By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Four area legislators were in Havre on Monday to discuss the progress of their bills in the first half of the legislative session. Members of the audience shared their concerns, both those before and not before the Legislature this year.
Rep. Bob Bergren, D-Havre, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Rocky Boy, and Sen. Ken Hansen, D-Harlem were present. Rep. John Musgrove, D-Havre, was unable to attend.
Shipping costs and cattle imports from Canada were topics that provoked interest.
Bergren told an audience of about 35 people who crowded the U.S. Bank meeting room Monday that he has a bill addressing each of those problems.
The House Taxation Committee will hold a hearing Thursday on a Bergren bill that would include local shipping costs in the formula used to calculate railroad property taxes. If Montana shipping costs were level with average costs nationwide, there would be no net effect on railroad taxes. But if Montana's costs were higher than those in other places, which is generally the case, railroad property taxes would be higher.
That money might go to reimburse producers, Bergren said, but the tax law would more likely be a tool for bringing Burlington Northern Santa Fe to the bargaining table.
One member of the audience noted that it was cheaper to ship through Montana than from Montana.
Tester, who is the Senate president, explained that Montana is a captive rail market because of a lack of competition.
"We need to put the industry's feet to the fire," Bergren said.
As for beef, Tester told the people assembled, "The feds have got the big stick here."
USDA on Monday plans to open the U.S.-Canadian border to imports of young cattle as well as an expanded list of beef parts, including those from older cattle. Now, only boneless beef from younger animals is allowed.
Younger animals are considered less at risk for the brain-wasting disease BSE because they were born after 1997, when both Canada and the United States banned grinding up cattle parts for cattle feed.
One of Bergren's bills would require retailers to label beef they sell with the country of origin or to tell people if the origin is unknown.
Retailers have objected to the bill, saying they would not feel comfortable selling a product with an "origin unknown" label. Bergren said he would feel the same, and that's why he is confident retailers would find out the origin.
Resident Bob Kaul said farmers and ranchers cannot afford rising diesel costs. Other people in the audience agreed, but lawmakers said no legislation this year addresses that problem.
Tester summarized the progress of legislation that would fund repairs to the St. Mary Diversion, which supplies water to the Milk River.
"Water is the topic of discussion at the Legislature this year," Tester said. He authored a resolution asking the federal government for repair money. He also said that other legislation in the Senate had set aside $10 million for the project.
A Windy Boy bill would establish a permanent water treatment trust fund for water polluted by the Zortman and Landusky mine sites. Windy Boy said his bill would assure that clean water will still be available for residents in the area for years to come.
Health care, education and the economy are other topics addressed in bills sponsored by area legislators. A Windy Boy bill would expand enrolled tribal members' eligibility for Medicaid, which he said would be better for the state, since Medicaid comes from federal, not state, tax dollars.
Windy Boy is also sponsoring a resolution that would encourage tribal colleges to collaborate with other local universities on agriculture projects including mosquito, cattle and noxious weed research.
Tester has sponsored a bill, scheduled for a hearing on Thursday, that would protect consumers from bogus prescription drug plans, as well as two bills that promote renewable energy sources.
An ethanol bill sponsored by Bergren was tabled in committee, but a similar bill in the Senate could mean new state support for ethanol on the same scale Bergren proposed.
As for education, Tester said he's been guiding education bills through the Senate that respond to a Supreme Court ruling last year that the state's funding system is unconstitutional. The Senate has proposed a definition of quality education as well as $70 million in funding increases, he said.
"I want to do enough this session, if not more than enough, to make sure the court is going to leave this" in the hands of the Legislature, Tester said.
He said he hopes the Legislature continues to deserve the responsibility.