YOUR BOOTS ON THE HILL: Spending stimulus money in Montana, studying its impact on agriculture
Montana Farm Bureau Federation
Conversations at the Capitol have taken a turn this week to focus on strategy for spending federal funding brought to Montana from The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The American Rescue Plan Act is the Biden Administration’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package.
The nearly $3 billion in funding is roughly equal to our state’s typical annual budget, so the legislators have a big job to do in strategically and thoughtfully distributing the money. They’re handling this money – marked as House Bill 632: Implement receipt of and appropriate federal stimulus and COVID recovery funds – much like they do our state budget bills. They’re breaking into various subcommittees to study the behemoth bill and determine the biggest needs in the state.
We spent a large part of our time this week in those subcommittee rooms, listening to the legislators’ discussion and offering suggestions, insights and priorities that would help Montana’s farmers and ranchers. We answered a lot of questions in one of these subcommittee hearings concerning the Cooperative Interstate Shipment (CIS) program. CIS is a United States Department of Agriculture-Food Safety Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS)-approved framework that exists to allow states with certain standards and designations to ship state-inspected meat across state lines.
In order to be eligible for this existing program, Montana’s Department of Livestock would have to pursue CIS certification and offer state-inspected processing plants the opportunity for CIS certification. Part of the conversation was to explore if some of the federal stimulus money could be used to help pay for these additional certifications and otherwise have a positive impact on meat marketing avenues and opportunities for Montana ranchers.
Your Farm Bureau lobbyists continue to advocate for other big priorities when it comes to spending, just like we did earlier in the session. We spent a lot of time in early budgetary meetings advocating for funding for our Montana Agricultural Experiment Stations, a new Veterinary Diagnostic Lab and a new Wool Lab. There is potential for more of these large projects to be funded with stimulus money instead of bonding.
Another important issue this funding could affect is rural broadband connectivity in our state. This has long been an important issue for Montana’s farmers and ranchers, and Montana Farm Bureau has clear policy on the value we see in supporting greater connectivity in the country. The Montana legislature is approaching this topic with wise care. Appropriations Committee Chairman Llew Jones has noted that while we can all agree that enhanced rural broadband connectivity is an important effort for Montanans to support, we need specific ideas and real, on-the-ground solutions to effectively implement better connectively. The key questions are, “Who needs it most, and how do we get the money on the ground most efficiently without duplicating service where it’s not truly needed?”
We share all these thoughts with a cautionary note – there are still a lot of unknowns in how this money can and should be spent. While many of our big agricultural priorities could be positively impacted by this funding, we still have a lot of work to do to fully understand what strings may be attached to the funding and what parameters are in place for its uses. We’ll continue to advocate for Montana agriculture and let our decision makers know throughout the process what our priorities are.
We also know we have time to make these decisions wisely. Not all the federal money has to be allocated during this legislative session. While there is a sense of urgency to get the conversations started right now, we don’t want to get in a rush and just throw money at problems because we have it. We have a lot of confidence in this legislative body, as well as the Governor and his administration, and know they will take a critical look at this funding and spend it with organization and efficiency for the long-term benefit of our state. It’s our job to be available throughout that process to answer questions and advocate for what we know are important issues to rural Montana.
In other legislative news, Montana Farm Bureau was proud to support several members as appointees to state boards and leadership. Gallatin County Farm Bureau member Jake Feddes and Fergus County Farm Bureau member Greg Wichman have been appointed to the Montana Board of Livestock. Hill, Liberty, Blaine County Farm Bureau member Vince Mattson has been appointed to the Board of Hail Insurance. We supported each of these nominees in their Senate confirmation hearings on March 18 and were pleased that the committee took action the same day to confirm them.
For more legislative updates and details on these issues, follow our Live with Your Lobbyist broadcast each Friday at noon on our Montana Farm Bureau Facebook Page.
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In response to the severe drought conditions in the West and Great Plains, the Agriculture Department this week announced that plans to help cover the cost of transporting feed for livestock that rely on grazing.