. Title 87, the Fish, Wildlife and Parks title, defines wild bison simply as those that have not been reduced to captivity. This bill does two simple and important things.

First, it makes the definitions the same in both titles, which is very important for clarity and uniformity purposes.  Second, it clarifies what it means to own a bison by adding language that requires payment of the livestock per capita fee.  Therefore, bison that have ever been subject to the per capita fee cannot be considered wild. If HB 132 is passed, a “wild buffalo or bison” will be defined as, “bison that have not been reduced to captivity, have never been subject to the per capita fee under 15-24-921, and have not been owned by a person.” MFBF supports this bill because it provides uniformity in the law, clarity to the ownership provision and prevents “liquidity” in the definition, meaning it will assure that a bison which was once considered to be domestic can never be called “wild.”

SB 97 & HB 271 Revise laws related to common carrier pipelines

Sponsored by Sen. Frank Smith (D) SD 16, Poplar & Rep. Bridget Smith (D) HD 31, Wolf Point

SB 97 and HB 271 are very similar, as they both make changes to the way common carrier pipelines are permitted, add additional requirements and make the overall process very redundant. Both bills require construction of certain pipelines to be completed in seven years. Coincidentally, or perhaps not so coincidentally, the TransCanada/Keystone XL pipeline’s permit will turn seven years old in March. Both of these bills are aimed at stopping the construction of this pipeline.

We joined a long list of opponents to both of these bills.  MFBF supports building infrastructure that would allow the movement of oil and other natural resources, while also protecting private property rights.  Many MFBF farming and ranching member families call the counties the XL pipeline is destined to pass through home.  An increase in commerce in their local communities and small towns is well overdue, so they’re looking forward to the significantly expanded tax base the principle will provide.  We will continue our work to stop both of these bills and hope to see the project start moving toward completion soon.