Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) The budget for the conservation district in McCone County has no wiggle room, said Steve Wanderaas.

Wanderaas, chairman of the district, said after recently giving the one paid staff member a small raise, payroll hit $36,000, and the district will need to dip into another fund to cover that cost.

But at a hearing Monday, he said conservation districts need to retain their administrators.

“We are dead in the water without staff,” Wanderaas said.

Montana counts 58 conservation districts, or local government units that work to protect soil, water and other resources.

With Senate Bill 28, Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, wants to use a portion of marijuana tax revenue — $6 million, adjusted annually for inflation — to support those districts across Montana.

As proposed, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation would use the money to bump up the amounts local districts are getting from their mills and coal severance tax — which has been unstable, he said — to roughly $80,000 from $40,000 or so.

Lang said the change will help small communities in particular.

The Petroleum County Conservation District, for example, earns just $2,000 from its mill levy, according to the Montana Association of Conservation Districts.

No one spoke against the bill.

After much debate in the 2021 session, including arguments from conservation advocates that lawmakers needed to respect the will of voters and dedicate some of the recreational marijuana tax revenue to their cause, the legislature passed House Bill 701.

HB 701 outlines the way the state spends that revenue. (See box.)

This week, at least a couple of other bills related to marijuana spending are also up for hearings. House Bill 420 would eliminate the state tax and local option tax on medical marijuana.

House Bill 462 would revise the way the marijuana tax revenue is allocated. It would eliminate the 20% allocation going to Fish, Wildlife and Parks for wildlife habitat and establish new accounts, including ones to be administered by the Department of Corrections and Department of Justice, among other changes.

In 2022, the estimated taxes from marijuana were $45.7 million, according to the Montana Department of Revenue.

At the hearing Monday on SB 28, Rebecca Boslough-King, executive director of the Montana Association of Conservation Districts, said districts are led by unpaid supervisors who annually donate the equivalent of $5 million in volunteer hours.

They work on conservation, education and research, but their funding has been shaky, and a legislative fix from last session sunsets at the end of this biennium, she said.

She said the bill would put in place a recommendation by the Environmental Quality Council, an interim legislative committee.

“Conservation districts urgently need stable long-term funding,” Boslough-King said.

The Montana Stockgrowers Association, Montana Farm Bureau Federation, and Montana Farmers Union were among those who testified in support of the bill.

The committee did not take immediate action Monday.

partment of Justice, among other changes.