State Capital in snow

T

he 66th Montana Legislature is at its halfway mark and that means that any general bills that did not make it through their first house before the transmittal deadline are effectively killed.

About sixty bills have passed both houses and have reached the governor’s desk. Gov. Steve Bullock said one of the most impactful laws he’s signed is House Bill 159, which will add about $77 million in funding for K-12 education. 

“I’m glad that the education committee got that to me early on,” Bullock said. 

Speaker of the House Greg Hertz, R-Polson, said he’s proud of passing bills like House Bill 553, sponsored by Rep. Eric Moore, R-Miles City, which is the infrastructure payment bill that mixes borrowed money and cash to pay for public works projects. 

Hertz also said he intends to keep stopping bills that would increase taxes as the session moves forward. 

“It’s not just about passing bills too, it’s about killing bad legislation for the state and Montana taxpayers,” Hertz said. 

About 200 bills will die at the transmittal deadline. That is roughly a fourth of all bills introduced. 

 

Bill Sparks Debate Over Bison Grazing in Montana

Montana’s House of Representatives passed a controversial resolution last week that would urge the federal government to deny a bison grazing permit for a Bozeman-based conservation organization. 

The resolution led to a last-minute meeting of the House Rules Committee before lawmakers voted on it during a floor session. 

House Joint Resolution 28 is carried by Rep. Dan Bartel, R-Lewistown. It asks the federal Bureau of Land Management to deny a grazing permit requested by American Prairie Reserve (APR), a private organization that, according to its website, buys land in Montana to implement land and wildlife conservation measures. 

APR is requesting the bison grazing permit for land in in Chouteau, Fergus, Petroleum, Phillips, and Valley Counties.

Bartel said in the resolution’s hearing that denying the grazing permit is critical to “Montana’s livestock and wildlife wellbeing.” He said allowing free-range bison to graze would disrupt neighboring ranches and the work that’s been done to protect the land and its soil. 

“We believe the undoing of these best practices that ranchers, the (Montana Department of Natural Resources), the (Bureau of Land Management) and the state have done over the years is counterproductive to the land,” Bartel said. 

Chuck Denowh, policy director for the United Property Owners of Montana, spoke in support of the resolution. He said bison grazing could damage the land and infect cattle with brucellosis, a disease that often leads to aborted calves or lowered milk production. 

“Our members are very concerned with what American Prairie Reserve has planned for eastern Montana,” Denowh said. 

The Montana Stockgrowers Association, the Rocky Mountain Stockgrowers Association and the Montana Farm Bureau Federation also testified in support with similar concerns. Chelcie Cargill with the Farm Bureau also said granting the grazing permit would be special treatment for APR, and that should be prevented. 

Brucellosis has cost farmers billions of dollars over the last century, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. And while bison are carriers of brucellosis, and have been found to transmit the disease to domestic cattle in controlled studies, the department 

reports it’s difficult to document instances of transmission in the wild. Reports show transmission of the disease likely occurs between domestic bison and cattle. 

Managing Director of APR, Pete Geddes, testified against the resolution aimed at his organization. He said APR has obtained more than 400,000 acres of land in Montana through private sale and leases from the state with a mission to create the largest nature reserve in the country. 

Geddes said 20 percent of the land will remain in private ownership, and the rest will be open for public use. He said the resolution is mean-spirited and contains inaccurate information. 

“It is ironic this committee is hearing a resolution promulgated by the United Property Owners of Montana, a special interest group, purporting to support property rights and limited government,” Geddes said. “It is surely not lost on members of this committee that this resolution seeks to use the power of the state to attack the property rights and grazing privileges of a private entity doing business in Montana.”

Geddes also said it is untrue that the bison would be free-roaming. He said they will be fenced in. 

The Montana Wildlife Federation, The National Wildlife Federation, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the National Parks Conservation Association all opposed the resolution. Ben Lamb, a representative for all four groups, said it was inappropriate for the Legislature to try to inhibit a private entity’s property right. 

In the debate in the full House, Democratic leadership objected to the language of the resolution and argued that it clashed with House decorum, which dictates that legislators cannot use proper names of businesses when discussing legislation during floor sessions. The legislation was referred to the House Rules Committee before it was heard during a floor session. 

Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, spoke during in the rules committee hearing. 

“We’re establishing bad precedent by inserting names of businesses into a bill,” Morigeau said. 

After a debate, questions and answers about Montana law, the committee ruled that the bill could proceed, especially because it’s a resolution and if passed, will not become codified state law. 

The resolution gained bipartisan support in the House. Rep. Zach Brown, D-Bozeman, spoke on the floor to say he would reluctantly support the legislation because he knew it was important to ranchers in eastern Montana. 

HJ 28 passed third reading in the House 59-40 and will move to the Senate. 

 

Lawmakers Give Emotional Testimony About Vaccine Rules 

Debate got heated in the Montana House of Representatives last week when lawmakers discussed three bills that would change vaccine laws in the state, all of which failed on second reading. 

Rep. David Dunn, R-Kalispell, introduced House Bill 564, which would make it easier to obtain a medical exemption for vaccines that are required by schools and some businesses. It failed 38-62.

Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, carried two of the bills. House Bill 574 would prohibit the Montana Department of Health and Human Services from barring families who have religious or medical exemptions for vaccines from being foster parents. House Bill 575 would prohibit the department from mandating that daycare providers require employees or enrollees to have immunizations.

The debate came down to the risk to public health versus violations of personal liberties.

Proponents of HB 564 said the requirements to receive a medical exemption for vaccines are too stringent. The bill would have allowed nurses or physicians assistants, not only doctors, to give exemptions and it would change the form that’s required for the exemption. 

When Manzella introduced her legislation, she presented a packet of information that claimed vaccines are filled with the cells of aborted babies. 

“If this is the first time you’re hearing this information, it’s going to be a wild ride,” Manzella said. 

Fetal tissue cells that were harvested in the 1960s from terminated pregnancies have been duplicated and used to develop immunizations, according to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Manzella argued the state’s overburdened foster care system would benefit from her proposed legislation by allowing those with religious exemptions to vaccines to take in foster children. 

Rep. Connie Keogh, D-Missoula, stood to speak against the bill, saying that vaccines protect vulnerable populations who have lowered immune systems, like children who are too young to be fully vaccinated. 

Keogh said “legislation that undermines immunization requirements” increases risks for foster care kids and other vulnerable populations. 

As the debate intensified, House minority leader Rep. Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, stood to object to several comments that he said violated House decorum. 

Republican Speaker of the House Greg Hertz responded that legislators need to keep to facts during debate. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says vaccines are effective in preventing communicable diseases and are tested to ensure their safety, reports 10 states have confirmed cases of measles, which it largely attributes to unvaccinated populations.

 

Lawmakers Consider Country of Origin Labeling Legislation 

Montana lawmakers voted last week to table one bill and advance another dealing with country of origin labeling for agricultural products. 

House Bill 594, which would require beef and pork sold in Montana to be labeled with the country from which they come, was tabled in committee. Senate Resolution 16, which passed the Senate 46-4 and now moves to the House, would urge the federal government to recognize the importance of country-of-origin labeling laws.  

Rep. Bradley Hamlett, D-Cascade, carried HB 594. He says it’s modeled after federal country-of-origin labeling laws, which have been changed in recent years. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, cuts of beef and pork muscle were removed in 2015 from the list of products that are regulated by the labeling laws, meaning retailers are not required to provide information on the origin of beef or pork that they sell.

Hamlett says that change makes country-of-origin labeling a state’s rights issue. 

“If you want to send a message to what I would call our dysfunctional Congress back east, you pass this bill,” Hamlett said. 

The Montana Farmers Union supports the legislation. Secretary and treasurer of the group, Erik Somerfeld, spoke in the bill’s hearing. 

“Consumers overwhelmingly want to know where their food comes from. Ranchers want the consumer to know where their food comes from,” Somerfeld said. 

The Montana Retail Association opposed the bill. President of the group, Brad Griffin told the committee he represents grocery stores across the state that would be responsible for the labeling. He says federal legislation should come before state legislation. 

“This is far too complicated for Montana to solve on its own,” Griffin said. 

Representatives from the Montana Farm Bureau Federation and the Montana Stockgrowers Association also opposed the bill, saying the proposed legislation would be burdensome for businesses and that this debate should be had at the federal level first.  

Because the bill was tabled it won’t move forward unless 58 representatives vote to “blast” it to the House floor.