News From the Front, April 24

“Have you thought of an ending?”
“Yes, several, and all are dark and unpleasant.”
“Oh, that won’t do! [Sessions]* ought to have good endings. How would this do: and they all settled down and lived together happily ever after?”
“It will do well, if it ever came to that.”
“Ah! And where will they live? That’s what I often wonder.”
― J.R.R. TolkienThe Fellowship of the Ring  *Originally the word “Books” was used here.

The End of a Session

Well, the dust is calming, those 150 vehicles are soon leaving Helena, the hallways of the Capitol will soon be eerily quiet, and we will start to settle down. And yes, we will live in Montana with several new laws, a new budget for the next two years (with details to follow in the next edition of NFTF), and perhaps too many ideas for the 2017 Session.

It was quite a ride, this 90 floor session days spread over four months or so. Lots happened. Even a baby was born! It seemed as though there were many more places where we stuck our noses this Session. Some of that is because we had two full time lobbyists who were able to better monitor what was happening with those 2,500 proposed bills. We also had the services of Programs Director Ann McCauley, who spent considerable time staffing certain bills, researching, preparing and delivering testimony, and discussing strategy.

We were fortunate that MACD President Jeff Wivholm and other MACD Board members spent so many days in Helena working the Session. President Wivholm was the superstar and put many miles on his vehicles. He has been here so often that he even found a barber and gets his hair cut in Helena. Individual Districts helped by showing up, testifying, contacting legislators, and (perhaps most importantly) accomplishing credible, cost effective, on-the-ground conservation work that we can showcase day after day. Our cousins with the two river councils, Salinity Control, and the CBMPC helped with information and testimony and legislative contacts. Our friends at DNRC kept us in the loop on many issues. Even NRCS showed up in Helena for National Ag Day and spent time visiting with many. It was a team effort. It always has been. The end, if there is one, will be “dark and unpleasant” if there is no teamwork.

In previous years we had only one person walking the hallways, combing the legislator’s website for hearings, and reading bills. During past Sessions we relied on our partners to keep us informed as to where we needed to be and what we needed to know. This year we spent more time in front of committees and in the hallways visiting with legislators and lobbyists about natural resource conservation issues. This year we better teamed up with Laurie Zeller at DNRC in the early weeks to read all the proposed bill titles and mark those that might impact us.

Inline image 1

What Passed

We will start with policy issues that passed. Unless otherwise noted, we are assuming that the Governor will sign these bills if he has not already done so. Click through the bill link or refer to previous editions of News From The Front for details about specific bills.

  1. Districts now have just about the same authorities as counties regarding contracting laws. Thanks to Sweet Grass County Conservation District for getting the ball rolling on this one.  SB 88
  2. There is a new law that addresses the introduction of feral hogs. They have become a serious problem in many other states and Montana wants to get ahead of the curve. As Supervisors and District staff, we are in great positions to hear early on about any of these problems. The new law makes it easier to address illegal or accidental introductions. SB 100
  3. There is a new state soil – Scobey. We will incorporate this into Conservation Month this August. Congratulations to the many people that worked hard on getting this bill through the Session. We assume that the state soil will now be on the highway maps that the state publishes, but we do not know how it will be depicted. Ann McCauley worked diligently on this bill.  SB 176
  4. There will be a formal study by the Legislature of the pros and cons of Montana taking on the responsibilities around issuing Corps of Engineer 404 permits. DNRC has already prepared background information about this issue, and we will ask them to prepare a formal discussion paper for Districts to consider. We suggest that the idea of a resolution be considered by one or more of the Districts to address this issue.  SJ 2
  5. Conservation District Supervisor  Richard Kerstein from Scobey was appointed to the Fish and Wildlife Commission. MACD testified in support of this resolution (his appointment) in front of the Senate Fish and Game Committee. As far as we know, Richard is the first Supervisor to be on the Commission, fulfilling a long-standing series of resolutions that asked for a Supervisor to be on that board. Technically, Richard does not represent the Districts on the Commission, but his background serving as a Supervisor for seven years will no doubt bring District ideas and approaches to addressing fish and wildlife issues. SR 30
  6. Montana has a new sage-grouse program. It joins several other sage-grouse conservation programs already underway, including the Sage Grouse Initiative, BLM’s program, and other smaller programs run by non-profits. Coordination and cooperation among the programs will be a key to progress, and MACD will be helping in this regard. SB 261
  7. Montana’s Aquatic Invasive Species program continues to mature. Funds were once again approved and two separate bills were passed, further solidifying the state’s commitment to playing defense for the foreseeable future. HB 525  HB 553
  8. Districts were freed of the Board of Adjustments requirements previously on the law books. Now those boards will be appointed only when they are needed. Thanks to DNRC for getting the ball rolling on this bill.  HB 40
  9. Grazing issues need to be taken into account in a more formal manner when bison are involved. HB 194
  10. Certain election laws were clarified.  HB 84

What Didn’t Pass

These are the policy issues that did not become laws. We supported some of these and opposed others.

  1. Changes to election laws and procedures for Supervisors. SB 341
  2. Changes to public information requirements for Districts. SB 340
  3. Temporary ban on hunting sage-grouse. SB 247
  4. A cooperative Weed Pilot Project. HB 329
  5. A bill to clarify that Districts have the ability and authority to coordinate and cooperate with federal agencies in natural resource issues. SB 273
  6. A bill to maximize information integrity in government actions.  HB 290
  7. A resolution requesting removal of brucella abortus from the federal list. SJ 11

The Future is Unclear

This is the only bill that we cannot predict what the Governor will do. It may or may not become law.

  1. MAYBE??  SB 284 would allow County Commissioners to influence the ability of the state to move bison in their counties. We understand that there may be some sort of negotiations that would include a MOU to address concerns. If that is true, and it comes to pass, the bill may not be needed and it will be vetoed. Given what happened the last two Session with this concept, this bill may not be signed into law either way.

These 18 bills took up a lot of our time in Helena. One of the most time consuming parts for almost all of these bills is the number of actions that each bill goes through in this process. We have to monitor each action. As an example (on the high side), SB 261, the sage-grouse bill, had nearly 80 individual actions that started last fall and continued until the end of April. MACD was not involved in each of the 80 actions, but we have to be aware of them and act or react accordingly to many of them.

Now, on to the money…

Money issues have not been settled as of this writing. Stay tuned for another edition of NFTF.

  1. HB 2
  2. HB 6
  3. HB 7

Commentary

This was a great Session for me in my new position with MACD. Jeff Wivholm, Elena, and Ann were very engaged in all the activities. They asked great questions, showed good instincts, kept a District perspective, and maintained a sense of humor. Laurie Zeller provided an historical anchor for us and for Mark Bostrom in his new job as Division Administrator. Mark represented the Districts well in front of the various committees that deal with our affairs. Don MacIntyre once again provided wise counsel and great analysis on numerous bills, including testifying at the Session. Kate Arpin kept the information flowing out to the Districts. And Ray Beck was working behind the scenes, we are sure, but he won’t tell us much.

We accomplished lots of work in the Capitol.  Some of the highlights include: We helped pass two housekeeping bills to allow the Districts to operate more efficiently. We successfully fought back a number of bills that would have made unfavorable changes to Districts. We worked with partners to help establish the Montana Greater Sage Grouse Stewardship Program, with the knowledge that what’s good for cattle is good for sage grouse. This program will provide resources to livestock operators in core areas and keep decisions at the local level.  Two bison bills passed, and one (HB 194) was signed into law. The fate of the other bill (SB 284) is not known at this time. We started establishing relationships with the next group of leaders who are up and coming in the Legislature. We cemented relationships with lobbyists from a wide variety of groups that have interests in natural resource conservation.

MACD received criticism from several quarters about not taking a stance on the CSKT Water Compact. We were lobbied by both sides for support. We looked to the Districts in northwest Montana for signals regarding the compact. We heard from several Districts from both supporters and opponents of the proposed compact. We were approached by several Districts asking about our position, but we had no position. We encouraged those Districts, if they had taken a position, to do as they pleased and let others know where they were.  Lessons learned by MACD: If Districts have important issues in front of them, use the resolution process to try and get that issue in front of the whole body at convention. That way many Supervisors have the opportunity to vote on issues and give direction to your state association. MACD is not afraid to go after issues in a vigorous manner, but we need to hear a unified voice from across Montana.

I must write a few words about your new Executive Director. Elena jumped into the Session with both feet. Imagine being thrown into a large building with hundreds of people with many agendas and where one billion words will be spoken in 90 days. Ever inquisitive, selective with words, and quite perceptive, she constantly referred to the impacts on Districts from various bills. She studied after hours to understand the state budgeting system. She worked 10-12 hour days and weekends to keep up with the work. I think the Board of Directors made a good choice hiring her. I see many good things in the future for Conservation Districts, as Elena continues to understand the complexities, relationships, history, and role of Districts in Montana’s future.

Districts have an entirely new leadership team for the three legged stool. With the imminent arrival of our new State Conservationist, Lisa Coverdale, a new first leg (the feds were the first entity) joins the other two new legs, represented by Elena and Mark. There will be changes in the ways things are done, new looks at improving processes, new focus areas, and new faces all around us. Conservation Districts have seen all these changes over the eight decades of serving the land. It’s good to look at that past, but don’t stare. New technologies, new markets, new crops, and new water regimes mean those on the land will be impacted. Conservation Districts will be there to help in many ways we do not even imagine today. We have to feed the world and conserve natural resources. If we cannot do this, it all unravels.

We would like to thank the MACD Board of Directors for their support during the Session. Because everything is quite fluid at the Session, the Board gives us much freedom to address issues as long as we stay in the parameters of adopted resolutions, historical actions, and Board policy. We know that is a lot of responsibility, representing the interests of hundreds of elected officials. We appreciate the amount of rope you give us and hope that we do not mistakenly hang ourselves one day.

We hope you have enjoyed reading News From The Front. Let us know how we can improve it.

MACD will conduct at least one internal post mortem on the Session. We invite Districts to send us your thoughts as to how we could serve you better during the Legislature.  We are asking Administrators to place that question on board agendas in the next few months if possible.

Respectfully submitted,

Jeff