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Published March 04, 2013, 10:06 AM

Legislative roundup

The second part of Agweek’s two-part state ag legislation series summarizes bills pending in North Dakota and Montana.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

BISMARCK, N.D. — Agriculture committees in the North Dakota Legislature have had relatively few bills to deal with this session. Bills involving animal cruelty laws and wetland management are among the high-profile measures.

State Sen. Joe Miller, R-Park River, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, says passing a more effective animal cruelty state law is vital after the defeat of an initiated measure last November, which was financially backed by the Humane Society of the United States.

“It’s not going to be perfect, but I think it’s important we pass something that cleans up the code,” Miller says. “We need to make it clear and we need to stiffen up the penalties for the most egregious offenses.”

The bill, SB 2211, whose primary sponsor is former Senate Agriculture chair Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo, passed the Senate Feb. 8 by a 45-0 vote. On Feb. 15, it was assigned to the House Agriculture Committee. A hearing will be held March 7, immediately after crossover.

The animal cruelty bill stepped up penalties from two misdemeanors to a felony for a third offense within 10 years. In committee, the bill was changed from requiring “adequate care” to language penalizing “neglect.”

Miller, who raises corn, beans and wheat, but has an uncle in cattle production, says his committee wanted to make sure it “protects animal agriculture” and “doesn’t criminalize normal practices in any way — not now and not in the future.” Changes were worked out with the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, as well as the state agriculture department and North Dakota Farm Bureau and Farmers Union representatives.

Dennis Johnson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, says his committee handled about 15 bills. Of those, 10 were most closely related to agriculture and some could have been assigned to the transportation or natural resources committees. Some of the bills are simply housekeeping to improve languages.

“Things are pretty good on the farm right now,” says Johnson, who farms west of Devils Lake with a brother and a son. “I think the message is, just leave us alone and let us farm.” Johnson says it’s an “exciting” time for agriculture in his area, with the lake dropping 3 feet in the past summer and healthy commodity prices.

Here is a listing of some of the key bills and their statuses:

•HB 1247 — Wetland banking program. This bill is led by sponsors Reps. Jim Schmidt, R-Huff, Wes Belter, R-Leonard, as well as Sens. Jim Dotzenrod, D-Wyndmere, and Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown. It would establish a wetlands “bank” for acre-to-acre mitigation on drainage projects for farmers and others. The bill passed the House 87-1 on Feb. 15.

Dan Wogsland, executive director of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association, a key group backing the bill, says if a farmer has excess mitigation acres, he or she can list them with the North Dakota Department of Agriculture and if someone is looking for “credits” or “mitigation acres,” they can consult the list and obtain the mitigation acres.

“We think that’s going to foster more mitigation in the state of North Dakota, and at the same time it gives farmers the opportunity to get some credit for things that they’re already doing,” Wogsland says.

•HB 1399 — Wetland delineation. The bill asks North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem to consider suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on behalf of farmers and ranchers to define what wetland delineations and easements are in the state. The bill involves farmer conflicts with the federal agency, but also counties that want to restore a road bed connected to a wetland easement, says Rep. Craig Headland, R-Montpelier, one of the prime sponsors.

The NDGGA also is backing this one and says there is “horror story after horror story not only in agriculture, but the coal industry and other people have problems with having USFWS define what they have an easement on and what they don’t.” Headland says he doubts there is another contractual situation in the nation where there are similar terms and stipulations.

Rep. Michael Brandenburg, R-Edgeley, says lands that are being certified as wetlands today were largely farmed prior to a recent wet trend that started in 1993. Some farmers who have tried to clean out wetland drains have been asked to pay back 15 years of government farm price support payments.

“People are leaving the farm program,” Brandenburg says. “The payments are very little and they’re saying, ‘Hey, I don’t need to deal with this.’”

•HB 1277 — Fertilizer dilution. This bill increases penalties for people selling fertilizer who purposely dilute or pass off inferior fertilizer. The bill initially increased penalties from $25 per instance to $10,000, but the amount was reduced to $5,000 per instance. The North Dakota Agriculture Association is in favor of the penalties.

•HB 1342 — Ag trucking permits. Under current law, a farmer can purchase a 10 percent over-the-limit harvest permit for $50 a month. It also allows travel from a “temporary initial storage site to a commercial storage site.” It also expands the exception beyond specific crops, extending the permit to all “agricultural products,” allowing loads to exceed weight limits by 10 percent from July 15 to Dec. 1. The bill passed the House 93-0 and moved to the Senate on Feb. 25.

•HB 1322 — Game and Fish land purchases. The bill stipulates that if the North Dakota Game and Fish Department attempts to purchase land, it first must give notice to the surrounding community. It passed the House 94-0 and was assigned to the Senate Natural Resources Committee Feb. 12.

•HB 1326 — Commercial feed manufacture. The bill offers an extensive “housekeeping” rewrite of the laws regarding commercial feed manufacturers. The state law is being changed to mirror federal regulations, Johnson says. It passed the House 94-0 on Feb. 5 and was assigned to the Senate Agriculture Committee on Feb. 12.

•HB 1403 — Pre-paid input protection. This bill would have established an interim study on whether and how the state should institute farmer protections for insolvencies, especially if the farmer has pre-paid for chemical and fertilizer purchases. On Feb. 18, the House Agriculture Committee recommended a “do not pass” on an 8-3 vote and the full House voted down an amended version 22-69. Johnson says a pre-pay position offers an advantage to the buyer, so protecting those positions would not be practical.

•HB 1390 — Liability limits on aerial applicators. This would have increased aerial applicator liability limits to keep pace with increased agricultural commodity prices. The House Agriculture Committee recommended a “do not pass” and the House killed it Feb. 21 on a 4-87 vote. Opponents say the liability insurance must be cost-prohibitive.

•HB 1154 — Soil classifiers. This bill reduces the recommendation requirements for becoming a professional soil classifier. The bill passed the House 89-0 and was introduced in the Senate Agriculture Committee on Feb. 12. The demand for classifiers is up because of the need for tiling projects and wetland identification, among other things.

Mont. considers ag protections

Issues in the Montana Legislature’s 63rd Session sound similar to those that have been tackled in North Dakota in recent months and years.

Sen. Frederick Moore, R-Miles City, vice chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation Committee, will decide whether to introduce SB 300, which asks for a Nov. 14, 2014, referendum vote on modern agricultural practices.

Written to be similar to a North Dakota constitutional amendment passed in November, Moore’s bill draft calls for a constitutional amendment giving farmers the “right to engage in modern farming and ranching practices.”

As drafted, the bill would guarantee that no law can abridge the “right of farmers and ranchers to employ agricultural technology and modern livestock production and ranching practices.” To go to a vote, an amendment would require two-thirds majority of the Legislature. Moore says there is disagreement within the agricultural community over how much it would cost in public information campaigns to pass the bill, and how much opposition they’d see from “anti-ag” groups.

Moore, whose family is in the farming, ranch and feedlot business, also is listed as a prime sponsor for SB 349, which creates a Grain Indemnity Fund to reimburse farmers in insolvencies. It is an attempt to provide farmers with some protections in commodity broker insolvencies, after a defeat of a House attempt to raise bonding levels.

Under this bill, Montana would establish an assessment on grain sales that would create “contract indemnity accounts to reimburse unsatisfied contracts for grain.” The assessment rate in the bill is two-tenths of 1 percent of the amount of grain sales contracts, paid by the seller. The account would be capped at $10 million for small grains, $1.5 million for pulse crops and $500,000 for oilseeds. If a grain seller becomes insolvent, the state could reimburse up to 80 percent of a contract, or up to $280,000, whichever is less. Moore says this kind of idea may need to be introduced in the House.

Meanwhile, HB 344 continues to move forward, despite the fact that grain marketing bonding increases were stripped from it. Rep. Brian Hoven, R-Great Falls, sponsor of the bill, says a farmer should suffer no penalty if he cancels deliveries to a commodity dealer that has filed bankruptcy. That bill passed the House 94-4, but only after Hoven’s proposed bond increases were cut out of it.

Hoven, a farm equipment dealer in Great Falls, had wanted to increase bond requirements to 5 percent of the previous year’s grain purchases or a $3 million cap — up from the current level of 2 percent of previous year’s grain handle, and a $3 million cap. Hoven says Montana Grain Growers Association officials are concerned about protections, given the high price of grain.

Here are other ag-related bills and their statuses:

•HB 52 — Agriculture in schools. This legislation renames Agriculture in Montana Schools Program to Agriculture Literacy in Montana. It is awaiting gubernatorial signature.

•HB 114 — “Garbage” for livestock feeding. This bill defines whether garbage includes animal products. It was passed by both the House and Senate, and is awaiting the governor’s signature.

•HB 115 — Slaughterhouse regulations. The bill allows “alternative livestock” ranch animals and rabbits to be slaughtered where cattle, buffalo, sheep, swine or goats are slaughtered. It passed the House 97-0 and Senate 42-6, and awaits the governor’s signature.

•HB 149 — Revise ditch easement. The bill would have allowed relocation or alteration of a ditch or canal without owner permission under certain conditions. It was tabled (killed) on Feb. 22.

•HB 189 — Hail insurance maximums. The bill increases the maximum amounts for hail insurance, but cuts the fees collected by the Department of Revenue for administrative costs. It passed the House 86-13 on Feb. 18 and has been referred to the Senate Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation Committee.

•HB 346 — Dyed fuel. This bill allows a farm vehicle using “dyed special fuel” with a tax break for farm use to operate on a public road or highway if the vehicle is primarily used for farm or ranch operations. The law would allow on-road use for repairs, to pick up supplies or inputs or if the use is “strictly incidental.” The bill passed the House 72-27 on Feb. 12.

•HB 420 — Food and agricultural centers. The bill says the state must fund a network of Montana food and agricultural development centers, but removes language that there must be four of them. The centers foster value-added projects, including “farm-derived renewable enterprises.” The bill passed the House 69-31 on Feb. 16 and is now in House Appropriations.

•HB 471 — Farm-to-School. This legislation provides $300,000 for the biennium in grants for schools to procure food products produced or processed in Montana and “containing at least 50 percent Montana-produced ingredients.” It is pending in the House Agriculture Committee, where no vote has been taken.

•SB 144 — Noxious Weed Trust. The bill would prohibit the Montana Department of Agriculture from applying for or receiving grant awards from the Noxious Weed Management Grant fund, and prohibits the department from using more than 12 percent of the fund proceeds for administering the funds. It passed the Senate 47-2 on Feb. 7 and is scheduled for a House Agriculture Committee hearing March 12.

•SB 211 — Beef checkoff. This bill clarifies that the Montana Department of Livestock is entitled to 5 percent of beef checkoff funds for its services of collecting the national beef checkoff, but says that the department needn’t collect the funds if its costs exceed the 5 percent. The bill passed the Senate 49-1 on Feb. 12 and is scheduled for a House Agriculture Committee hearing on March 5.

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