Two bills in tug-of-war over Habitat Montana funding
(Missouola Current) Last week, a Senate bill brought hope that Montana’s habitat funding will keep receiving marijuana tax revenue. But a bill in the House could steal it all away.
On Monday, after six senators rose to speak in support, the Montana Senate voted 48-1 on second reading to pass Senate Bill 442 sponsored by Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta.
SB 442 would distribute the marijuana tax revenue among seven programs and still have an estimated $55 million left over to put in the state general fund. The programs are the same as those identified by the 2021 Legislature - veterans, state parks, trails and recreational facilities, nongame wildlife, Gov. Greg Gianforte’s HEART fund, and the Habitat Montana program - with the addition of a fund to pay for county road maintenance.
Lang originally drafted the bill to take money away from Habitat Montana and put it toward maintaining county roads that provide access to many hunting and fishing spots. But several sportsmen and public land advocates opposed the bill when it was heard in the Senate Finance and Claims committee on March 17, saying it created a choice between roads or habitat that didn’t need to be made since so much marijuana tax revenue is coming in.
Over the following two weeks, Lang worked with sportsmen and others to develop an amendment that gives 20% of the tax revenue to county roads and 20% to a new Habitat Legacy Account, which funds both Habitat Montana and the Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program.
Habitat Montana allows Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to buy fee title land or conservation easements to save Montana’s prime wildlife habitat from development. The Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program, brain child of the late Rep. Kelly Flynn, provides grants to enhance habitat or reduce the impacts of wildfire and invasive species on public, tribal or private lands, or improve or develop water resources, thereby boosting the productivity and profitability of small farms and ranches.
Each year, 75% of the tax money in the Habitat Legacy Account will automatically go to Habitat Montana while the rest is divided between Habitat Montana and Wildlife Habitat Improvement projects. The larger Habitat Montana fund is limited to accruing $50 million and any remainder will be funneled back to the other two programs.
The amended SB 422 passed the committee unanimously on Thursday and had strong support when Lang brought it to the Senate floor on Monday. Sen. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon praised Lang’s willingness to compromise on his bill and called it a “once-in-a generation opportunity to do good work for the people of Montana.”
Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, cast the only “No” vote.
“My vision is it will be used by all of us in Montana, especially the ag sector where all the habitat is,” Lang said. “In my time in the Legislature, I’ve tried to bridge the gap between wildlife people, farmers and ranchers, private property, and that’s all done through habitat. It’s up to the people of Montana to get on board with this and make it work.”
SB 442 will likely pass its third reading on Tuesday and then be transmitted to the House. In the meantime, House Bill 669 passed its third reading in the House on Monday and is being transmitted to the Senate and it allocates the marijuana tax revenue very differently.
HB 669, sponsored by Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, allocates $6 million to the HEART fund and shunts all the rest of the marijuana tax revenue into the state general fund. From there, mandated amounts are directed to Habitat Montana, nongame wildlife, state parks, trails and veterans.
Habitat Montana would receive $8.7 million a year, but sportsmen argue that is less than the 20% of marijuana tax money promised to Habitat Montana under current law. And in this era of skyrocketing land values, Habitat Montana needs all the money it can get to compete with out-of-staters with deep pockets.
HB 669 didn’t have the same support in the House that SB 442 got in the Senate. On third reading Monday, the vote in the House was 62-37.
If both bills pass the other house, it sets up a showdown that has Habitat Montana supporters concerned. Legislative leaders would have to create a conference committee to choose one bill or the other or create a compromise bill. So whether Lang’s SB 442 comes out on top is something Habitat Montana proponents will be watching closely.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at email@example.com.