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Watercraft inspector Ryan Dorvall gets a closer look at the hull of a boat

Watercraft inspector Ryan Dorvall gets a closer look at the hull of a boat on June 29, 2017, at the Silos decontamination station on Canyon Ferry Reservoir.

The funding mix for Montana’s fight against aquatic invasive species keeps evolving.

Montana’s boat inspection stations, water sampling and outreach campaigns are guarding the entire Columbia River Basin from invasive zebra and quagga mussels. Since 2017, Montana has mainly funded this effort with fees on fishing licenses, hydroelectric facilities and the utilities that use their electricity.

Since the summer, state lawmakers have been debating which funding sources to use moving forward. This session’s first aquatic invasive species funding package, carried by Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, would have scrapped the hydroelectric fees, raised $3.2 million from fees on boaters, and another $3.3 million from the general fund.

The fees drew the ire of boaters, and the governor’s office took issue with using the general fund. HB 32 was tabled, and Curdy’s now carrying another funding package, HB 411, heard by the House Appropriations Committee Tuesday.

This proposal leaves out the general fund, and instead brings in the needed funds from boater fees, hydropower fees and federal dollars.

Curdy acknowledged the wide range of stakeholders involved in protecting Montana’s waters. “There’s a lot of folks out there who could be impacted,” he said at the bill's first hearing last month.

The new measure requires nonresidents to buy an aquatic invasive species prevention pass, at a cost of $10 for non-motorized vessels and $30 for motorized vessels. It also raises fees on certain kinds of boat registration, and directs the increase to the state’s invasive species prevention account. Anglers 16 and older will also have to buy an aquatic invasive species prevention pass, at a cost of $7.50 for nonresidents and $2 for residents.

It also reduces the fee on hydroelectric facilities from $796 to $398 per megawatt of capacity.

Together, these measure are expected to raise $6.2 million in state special revenue in fiscal year 2020, according to the bill’s fiscal note. It also projects an additional $2.2 million in federal special revenue next year. The bill appropriates all of those federal funds, $5.6 million from the state special revenue account, and $960 for data entry from the state’s general fund.

For each of the following three fiscal years, the bill’s fiscal note — which appears to omit the $10 fee for non-motorized boats — projects raising $5.6 million in state special revenue and $1.4 million in federal special revenue, and spending $5.3 million of the former and all of the latter.

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Dustin Temple, chief of administration for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said, “I think we are reasonably certain that we are going to see the federal funding” through the Water Resources Development act. According to the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region, in fiscal year 2017 Montana received $1.9 million through this program.

These funds will be spent by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. 

Tom Ebzery, a lobbyist for Spokane-based power company Avista, took issue with the proposal. “The Environmental Quality Council (interim committee) felt that the hydroelectric facilities had paid an inordinate amount and chose to use general fund dollars” in the first funding package Curdy had introduced, he said. “Instead, this bill … says basically that life goes on and you’ll pay this very big large fee for a long, long time.”

At Wednesday’s hearing, the bill drew support from Bob Gilbert with Walleyes Unlimited, who called the new boating fee “pretty reasonable,” and representatives of the Yellowstone and Missouri River Conservation District Councils and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

John Tubbs, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s director, had previously backed the measure. But on Wednesday, he rose in opposition, citing a provision that redirects some of the revenue from the Department of Commerce to the invasive species account. He said the executive branch opposed this aspect of what he called an “otherwise excellent bill.”

The committee took no vote on the measure Wednesday. Curdy is also backing a joint resolution calling on Congress to support states' efforts on this issue.

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