After passing its final legislative vote 49-1, a bill seeking to adjust how $50 million of recreational marijuana taxes are distributed is headed to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk for his consideration.
Senate Bill 442 began as a “kind of controversial bill,” according to its sponsor, Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta. But during a press conference Monday afternoon at the Capitol, Lang said the version of the bill that passed the Legislature Monday will benefit both Montana’s wildlife and the people who call Montana home, “from our strongest to our weakest.”
SB 442 initially sought to redirect marijuana tax revenue from wildlife habitat conservation to county road construction and maintenance under the premise that improving county roads would give hunters, anglers and other recreationists better access to rural areas, and shore up the rural roads agricultural producers rely on to get their products to market.
Wildlife advocates balked at the early version of SB 442, arguing that stripping funding from Habitat Montana, a 30-year-old wildlife habitat acquisition initiative often described as Montana’s “premier habitat program,” would flaunt the will of voters, who passed an adult-use marijuana initiative in 2020 specifying that 37% of marijuana tax collections would go toward wildlife habitat. In 2021, lawmakers brought the wildlife habitat allocation down to 20% with the passage of House Bill 701, a 151-page bill that implemented Initiative 190.
Lang worked with stakeholders on his bill and rejiggered SB 442 so that big chunks of money would go toward three primary funding pots: the General Fund, county roads and the Habitat Legacy Account, a new account that seeks to increase the pace and scale of wildlife habitat improvement projects on both public and private land. Smaller allocations will also be set aside for addiction treatment, veteran’s services, non-game wildlife programming, and state park and trails funding.
The revised proposal found lots of support, both among lobbyists and lawmakers. Industry groups ranging from the Montana Stockgrowers Association to the Montana Petroleum Association registered their support for the measure, as did conservation organizations such as Wild Montana, Helena Hunters and Anglers, and the Citizen’s Elk Management Coalition. It also found favor with county commissioners and the Montana Association of Counties, which celebrated the potential for a new, stable funding source for county roads.
Two proposals with competing visions for the tens of millions in taxes that Montana collects annually on the sale of recreational marijuana are still making their way through the Legislature as lawmakers work to set a two-year state budget.
The lone opponent during an April committee hearing on the bill was Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, who took issue with some wording about the allocation associated with the Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program. Department leadership said allowing an advisory committee to steer FWP’s funding decisions could jeopardize some of its federal allocations.
That language issue was fixed with an amendment in the House, but the department’s soft opposition to the measure hints at another hurdle that could stand between SB 442 and its codification in Montana law: the approval of the governor. According to Republican legislative leadership, Gianforte has indicated he might veto the measure, which differs from his own spending priorities. Gianforte has consistently maintained that funding for Habitat Montana is in good shape while other state initiatives could use more support.
During the Capitol press conference, Lang touted the collaboration and “inspiration” that went into the bill, while others spoke to the compromise woven into the measure.
“Our county roads are being used more than ever now,” Montana Association of Counties President Roman Zylawy said. “Recreation and agriculture are part of our Montana way of life and this bill recognizes the importance of — and the need for — integration of all through an investment in our county roads. … The Montana Association of Counties thanks you all and we encourage, with the utmost respect, Gov. Gianforte to sign SB 442 and provide ongoing investment in our county roads.”
House Bill 669, a competing proposal to funnel nearly all of the marijuana tax collections toward the General Fund, was tabled in a Senate committee on April 26. A House Appropriations Committee-backed amendment to a “generally revise marijuana laws” bill that would have allocated significant percentages of the tax collections toward the General Fund, the Habitat Legacy Fund, addiction treatment and the Department of Justice, but none to county roads or other FWP-administered programs for parks and trails, failed to find sufficient House support last week.
This story was updated May 2, 2023, to correct the percentage of marijuana tax revenue proposed for Habitat Montana distribution according to the text of Initiative 190.
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