The 68th legislative session just passed its second major transmittal deadline, when all revenue bills or referendums must have passed their House of Origin. That means the money bills are flying, and things will be moving fast in the remaining weeks of the session.
Several major issues that affect our mission will be up for votes. We have been working on and following House Bill 372 most closely, the legislature’s 4th introduction of a constitutional amendment to add the right to hunt, fish, and trap to our constitution. The bill would have voters decide (again) whether hunting, fishing, and trapping should become explicit constitutional rights. The kicker about HB372 is that hunting and fishing are already covered in our “harvest heritage” clause, and testimony showed this new effort is nothing but an attempt to enshrine trapping, and now snaring, in the Constitution. We have learned in this session just how much care needs to be taken before attempting to change the Constitution, and because a constitutional referendum requires a two-thirds majority to pass, 100 legislators must vote yes for the bill to pass. The bill is seeing action this week in the Senate.
Beyond HB372, we’ve heard bills that strip funding from Habitat Montana, strip subdivision regulations, target reductions to state water quality protections, and target nonprofits that take state legal action. SB442 originally proposed redirecting recreational cannabis tax funds from Habitat Montana to county roads, but a dramatic shift in the conversation brought compromise to the table. Conservation groups like Montana Audubon, Wild Montana, Montana Conservation Voters, and Montana Wildlife Federation made their voices heard. Executive action reinstated Habitat Montana and the state’s Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program (WHIP) funding and created an additional trust for conservation and wildlife, the “Habitat Legacy” account. After the Habitat Montana account reaches $50 million, the rest of the money will be allocated to on-the-ground conservation projects through WHIP and the Habitat Legacy account. Compare this outcome to what is currently being proposed in HB669, which would remove all conservation programs from marijuana tax revenue allocations.
We dealt with sub-division planning bills (SB240, SB285) and coal bills (HB576) that could have broad unintended consequences for water quality and quantity. Both SB285 and SB240 would lead to increased development with reduced water quality oversight. SB285 would exempt certain residences, including family transfer parcels, and commercial facilities that are 500 feet from surface water from sanitation and stormwater reviews, surprisingly applying to all subdivisions in Montana. It would likely increase nutrient pollution from nonpoint-source polluters, with the burden of cleanup landing on municipalities and other point-source emitters.
Unusual since our time lobbying, the Senate Natural Resources Committee heard Senate Bill 524, which proposes taxation of certain expenses by nonprofits that are used to take legal action. Though intended to target nonprofits that regularly use the legal system to accomplish their mission, the bill’s broad language may also impact nonprofit expenses used to comment on legislation, rule-making processes, and other permit decisions that groups could challenge. SB524 takes an odd approach, taxing expenses for lawsuits rather than taxing income. From the sponsor, Senator Greg Hertz, the intent is to change the way nonprofits operate, “If I really wanted to get vindictive, I’d say if you sue under these laws in the State of Montana, your nonprofit status is hereby revoked, and make all of their donations subject to taxes, but I did not,” Hertz said. He continued, “To me, it makes common sense. It is somewhat unique turning an expenditure into taxable income. But we are allowed to do what’s right under taxation.” This bill is unfortunately making its way to the House after passing the Senate before transmittal.
This last month will be a rat race, but we are up to the challenge, with your support and civic engagement!