Monday was a tough day for state Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, as he watched Republicans defeat all five of his amendments increasing natural resource funding.
As the state Legislature works toward passing a state budget for the next two years – known as House Bill 2 - Monday was the day for the full Senate to hear all final amendments. Phillips sponsored six of the dozen amendments proposed for Section C of the budget, which funds departments overseeing aspects of natural resources.
Phillip's Amendment 6 was another push-back against the threat of federal-land transfer. It would have allotted an additional $50,000 a year out of the General Fund to the Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks under its Communication and Education Division for an initiative to promote the value of federal public lands in Montana.
“This simply aims to say federal public lands have great value for the following reasons and make those reasons known to residents of the state. There is great confusion over the value of these lands because I think (residents) think that we’re unclear about those values,” Phillips said.
Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, stood to counter the amendment, citing a public lands rally held in the capitol rotunda on Jan. 30, which attracted more than 1,000 Montanans.
“It seems that the bill is intended to provide state resources to promote the kind of rally that was held in this capitol that was based upon an absolute lie,” Fielder said. “The rally was telling people that the state was trying to sell off public lands or that some greedy politicians were trying to sell off public lands. And that kind of demagogy is not healthy for a public lands debate or discussion.”
Fielder said she would also be proposing an amendment to a bill proposing a Public Lands Day that would state that the day is intended to be “informational and not political.”
Fielder is the CEO of the Utah-based American Lands Council, which promotes the transfer of federal land to the states. After being an active member of ALC, she took over from Utah Rep. Ken Ivory in 2016 after Ivory ran into legal trouble.
Amendment 6 went down on a 17-32 vote.
GOP resistance toward wildlife or public land education is evident in a paragraph of the budget saying that FWP will have to defend its Communication and Education Division spending in two years when the Legislature considers FWP’s next four-year budget. FWP will also have to justify its spending on stat parks.
Phillips proposed Amendment 1 to eliminate that paragraph but the amendment also went down on a 17-32 vote.
Amendment 7 would have tried to protect FWP warden’s pay by shuffling the proportions provided by two pots of money – the state special fund containing sportsmen’s dollars and one containing federal dollars. Usually, sportsmen’s dollars cover the bulk, around 93 percent, of law enforcement funding and that’s the way HB2 was originally written in December. The original budget slated the special fund to pay more than $11 million while federal funds contributed only about $667,000.
However, by mid-session, the proportions were close to 50-50, which could leave wardens high and dry if federal funding decreases.
Usually, federal dollars come from the Pittman-Robertson Act, which allows the government to collect and distribute a tax on the sale of firearms and ammunition. For the past eight years, while the National Rifle Association repeated their threat that the Obama Administration would ban guns, sales skyrocketed along with tax revenues in spite of the fact that no ban was proposed.
Now that the GOP are in power, the bottom has dropped out on firearm demand so it’s likely that Pittman-Robertson fund distributions will be much smaller. That means many FWP programs will probably take a hit. If wardens’ paychecks are linked mostly to federal money, they’ll take a hit too. That would be devastating at a time when FWP is already struggling to keep wardens.
Fortunately, the Senate committee had improved the proportions to 80-20 by the end of March.
On Monday, Phillips tried to amend HB2 to bring drop the federal proportion back to 7 percent but the amendment failed.
Rising one more time, Phillips also tried to add another $50,000 a year to the Conservation and Resource Development Division of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The DNRC must now oversee the expanded Aquatic Invasive Species Response as a result of the zebra-mussel findings last fall in Tiber and Canyon Ferry Reservoirs. But that amendment also failed.
Bolstering critical FWP, DEQ or DNRC funding was a tough row to hoe this year for state Democrats. Republicans are unlikely to make it any easier in 2018.