After a slight delay in legislative action due to COVID-19 concerns, the session was back in action and made progress toward the finish line this week. More than half of the bills we tracked this session have come to a conclusion in our farmers’ and ranchers’ favor, with the majority remaining on their very last leg to completion.

Senate Bill 297 – ConnectMT Act to establish broadband deployment, sponsored by Sen. Jason W. Ellsworth (R), SD 43. Montana Farm Bureau member policy supports.

The ConnectMT Act will provide for broadband infrastructure deployment laws, establish the Montana Broadband Infrastructure Account, and provide a grant deployment and application process to get funding into unserved or underserved areas for stronger broadband connectivity.  This kind of connectivity is a necessity in today’s world, whether you work remotely or have kids who must be connected to school. Technology use in agriculture also makes an expanded broadband network a necessity to stay ahead in the state’s No. 1 industry.

This bill intends to use appropriations from either the state’s general fund or federal broadband stimulus funds. Applicants to the proposed grant funding must be a nongovernment entity with demonstrated experience in providing broadband service, and may not receive funds under any other federal or state grant or loan programs specifically for the broadband project covered by the application. The applicants must commit to paying a minimum of 20 percent of the project costs.

This is an important bill that we’ve watched and supported since nearly the start of the session. It’s finally making its way through the second chamber, and we look forward to seeing it into law to make a beneficial impact for rural Montanans.

Senate Bill 285 - Provide gas and fuel tax refund for agriculture, sponsored by Sen. Steve Hinebauch (R), SD 18. Montana Farm Bureau member policy supports.

This bill offers two important changes to Montana’s current agricultural gas tax refund laws that will put more money into the pockets of our state’s farmers and ranchers.

Montana code already notes: The use of gasoline or special fuel by a person who earns income while engaged in the business of farming or ranching, which qualifies as agricultural use, may apply for a refund of the applicable tax on the gallons of gasoline or special fuel used in carrying on a trade or business of farming, ranching, or other agricultural purposes. An applicant may claim a fuel tax refund according to the ratio of the applicant’s gross earned agricultural or farm income to the total gross earned income, excluding unearned income.

This agricultural fuel tax refund is only fair for those who spend much of their fuel in the fields and pastures, not on the roads that benefit from the state’s fuel tax.

Senate Bill 285 expands this law to allow any type of retail transactions as evidence for estimating agricultural usage, and it includes the use of gasoline in addition to special fuel (diesel). Only retail purchases within 50 miles of the agricultural operation would be eligible for a refund. Again, this is a good bill that makes good sense, keeping more money circulating in our rural communities and in our ranching and farming economy.

Senate Bill 306 - Revise structure of fish and game commission, sponsored by Rep. Mike Lang (R), SD 17. Montana Farm Bureau member policy supports.

Montana’s Fish and Game Commission serves an important advisory capacity to the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. These Governor-appointed commissioners make decisions that have serious impacts on the state’s farmers and ranchers. The last time we talked about this bill, it suggested that the number of commissioners increase from five to seven, and that four of those seven must be landowners engaged in agricultural production. Montana Farm Bureau supported the increased agricultural representation proposed here.

However, the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee amended the bill to require only two of the proposed seven commissioners to be engaged in agricultural production. That version of the bill passed the House, but when it went back to the Senate for concurrence, the Senate rejected the House’s proposed amendments.

Therefore, this week, the bill went to Conference Committee. This is a joint committee made up of three Senators and three Representatives. The committee agreed to split the difference and say three of the commissioners should be agricultural producers. We support this compromise and appreciate seeing the bi-partisan support this proposal has received so far. The Conference Committee’s recommendation will now need final approval from both chambers.

For more legislative updates and details on these issues, follow our Live with Your Lobbyist broadcast each Friday at noon on our Montana Farm Bureau Facebook Page.  

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.