Legislators briefed on conservation issues

2012-12-19T00:00:00Z Legislators briefed on conservation issuesBy BRETT FRENCH french@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

There is a narrative in Montana that only resource extraction jobs create money, and that needs to change, said state Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings.

“We need the conservation community to stand up and be warriors for clean jobs around the state,” she told the Billings Conservation Roundtable on Tuesday.

MacDonald and four other Democratic legislators listened to conservation, renewable-energy and voter access groups’ assessments of the upcoming legislative session and lists of bills that will be important to them. The lawmakers also provided a preview of what they think some of the important issues in the session will be.

Although invited, no GOP representatives attended.

Rep. Kelly McCarthy agreed with MacDonald, adding that he foresees attempts this session to promote the coal industry.

“That’s not fair. We shouldn’t be propping up a dying industry,” he said.

Charyn Ayoub, of the Northern Plains Resource Council, said her group will push to do away with the oil and gas tax holiday passed by the 1999 Legislature to encourage oil and gas development.

As written, the law allows oil or gas wells to be taxed at a rate of .76 percent for the first 12 months for vertical wells and for the first 18 months for horizontal wells. Citing the thousands of wells already present in Montana and the many more being drilled as the “fracking” boom spreads in Eastern Montana, Ayoub said the holiday no longer makes sense.

“Clearly there is no longer a need to manipulate tax policy to encourage development,” she said.

Ayoub claimed that the law cost the state more than a quarter of a billion dollars between 2003 and 2007 before most of the recent drilling began. She also said the current disbursement of the taxes collected is not getting to the impacted communities quickly enough or in an amount that reflects the infrastructure stresses on small towns.

When asked about the proposal, Sen. Kendall Van Dyk said he wasn’t optimistic that such a measure would pass the Legislature. A similar bill in 2009 was shot down, he said.

“It still merits having the discussion, but I’m not overly optimistic about its passage,” he said.

John Gibson, of the Public Lands/Water Access Association, said he foresees more attacks in this legislative session on Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks as well as issues dealing with hunting and road and stream access.

“I understand they will try and water down our stream access law again,” he said.

The PLWA is in court fighting to ensure stream access, as well as land access over roads that have been closed.

Gibson is searching for a sponsor for a bill that would require a landowner to prove to county commissioners that a road is private before it can be closed to public access, rather than the other way around.

“These big guys buying ranches will close these roads,” he said. “They want people blocked at their boundaries.”

Other issues the group discussed included:

-- Increasing the push for more renewable energy production and energy efficiency. Right now, the state is requiring publicly traded utilities to have 15 percent of their power production from renewable energy by 2015.

“We’d like to see it moved to 25 percent by 2025,” said Theresa Keaveny of the Montana Conservation Voters.

-- Beefing up the Montana Environmental Policy Act, which was weakened in the last Legislature.

-- Supporting the creation of a new commission for Montana state parks, separate from the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and further study of how to make Virginia City and Nevada City self-sustaining.

-- Opposing mail-ballot-only elections, which can disenfranchise rural and native voters, a measure that Montana Conservation Voters had previously backed.

“We disagree that there is a problem in need of a solution,” Keaveny said.

She said the group is also looking at ways to ease problems at voting sites.

The Democratic legislators agreed that they think this next session in the House will be all about defense, since Republicans are in the majority.

“For the most part, with 39 of us, we’re stronger than before,” said Rep. Virginia Court.

She added that Democrats will be reaching out to GOP members to override measures, but that the public needs to help by testifying at hearings.

“I think that really resonates with the committee,” she said.

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