“This bill is the quintessential ‘big government knows better than Montana voters’ bill.”
By Blair Miller, Daily Montanan
The governor’s office is behind a bill heard in a House committee Thursday that aims to reduce the amount of money going toward the Habitat Montana conservation program by eliminating an estimated $8 million to $9 million annually in marijuana revenue and putting it toward police, prosecutors and correctional officers.
The sponsor of House Bill 462, Rep. Marta Bertoglio, R-Clancy, said she had not consulted any conservation groups about the diversion of funds, but had heard from many in opposition to the bill in the leadup to its initial hearing in the House Appropriations Committee.
When she was asked by Rep. Emma Kerr-Carpenter, D-Billings, if she was open to amending the bill so it did not fully cut funding to any one category, she said she was “simply carrying” the bill and would have to consult with the governor’s budget office.
Ryan Evans, the governor’s assistant budget director, told the committee the bill was aimed at boosting funds for public security, public safety and public health and opened the hearing by trying to preempt testimony from the opposition about the historic surplus.
“Don’t be fooled by that. Remember that surplus money is [one-time only] funds,” he said. “[I’m] not saying that public resources isn’t a priority. That said, if an investment in one-time resources in that area is wanted, we’ll certainly entertain that in another bill. But not this bill.”
Evans told lawmakers during questioning that during the office’s budgeting process, it had looked to put money toward Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s request to cut income taxes.
“We tried to use any ongoing revenue flow to help cut individual income taxes, point blank. So that’s where a lot of this went,” he said.
Opponents said they felt the bill was putting conservation and outdoors enthusiasts in an untenable spot. They said they agreed that police, mental health and other public safety departments needed government support and funding, but questioned why the bill and the governor’s office was targeting Habitat Montana specifically when there was plenty of other money in the General Fund and the $2.5 billion surplus.
“I find myself asking—why are we pitting two good things against each other?” said opponent Joanne Gores. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
The Anaconda Sportsmen Club’s Chris Marchion, an inductee to the Montana Outdoor Hall of Fame, said he found it offensive that he had to come to the legislature so often during the 35 years the program has been in place to try to defend what he called one of the “model programs for habitat in the nation” when he saw the same issues surrounding public safety funding last session and others past.
“When the 2021 legislature left, none of those programs were funded, but there was enough funding for a tax decrease. Montana has the fairest tax system in the country; that’s been that way for 10 years,” he said. “But we gave a tax decrease to the wealthiest people in the state of Montana instead of funding these programs.”
The Habitat Montana program was put into law by the legislature in 1987 as a wildlife habitat conservation and recreation effort. The funding is used to acquire land—often by working with landowners who request a partnership for easements and leases—to expand and create wildlife management areas to protect forests, grasslands and wildlife.
Around 92 percent of its funding—aside from the marijuana tax money—comes from licenses bought by hunters from out of state. In total, the hunting license sales bring in around $12 million for the program every biennium, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Deputy Director Dustin Temple, an informational witness, told the committee.
Bertoglio’s bill would make a host of changes to how Montana’s marijuana tax revenue is distributed, including the 20 percent now dedicated to the Habitat Montana program.
First, it would create two new accounts, one for funding of correctional officers and another for a distribution account that could be used to add Montana highway patrol officers, fight human trafficking and drugs, and assist county prosecutors with investigations.
More important to the bill, according to those who testified and the lawmakers who asked questions in the nearly three-hour hearing, is the changes it makes to how the funds are currently distributed under law passed in 2021.
Currently, the first $6 million in marijuana revenue goes to the Healing and Ending Addiction through Recovery and Treatment (HEART) account. The bill would change that to 11 percent of the tax revenue.
The bill would eliminate the 20 percent of the revenue that currently goes to Habitat Montana and redistribute it to both new and existing accounts and programs.
Under the bill, 6 percent of the total funding would go to the account that would fund MHP and other law enforcement and prosecutors. The bill would increase funding for the veterans and surviving spouses special revenue account from $200,000 currently to 5 percent of the revenue.
It would also provide 1.5 percent of the revenue, respectively, to the new account for hiring and retaining corrections officers and another for treatment court support. And it would change the formula for crisis intervention team training funding.
A fiscal note from the governor’s budget office released shortly before the start of the hearing on the bill details how the bill would change current funding distributions once the Habitat Montana money was reallocated.
Montana is projected to receive around $53 million in marijuana tax revenue in FY2024, which starts in July, and about $2 million more each fiscal year into FY2027.
The HEART Fund would actually receive a few hundred thousand dollars less under the proposed funding formula for each of the next four fiscal years, according to the analysis, though Bertoglio said in committee the formula would lead to an increase.
The Department of Justice would see around $3 million more annually, while the 12 percent of funding that currently goes to FWP state parks, trails and recreation efforts would see an increase of about $240,000.
The veterans account would see a little more than $2 million more each year—up from just $200,000 annually—while the crime control portion would see around $50,000 less each year for an allocation of around $100,000.
The accounts for correctional officer hiring and retention would see a boost of about $700,000 each year, while the General Fund would receive another $1.5 million to $2 million each fiscal year for the next four, according to the analysis.
Temple said FWP uses the program to leverage more federal and other dollars to complete acquisition projects, often at a one-to-three rate. But he told Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, that FWP believes it could meet its land-lease acreage goal if the funding from marijuana tax revenue is cut. Temple said the general license account currently sits at $93 million.
He and other opponents noted how the money is allocated to projects that often aren’t completed for at least 12-to-18 months, and sometimes longer.
Nearly three-quarters of the people who testified in favor of the bill were officials with the governor’s budget office, Department of Justice, Montana Highway Patrol, Department of Corrections and Department of Public Health and Human Services. Others included representatives for veterans and behavioral and mental health groups.
They said they needed more police officers to monitor an increase in drug activity in the state, more attorneys who could work on Supreme Court appeals and as specialists to help county attorneys in rural Montana, a boost in hiring and retaining corrections officers at depleted prisons, more employees to increase training for police officers and troopers and better support for veterans.
Many proponents said adding a few staff members or a few dollars in each category would provide them with much-needed help after being overburdened and underpowered while dealing with an increased caseload.
“We are a bureau that has nine permanent [full-time employees]. We’re literally drowning and could not keep up,” said Tammy Plubell, the DOJ’s appellate services bureau chief.
Montana Highway Patrol Col. Steve Lavin said the department wanted to hire five new troopers because of a “dramatic increase” in drugs—pointing to what he said was a ten-fold rise in seizures of fentanyl pills last year and associated violence.
Bryan Lockerby, the administrator of the division of criminal investigation at the DOJ, said Montana was seeing cartel activity and that law enforcement was “outmanned, outgunned and outresourced.”
“We face an unprecedented threat, the likes of which I have never seen in my 40-year career in law enforcement,” he said.
Proponents and opponents were each given 45 minutes for testimony. Once the time of those in favor ran out, Montana Highway Patrol brought in a K-9 officer to find drugs the agency had planted on someone as a “show-and-tell,” as a lawmaker said.
Many of the opponents said they believed the legislature was trying to undo the will of Montana voters, who in 2020 approved marijuana legalization 57 percent to 43 percent. Some people who testified said they believed some Montanans voted in favor of the legalization measure because the ballot language mentioned revenue allocation to conservation efforts.
“We’ve elected you guys to stand up to this idea of big government. And this bill is the quintessential ‘big government knows better than Montana voters’ bill,” said Mike Mershon.
Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick said the county opposed the measure and said it was creating a conflict between issues that was “entirely manufactured.”
“We can do both and we should do both,” he said.
This story was first published by Daily Montanan.
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