Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) A bill to prohibit foreign adversaries such as China from buying or controlling agricultural land in Montana passed out of committee on Thursday after being amended.

Sen. Kenneth Bogner, R-Miles City, proposed the bill, and at a hearing, representatives from the Montana Farm Bureau Federation and the Montana Stockgrowers Association said the issue was a top concern among members at recent meetings.

Thursday, Chairman Mike Lang, R-Malta, said he had one person visit his office and allege legislators were “way off base” with the bill.

“So I called the Attorney General’s Office, and they looked at the bill, and they just told me to proceed,” Lang said. “The guy was not a lawyer, by the way … but I got an earful.”

Soon after the bill was heard this session, U.S. officials confirmed a balloon that had hovered over Montana before being shot down in South Carolina was a surveillance device from China.

In response, Bogner noted the finding showed the legislation was needed. The bill addresses critical infrastructure, which Bogner said includes land used for agricultural production.

In the U.S. Senate, Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, and Sen. Mike Rounds, R-South Dakota, introduced the PASS Act last month, Promoting Agriculture Safeguards and Security Act. The legislation is aimed at preventing China, Russia, Iran and North Korea from buying or controlling U.S. farmland.

In a press briefing Thursday morning, Tester told reporters the U.S. doesn’t know the full capabilities of the first balloon it shot down, but it does know China is using balloons to spy around the world, and especially in Asia. (Three other balloons have been shot down recently, but Tester said they haven’t yet been recovered, so their origins are not clear. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden said they’re not from China.)

In Helena, the Senate Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation Committee amended Bogner’s bill Thursday before advancing it. It passed with just two no votes.

The amendment notes foreign adversaries can’t use contractors to own or control critical infrastructure and agricultural land.

It also includes a provision for violations.

It says a foreign adversary caught violating the law “shall divest” from its interest within one year, and after that, a county sheriff may sell the property at a public auction. It says the county or attorney general may sue to enforce the action.

Committee members did not discuss in detail how enforcement would work.

However, the bill did not receive full support.

Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, said some people come to the U.S. from war torn countries for political asylum. America has always been the land of opportunity, she said.

“For those people that are seeking to build a new life, they have to start somewhere,” said Webber, who opposed the bill and noted Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, also voted against it.

Lang, though, said the bill is limited to countries specifically deemed foreign adversaries by the federal government. If it passes, he said it likely will be challenged, but he believes it is a worthwhile endeavor.

A separate bill from Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, aims to prevent enemy states from owning private property in Montana. It was heard last week and appears to be awaiting action in committee, according to the legislative online tracking site.