T-rex fossil at Museum of the Rockies. Credit: Alan Moore / flickr

HELENA — While cold temperatures grip most of Montana, things are heating up at the state Capitol. Reclaiming old mines, helping hemp growers, luring Hollywood, and “Dueling Dinosaurs” are among the topics lawmakers will debate this week.

Dinosaur fossils could get freed from legal battle

In 2005, Lige and Mary Ann Murray bought a ranch in a remote part of eastern Montana. One year later, a neighbor stumbled upon one of the most extraordinary fossil discoveries ever unearthed.  

Dubbed the “Dueling Dinosaurs,” the find includes two specimens locked in a fight to the death. The plant-eating ceratopsian dinosaur and meat-eating dwarf t-rex were perfectly preserved from teeth to tail. The dinosaurs remained buried together for 66 million years, preserved in Montana’s fossil-rich Hells Creek Formation. Now that they’re excavated, the Dueling Dinosaurs could be worth as much as $9 million.

But there’s a problem. When the Murrays purchased their property, the previous owners retained two-thirds of the mineral rights. Those past owners, brothers Jerry and Robert Severson, argue they’re entitled to partial ownership of the Dueling Dinosaurs. A district court ruled that dinosaur fossils don’t meet the definition of “mineral” under Montana law. Last year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed.

Rep. Bradley Hamlett, D-Cascade, is bringing a bill that could settle the skirmish. House Bill 229 revises Montana code to specify that fossils are not minerals, meaning a property holder owns any dinosaurs dug up on their land. The House Natural Resources Committee will hear the bill at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 6, in Room 172.  

Bill sets priorities for mine cleanup projects

House Bill 7 channels $2.7 million in grant funds for mine reclamation projects across the state. The projects are ranked by priority and include cleanups at the Bair-Collins Mine and Musselshell River, the Ninemile Creek Mine in Missoula County, a train roundhouse in Harlowton, the Silver King Mine in Granite, a roundhouse in Powell County, and contamination removal at the Upper Blackfoot Mining Complex.

The bill earmarks no more than $500,000 in grants for each project. The funds come from taxes on oil and gas production, coal severance tax proceeds, groundwater assessment taxes, and the Resource Indemnity Trust Fund.

HB 7 is sponsored by Rep. Jim Keane, D-Butte, and was requested by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Long-Range Planning will hear the bill at 9:30 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 4, in Room 317B.

Lawmakers pore over brewery and distillery rules

Beer aficionados could have a couple more hours to enjoy local brews if House Bill 185 garners enough support. The law would allow tasting rooms for small breweries to keep their doors open until 10 p.m. instead of 8 p.m. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish. The House Business and Labor Committee will have a hearing on HB 185 at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 5, in Room 172.

In the Senate, lawmakers are mulling over spirits. Senate Bill 182 would bump up a microdistillery’s liquor production volume cap from 25,000 gallons to 200,000 gallons a year. The change might also allow more distillers to offer tasting rooms. Montana businesses qualifying as “micro” distilleries can offer samples from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and sell their products on site. Bigger distillers must sell and distribute their libations through the Montana Department of Revenue Alcoholic Beverage Control Division — no on-site sales or samples are allowed. SB 182 is sponsored by Sen. Kenneth Bogner, R-Miles City, and will have a hearing in the Senate Business, Labor, and Economic Affairs Committee at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 6, in Room 422.

Three bills make hay out of hemp legalization

The 2018 Farm Bill decriminalized hemp production in the U.S., and a trio of bills could give Montana’s growers some extra encouragement. Senate Bill 178 would grant a tax exemption to hemp processing machinery, similar to the exemptions allowed for industrial dairy and canola oil processing facilities. The bill will have a hearing in the Senate Taxation Committee at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 6, in Room 405.

Senate Bill 176 would allow the Montana Department of Agriculture to create a hemp certification program, establishing laboratory testing guidelines and marketing Montana-grown hemp products. Senate Bill 177 would nix background check requirements for licensed hemp growers. Both bills will be heard by the Senate Agriculture, Livestock, and Irrigation Committee at 3 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 7, in Room 335.

All three hemp bills are sponsored by Sen. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls.

Montana could be the backdrop for more movies

Montana used to have a tax incentive to lure filmmakers to the state — the Big Sky on the Big Screen Act. That act sunset in 2015, but House Bill 293 would work to bring back the blockbuster business, along with all the local jobs it creates.

“I feel like it’s a big industry we’re missing out on,” said bill sponsor Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale. “I’m very proud of the state we live in and think some of the views and landscapes we have are the best around.”

Galt modeled his bill after the incentive program in Georgia, reportedly the top filming location in the world. In 2017, the state reported $9.5 billion in economic returns from the media production industry.

HB 293 offers 20 percent in state tax credits to filmmakers, which tiers up to 35 percent if the production companies hire local Montana workers and university students.

The Governor’s Office of Budget and Planning, however, reports those film tax incentives could mean the state loses up to $20 million in revenue each year, but Galt said that doesn’t mean his bill is in the can.

“I feel like they’re highballing it a little bit,” Galt said of the fiscal note.

The House Taxation Committee will hear HB 293 at 9 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 7, in Room 152.

Leia is an award-winning journalist who has covered the environment and public policy in Colorado, Utah, and Montana. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder.