The funding for Montana's fight against invasive mussels is poised to change.
In the two years since quagga mussel larvae turned up in central Montana, boat inspection stations and cautionary billboards have sprung up along the Treasure State's highways, all aiming to keep boaters from bringing them into the uninfested Columbia River Basin.
The bulk of the state's funding for this effort comes from two main sources: aquatic invasive species prevention passes sold with fishing licenses, and fees on hydroelectric facilities and utilities.
State Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, sponsored the bill that created these funding streams in 2017. But “I argued then, and I’ll still argue now, that this is more of a general fund type of priority and obligation,” he said on Wednesday.
Vincent chairs the Legislature’s Environmental Quality Council interim committee, which has been crafting a new funding proposal for next year's legislative session. The latest version, approved on Thursday, would let the hydroelectric fees expire next year, and place the $6.5 million funding burden on boaters, anglers and the state’s general fund.
Boaters would have to purchase aquatic invasive species prevention passes, ranging from $5 to $60 depending on vessel type and registration. It would also tweak the passes that anglers must buy, dropping the $15 nonresident price to $7.50 (the resident price would remain $2). Lawmakers removed a proposed $2 migratory bird hunter fee.
Together, these measures are projected to raise nearly $3.2 million for the mussel fight, once all of the fee changes take effect in 2020. The remainder, $3.3 million, would come from the general fund.
So far, the shift is proving palatable. Legislative Services Division research analyst Hope Stockwell told committee members that of 92 comments received on the proposal since July, 78 opposed the continued use of hydroelectric fees, while 60 supported using general fund money. Only nine specifically discussed boating and angling fees.
Many of these comments came from members and employees of electrical cooperatives, which are lining up behind the proposal.
“Montana Electric Cooperatives’ Association supports the Environmental Quality Council’s second draft proposed funding mix for AIS because it excludes hydropower as a funding source,” wrote the group’s CEO, Dave Wheelihan, in a public comment.
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He noted that while the state’s electric cooperatives had accepted hydropower fees in 2017 as a short-term funding source for mussel prevention, “hydropower is not a cost causer when it comes to infestations of AIS … and we believe that all citizens of Montana would be impacted by an AIS infestation, meaning all would become victims. For that reason, in our view, the state’s general fund is the fairest source of funding for AIS.”
But the Cooperatives' Association’s assistant general manager, Gary Wiens, faced questioning from Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, who remarked that $3.3 million is “a big ask of the general fund.”
“I agree with the chairman that this is a general fund issue, but it seems to me somewhat shortsighted for the hydro facilities to say we don’t want to be involved at all,” he continued.
“I can see where you don’t want to carry an unfair amount of the burden … but it doesn’t make sense to me that you wouldn’t want to be involved in any way with funding what surely has to be seen as a big potential problem for hydro facilities in the state of Montana.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service projects that a mussel infestation in the Columbia could cost the Northwest’s hydroelectric sector $300 million per year. “We recognize it will have an impact on the hydropower facilities,” Wiens said, but noted that most Montana utilities don’t own those facilities, and voiced concern about the funding streams’ impact on low-income customers.
“We think it should come from the general fund,” he said. “We’re willing to pay it there, but we don’t want to see it come out of electric utilities.”
Phillips, however, challenged Wiens to “consider perhaps [that] the best approach is to make clear from the beginning what the hydro facilities are willing to do” to fund the struggle. “I doubt that Montana’s going to find itself awash in money in January of 2019.”
Despite these concerns, the committee voted in favor of the bill 15-1. The lone dissenter, Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, explained that he could only support the bill if the current $15 nonresident angler fee dropped to $7.50 next year, rather than in 2020 as currently planned.
Stockwell, the Legislative Services Division analyst, said in an email that the bill will now be formally drafted and pre-introduced for the 2019 legislative session.