Sportsmen decry bill removing marijuana tax from habitat funding
(Missoula Current) Conservationists are amassing to oppose a Legislative bill that would go against voters’ wishes and permanently cut marijuana tax money out of Montana’s popular habitat acquisition program.
On Thursday, the Montana House Appropriations committee will hear House Bill 462, which changes previous legislation mandating how marijuana tax money is distributed. Most important to hunters and conservationists, the bill eliminates the tax money allocated annually to the Habitat Montana program.
In 2021, after much debate, the Legislature passed House Bill 701 allocating 20% of the annual tax revenue to Habitat Montana. But that was a substantial cut from what voters passed in 2020.
In November 2020, Constitutional Initiative 190, which passed with 57% of the vote, legalized marijuana for adults but also tacked a 20% tax on to marijuana sales. The initiative also promised about half of the annual tax revenue to public lands programs. Of that, about 37% would go to the Habitat Montana program, which uses state money to purchase land or conservation easements for wildlife habitat. Nongame wildlife programs, to state parks and to trails, and recreational facilities would each receive 4% of the revenue.
In 2020, the Montana Conservation Voters, Montana Wildlife Federation, Wild Montana Action Fund and Trust for Public Land advocated for Initiative 190 specifically because of the conservation funding.
Now, those groups and about a dozen other Montana hunting and conservation organizations have come together to jointly oppose HB 462, which was introduced to the Legislature on Feb. 9.
"In its current form, this bill would limit the state’s long-term capability to protect our public access and wildlife habitat”, said Jim Klug, a fly-fishing business owner and Business for Montana’s Outdoors member. “It’s regrettable there are still lawmakers seeking to override the will of voters, and ignore that Montana’s way of life depends on access to quality wildlife habitat to hunt, fish, hike, and camp. Investing in these elements is critical, and Montanans are paying attention.”
Prior to the bill’s introduction, the coalition sent a letter to Legislative leaders asking them to uphold the HB 701 allocations, even though the amount given to Habitat Montana is less than what voters approved. But it’s certainly more than what HB 462 would provide.
Sponsored by Marta Bertoglio, R-Clancy, HB 462 almost doubles to 11% the percentage of funding going to Gianforte’s HEART program for addiction treatment. It also shunts the money away from Habitat Montana to pump up Montana’s law enforcement, including a new account to fund the highway patrol and crime-related programs and an account for retention and recruitment program for correctional officers.
In their letter, the hunting groups cite recent conservation wins that wouldn’t have happened without Habitat Montana funding, including a new wildlife management area approved in October on almost 9 square miles in the shadow of the Big Snowy Mountains and a Mount Haggin Wildlife Management Area expansion of more than 800 acres. Both areas were threatened by either development or being locked up by new wealthy landowners.
In the late 1980s, Montana was seeing a surge of people moving from out-of-state - much like now - so the Legislature created Habitat Montana to preserve Montana’s open spaces and rural character. Since then, Habitat Montana money has helped create more than 130,000 acres of wildlife management areas and helped both agricultural families and sportsmen by buying more than 300,000 acres of conservation easements.
“Within the next five years, FWP is aggressively seeking to increase their habitat work, in addition to keeping up with everyday demands from landowners for traditional fee simple acquisitions and conservation easements. As we strive to meet these obligations, Montana must be prepared for land appraisal costs to continue to climb. Funding from recreational marijuana excise taxes will facilitate more of these transactions, which benefit landowners, ranchers, farmers, and hunters alike,” the letter said.
In both 2021 and 2023, Gov. Greg Gianforte’s budget proposals zeroed out the marijuana tax revenue for Habitat Montana. The nongame wildlife programs, to state parks and to trails, and recreational facilities would still receive 4% each.
Gianforte spokesperson Brooke Stroyke said in a Nov. 22 email that the governor’s office budgeted that way because FWP said "its public lands funding is healthy and bountiful."
This year, the governor’s proposal does boost Habitat Montana’s overall allocation to $12 million over two years, a 3.8% increase over the last biennium. But the amount of money the state kicks in - $9.65 million - all comes from sportsmen’s license dollars.
The 16 conservation groups commend the governor for increasing the overall allocation but point out that Habitat Montana stands to gain $30 million in tax revenue over two years if the Legislature reaffirms the 20% allocation. Sportsmen’s dollars wouldn’t be needed, leaving millions for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to use on other programs.
According to the most recent estimates, cannabis sales are projected to bring in $50.7 million of tax revenue in fiscal year 2024 and $57.5 million in fiscal year 2025. That could support Habitat Montana, the new programs proposed by HB 462, and still contribute over $70 million in the State’s general fund.
“It makes no sense to raid a popular program that benefits access and conservation when we have a multi-billion dollar surplus,” said Wild Montana State Policy Director Noah Marion. "How the state spends its money needs to reflect the values of its people, and Montanans across the board value conservation and public access. The state just used Habitat MT funds to improve access to over 100,000 acres in the Big Snowies, and now the legislature is considering this bill to undermine those types of investments while our state grows dramatically.”
In a Feb. 6 Department of Public Health and Human Services report, the HEART program has served 350 Montanans since July 2022, mostly thanks to $19 million in Medicaid funding to match the state’s $6 million. More Medicaid money is available, but first, the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs must regain its accreditation.
The organizations signing the letter include the Anaconda Sportsmen’s Club, Bearpaw Bowmen, Gallatin Wildlife Association, Laurel Rod and Gun Club, Flathead Wildlife Inc., Helena Hunters and Anglers, Hellgate Hunters and Anglers, Montana Artemis Alliance, Montana Bowhunters Association, Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Montana Union Sportsmen Alliance, Montana Wildlife Federation, Montana Wild Sheep Foundation, Public Land Water Access Association, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Ducks Unlimited.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.