POLSON — Montana’s general fund will again help pay for the state’s fight against aquatic invasive species.
During this year’s legislative session, lawmakers faced the challenge of raising $6 million to $7 million to fund boat-inspection stations, water monitoring and public outreach to protect the Columbia River’s headwaters from a devastating zebra and quagga mussel infestation.
After much debate, they settled on a combination of federal funds, state lodging tax funds, and fees on hydropower production, fishing licenses and boat registration, in a funding package sponsored by Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula.
But two days after lawmakers passed that bill, they passed Senate Bill 352, which struck the boat registration fees and instead directed general fund money to the aquatic invasive species effort.
Speaking at the Upper Columbia Conservation Commission meeting in Polson last week, Curdy explained that the funding measure became linked to a pair of other budget bills signed by the governor earlier this month. One of these was HB 694, sponsored by Rep. Jim Hamilton, D-Bozeman, which revised fees on investment advisers and was expected to raise around $8 million dollars for the general fund each year through 2023.
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SB 352, a budget companion bill by Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, transferred $3.75 million of those funds into an account to improve law enforcement radio networks. It also rescinded the boat registration fee increases — expected to raise $153,550 and $207,600 in fiscal years 2020 and 2021, respectively.
Instead, it transfers $283,620 in fiscal year 2020 and $398,625 in 2021 to the department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks for aquatic invasive species programming.
“In general, there was reluctance to create a new tax source, I think,” Curdy said. Asked if this might mean lawmakers would have to make another request of the general fund in 2021, he replied, “at somewhere down the line something's going to have to be done, but that's for a future legislative session.”
Despite this last-minute funding change, the commissioners and guests complimented the Legislature’s work on this issue this session. Curdy sits on the Environmental Quality Council interim committee, and made it clear that that group would keep an eye on the state's efforts.
“This whole program is going to be on the EQC’s radar,” he said. “We will hear reports from all parties about how things are working.”