On Monday, lawmakers took up the session's first proposal for funding Montana's fight against invasive mussels.
“The Montana Legislature, in the 2017 session, was confronted by one of the most severe threats to our lakes, reservoirs and streams that we Montanans have experienced,” Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, told the House Natural Resources Committee Monday.
That year, the Montana Legislature created fees on fishing licenses and hydroelectric power generation to fund the boat inspections, water-monitoring and other efforts necessary to prevent boaters from carrying invasive zebra and quagga mussels into the Columbia River basin.
The hydropower and fishing license fees raised $6.5 million per year for the effort. Now, lawmakers aim to re-distribute the funding sources.
Curdy's bill, crafted by the legislature’s Environmental Quality Council interim committee, would create new aquatic invasive species prevention passes for boaters, ranging in cost from $5 for a resident’s non-motorized vessel to $60 for a motorized vessel exempt from registration. Resident anglers would still have to pay $2 fees, and non-resident anglers would have to pay $7.50, down from $15 currently.
According to the bill's fiscal note, these fees would raise between $6.5 million and $7.5 million each year for the next four years. An additional $2 million to $3.3 million annually would come from the general fund.
Representatives from electric cooperatives, environmental groups, business and agricultural associations all spoke in support of the measure.
“With this bill the funding would be more consistent,” said attorney Jordan Thompson. He was representing the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, which operated two boat inspection stations under contract with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. With this bill, he said, “we’d understand what we’re going into next season with.”
But the bill has also drawn opponents who say they support the state’s fight against aquatic invasive species, but not the funding outlined in Curdy’s bill.
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“The funding source is incorrect,” said Bob Gilbert with Montana Walleyes Unlimited. He questioned the feasibility of enforcing prevention passes among Montana’s thousands of watercraft, and argued that boaters and anglers were being unfairly singled out.
“I want to fight aquatic invasive species species,” he said. “I think it’s the right thing to do. But I don’t think we should pick on a small segment of our population or a small segment of an out-of-state population to fund a third or more of our program.”
Representatives of Montana Trout Unlimited, the Montana Wildlife Federation and the Montana Audubon Society also spoke in opposition to the bill, citing similar concerns.
Tom Livers, budget director for the governor, also rose in opposition. The general fund money called for in Curdy’s bill, he said, is “freeboard we don’t have.”
“We are proposing an alternative bill that is ready for pickup,” he said. “The big difference is instead of general fund reliance, it’ll continue an assessment on fees, the existing one, on large investor-owned hydroelectric facilities.” The 2017 fees fell on hydroelectric facilities and investor-owned utilities.
Preserving them could run afoul of promises made during that legislative session. “In that session we needed bridge funding because we had the AIS (aquatic invasive species) in the state and those hydros, the investor-owned hydros, stepped up and that’s what they paid … with the caveat that they were bridge funding and a permanent fee structure would be put in place,” said the committee’s chair, Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman.
“As far as the executive” branch was concerned, said John Tubbs, director of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and conservation, “we were only in one meeting, where we committed to the co-ops that this would be a one-time fix. We in the executive continue to think that hydropower is a way to not only generate revenue for this but spread the cost” over multiple users.
During the hearing, White also requested more information about municipalities’ and farmers’ possible impact from an aquatic invasive species infestation, and told Livers that he was open to combining the committee’s bill with the governor’s.
In his closing remarks, Curdy acknowledged that the bill made “a big ask in capital letters” from the general fund. The lawmakers took no vote on sending the bill to the floor.