Rotunda Roundup From Montana Farmers Union: Legislative Update For Feb. 27-March 3
The farmers and ranchers of Montana Farmers Union believe that voting processes which secure ease and access to voting by all citizens are good policy. Members also oppose undermining the will of the people, as expressed by the public vote.
As such, MFU supported a bill that will provide for automatic voter registration, while also opposing several bills that would have placed unreasonable expectations on election offices and rural budgets and threatened Montana tradition of voting for the candidate not the party.
MFU supported HB 756, which would provide for automatic voter registration with opt-out and was heard in the House State Administration Committee this week.
Rural Montanans, and especially farmers and ranchers, already face the hurdles of long distances required to reach polling places and more time away from work to vote than their urban counterparts.
Automatic voter registration encourages voting, and along with voting processes such as mail-in ballots, ballot drop boxes, early voting, and same-day registration, helps to make the voices of regular Montanans, like farmers and ranchers, heard above the cacophony of messages from high-spending campaigns. Unfortunately, the bill was tabled by the committee.
Both SB 435, which would require hand counting as the primary method of tabulating votes, and SB 484, which would have required party affiliation to vote, were tabled in the Senate State Administration Committee.
Montana has enjoyed secure, well-managed elections for generations. Our elections workers are trusted friends, neighbors and community members whose work has been double and triple checked through post-election audits. No reason has been found to believe that requiring ballots to be hand-counted is a necessary or a more trustworthy method of counting ballots. It is simply more labor intensive and expensive, especially for rural counties, whose budgets are already stretched too thin.
Open primaries are important to MFU members to ensure the candidate with the largest campaign accounts or corporate endorsements won’t automatically be the candidate running in November. Members also value keeping party choice private, as well as the Montana tradition of voting for the person rather than for the party.
SB 472 would have required vote counts to be completed within three hours of polls closing and also was tabled by the Senate State Administration Committee.
MFU members recognize that active participation in the political process is necessary to achieve equity for the agricultural industry. To us, active participation means working with and not against our election administrators. Requiring election administrators to complete the task in only three hours is an unreasonable burden that rural counties can not afford.
Montana Farmers Union also supported and opposed several other bills this week.
HB 475 & SB 347: Unfortunately, both of the right to repair bills were tabled in their respective ag committees. MFU will continue to monitor how other states are tackling the issue.
HB 805: Cooperation is a guidepost of the Farmers Union, along with the other two founding pillars of legislation and education. MFU actively supports patron-owned cooperatives and has since our beginning and played a critical role in the start of our rural electric and telephone cooperatives still relied upon today. This bill would require a business to be legally organized as a cooperative to use the word or any abbreviations. This bill will help protect the strong reputations cooperatives have in the state and prevents consumers and potential shareholders from being misled. The bill will soon be heard by the Senate.
HB 463: Promoting resilient regional food systems and diverse markets is a top priority for Montana Farmers Union. HB 463 provides an opportunity for the state and agricultural producers to cooperate in both developing markets for our goods, and providing fresh, nutritious food to schools and other institutions for which the state procures food. To make this collaboration work, we need to know how much local food is being procured by the state, which the bill calls for reporting of the percentage of Montana foods that is procured. This bill was unfortunately tabled in the House Appropriations committee.
HB 651: Keeping rural communities viable is a core policy goal of MFU. Many, if not most, of farming and ranching families currently rely on income from an outside job to make ends meet, all while they still also work full-time running their farm or ranch. There are times when caring for a child or family member who has become sick or injured would not only threaten the extra income for the family, but be a burden on the employer. Economic security for both workers and employers is sorely needed for the preservation of rural community life and the tradition of independence for farmers living on the family farm. This bill was unfortunately tabled in the House Business and Labor committee.
SB 447: Family Farmers and Ranchers are facing unprecedented challenges to our way of life. Trying to compete with the economics of corporate scale means that our members must diversify and be creative in finding ways to augment low prices and to defray ever-increasing costs. Broadening the definition of agritourism to include U-Pick operations, and clarifying the definition of inherent risk – contained in the amendment – are sensible changes. This bill has passed the Senate and will continue to move through the legislative process.
SJ 13: This bill will designate the month of June as Rangeland Appreciation month. A rangeland appreciation month will help raise awareness of good management practices and educate others about the importance of rangeland. MFU policy on land use urges supporting a farmland and rangeland protection policy to encourage the continuation of farming versus urban development. This resolution will be a step in the right direction for raising awareness on that issue. This resolution has passed the Senate and will continue to move through the legislative process.
SB 399: This bill would support our rural communities, and provide the opportunity and framework for more Montanans to utilize solar energy through community solar. The bill would have provided more options for powering homes and businesses by utilizing solar generated by solar arrays in their community. MFU members have identified that partnering with rural communities and utilities to increase use of renewable energy is important. This bill is a good step in the right direction. The bill was unfortunately tabled.
MFU opposed the following bills:
HB 643: MFU calls upon the Legislature to enact legislation to expand the benefits of net metering. MFU supports allowing multiple meters for effective use of wind/solar systems on farmsteads and for community net metering. HB 643 would stymie these goals in Montana. The new “rate class” for solar customers could result in higher energy rates and new fees. The study which the bill calls for ignores the benefits of rooftop solar to Montana’s grid and forces the PSC to only consider the costs to utility corporations. This would bias the study against the efficiency of rooftop solar, and our members want to instead to expand the benefits of net metering. This bill was tabled in the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations committee.
SB 441: Farmers Union’s members want to promote voting processes which secure the ease of access to voting by all citizens, including mail-in ballots, ballot drop boxes, early voting, convenient access to polling places and same day registration. Prohibiting caregivers, household members and acquaintances to collect a voter’s ballot is a problem in search of a solution. There is no independent evidence of widespread voter fraud in Montana. Rural voters, like farmers and ranchers, might have to travel long distances to get to a polling place, or to a post office. Many of our older friends and neighbors have mobility issues and rely on caregivers, household members and acquaintances to help them turn in their ballots. SB 441 will disenfranchise many rural voters, while providing no demonstrable benefit. The bill’s first hearing was cancelled, and MFU will continue to monitor this bill.
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