Montana Stockgrowers Addresses Policy Focus and Priorities during Legislative Session
By Errol Rice, MSGA Executive Vice President
Three overarching policy areas were paramount to Montana Stockgrowers during the 2015 Montana State Legislature – adequate funding for the Department of Livestock, passage of the CSKT Water Compact and the Sage Grouse Conservation Act. Each brought varying degrees of controversy and unwavering points of view by lawmakers and constituents, but we made the lift. There is still work to be done.
Fundamentally, there are three different approaches MSGA could have taken on these issues. We could have just simply reacted and waited to see if we’d be forced to respond to new and unanticipated policies. We could have only monitored and gleaned information to anticipate policy changes. We could have undergone direct participation in the process and shaped policy to minimize threats and advance opportunities. We chose direct participation in the process. This approach is the most costly in terms of resources, but the results in my opinion have yielded the greatest benefit to our industry.
The Department of Livestock budget came together after weeks of negotiations between livestock interests, House Appropriations and the Senate Finance committee. MSGA worked hard on the appropriations process. For months, leading up to the session we have been offering feedback and briefings to legislators on the tightening of costs and revenue projections, adjusting fees, recalibrating Board governance, human resource policies and procedures, and building a long-range plan. MSGA has also focused on vetting and making recommendations to the Bullock administration about appointments to Department’s Board.
The Governor’s nomination of Lila Taylor is a game changer. We supported and stewarded her candidacy through the process. Lila brings over forty years of industry experience along with a foundation in legislative appropriations and sharp understanding of how to serve on high-level boards.
She has served on the Board of Regents and the Montana Board of Public Education just to name a few. We also supported the confirmation of Nina Baucus and reappointment of Brett DeBruycker. Both of whom are stalwarts to the successful future of the DOL.
The CSKT water compact was a very complex policy matter that required intense due diligence by the water committee, Board of Directors, legal counsel and our lobbyists. We had to establish a high degree of confidence that the compact protected historic water rights both on and off the Flathead Reservation. Ratifying an agreement of this magnitude is of course going to draw a level of skepticism by some people.
There are almost no public policy decisions that enjoy unanimous support from all constituents, but as a matter of mitigating our industry’s risk exposure from tribal water claims, this compact needed passage. This proposal still has to go before the U.S. Congress for authorization and this could take years. After that, the CSKT’s tribal council must formally approve it. Following the tribe’s approval, the Montana Water Court must consider it.
In the meantime, the tribe must file their water rights by June 30th of this year. Those claims will be put on hold while Congress takes up the compact. MSGA will continue to be fully engaged at all levels of the compact’s life cycle moving forward.
Since April of 2013 MSGA has been working to develop a Montana solution for the conservation and management of sage grouse with the intent of avoiding a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listing of the bird under the Endangered Species Act. A listing by the USFWS would have a devastating impact to Montana’s livestock economy.
The passage of Senate Bill 261, solidified a mechanism for private landowners to maintain, restore and expand sage grouse habitat. Furthermore, it offers incentives for private landowners to participate as well as provide mitigation options for project developers such as coal, oil and natural gas to meet their regulatory obligations. MSGA has been at the forefront of getting Montana’s plan structured the right way for grazing interests.
Montana’s livestock industry is profoundly affected by public policy decisions. Anybody can be a part of this process but MSGA will continue to build from the bottom up to access key policy makers, providing credible technical information and influence. Political advocacy is not always easy and it is a competitive endeavor but we have to play to win.
I read a piece recently by Stanley McChrystal, who led U.S. forces in Afghanistan and now advises CEOs on leadership. He said that political chiefs handling national security in Washington would benefit from a bit of white-water rafting together. That would build personal relationships that promote cooperation during times of crisis. This is important from my point of view in that political advocacy is not always about making a statement but actually showing that we can develop meaningful relationships and lead on major issues affecting our industry.