A bill regarding gas tax collections on county roads that legislators were told would have no effect on how the Montana Department of Transportation does its work was indefinitely postponed by the Senate on Saturday.
House Bill 550, sponsored by Rep. Alan Redfield, R-Livingston, was meant to help Sweet Grass County, he told the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee on Tuesday. On Thursday the committee supported the measure by a 6-4 margin.
Yet the MDT’s Ed Ereth had testified on Tuesday, “This particular bill, in my opinion, we would not change any of our current processes or rules.”
On Saturday, when the measure appeared before the full Senate, Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber, said the measure should be indefinitely postponed.
"This bill attempted to address some confusion in different parts of Montana law," he told the senators. "Unfortunately this bill doesn't get it done."
He suggested the measure "be looked at in the interim with a lot of eyes, conservation groups and others, involved in it."
The measure was voted down 45-3.
In his testimony before the Senate committee, Ereth had outlined how the gas tax works. Cities and counties make an annual report of roads open to public travel. That report is submitted to MDT, which reviews the additions or subtractions, eventually sending staff into the field in June to check proposed changes. If the staffer disagrees with the city or county, that is noted and the document is returned to the local government with the changes highlighted.
“That’s a draft,” Ereth said. “It’s a working document.”
In the case of Sweet Grass County, Ereth said the officials were “adamant” about the roads they wanted taken off the map. That would mean a loss of money, roughly $40 a mile.
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“It does take a couple of cycles to make sure we’re not taking funds away from the county,” Ereth said.
About $6.3 million is allocated annually based on a county’s or city’s roads, along with calculations that include population and land mass. Money the governments receive is not tied to any specific road, that is up to the city or county to decide how the allocation is spent.
Public access advocates saw a boogieman in the bill: That it was a way for the county to exclude contested routes across private property to public lands, or to wipe the record clean of once-public roads.
Nick Gevock, conservation director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, told the committee it “erodes the record of public roads.
“We have serious concerns about removing these roads from the gas tax maps because, when people sit down to research the status of these roads, where public funds were spent is important evidence used to help prove public usage and funds used to maintain them," he said in a text to the Billings Gazette. “This bill makes it harder to prove whether roads are public.”
Yet Ereth and MDT’s website specifically state that the gas tax records should not be used as a way to argue that a route is public or private.
That’s not always the case, though, according to Abigail St. Lawrence, who testified in favor of the bill for the Rocky Mountain Stockgrowers Association. “What we see is gas tax maps are introduced into court as definitive evidence that these are public roads,” she said.
The fact that the bill is backed by Sweet Grass County landowners who have been in a tussle with the Forest Service and public land access advocates over entry to the Crazy Mountains has added to the perception that the bill was a way to terminate public claims to historic routes. Parties on both sides of that altercation feel they are being misunderstood and taken advantage of, with the pressure continually ratcheting upward.
In February a coalition of outdoor groups and individuals threatened to sue the Custer Gallatin National Forest for “failure to protect and defend public access rights in the Crazy Mountains.”