(Missoula Current) Conservationists are anticipating another legislative battle over funding for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks after seeing a draft budget from the governor’s office.
After Gov. Greg Gianforte released his proposed budget last week, some Montanans were disappointed to see conservation programs weren’t receiving as much funding as they expected.
The governor’s proposed budget for the next biennium, which runs from June 2023 to June 2025, fails to provide three FWP programs with the full amount of funding that voters authorized in 2020 via the constitutional initiative.
It’s not a lack of money in Montana’s coffers. In June, the Legislative Fiscal Division released a detailed report forecasting a $1.7 billion surplus by the start of the next biennium thanks to the past two years of federal stimulus programs, pandemic-fuelled population growth, and a rising stock market in 2021 and more inflation.
According to the report, however, revenue will decline in fiscal 2023, although that likely won’t be the case for marijuana sales.
“It’s disappointing,” Marne Hayes, Business for Montana’s outdoors director, said in a press release. “The Montaner have made it clear that they want more targeted financial investments for our nature. We will continue to push for strong investment in the outdoor economy that so many businesses and communities depend on.”
In November 2020, Montanans passed Constitutional Initiative 190 with about 57% of the vote, which legalized recreational marijuana for adults but also introduced a 20% sales tax that went into effect in January 2022.
Under the initiative, the state’s general fund would receive 10.5% of taxpayers’ money, and about half the rest would go to public land programs, including state parks, FWP’s Habitat Montana Fund, and other wildlife programs.
But the 2021 Legislature changed that somewhat with House Bill 701. After the Legislature earmarked $6 million for Gianforte’s Cure and Ending Addiction Through Recovery and Treatment program, the Legislature gave 20% of the balance to Habitat Montana — instead nearly 40% promised in CI-190 – and 4% each for state parks and the non-game wildlife program.
While early estimates predicted the tax would raise $48 million annually within five years of the initiative, state estimates now project total revenue of $171 million for the next biennium, nearly double original projections. Based on this, conservationists say about $50 million should go to FWP under HB701.
But Gianforte’s proposed budget doesn’t follow HB701 rules for splitting marijuana taxpayer dollars, according to an analysis highlighted by three organizations: Business for Montana’s Outdoors, Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and Wild Montana.
In the governor’s budget proposal, it appears that Habitat Montana will not receive any taxpayer money. The budget brings Habitat Montana’s total allocation to $12 million, up 3.8% from the last biennium. But all of the state money — $9.65 million — comes from athlete licensing dollars.
FWP’s Habitat Montana program has long provided FWP with funds to purchase shelter easements and acquire title to land to maintain quality wildlife habitat. Most recently, Habitat Montana’s money helped buy nearly 9 square miles of a wildlife sanctuary in the foothills of the Big Snowy Mountain south of Lewistown.
“The proposed 3.8% increase in Habitat Montana’s account is a good starting point that can eventually increase,” said John Sullivan, executive chairman of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “We think it’s important for Gov. Gianforte to use projected public access cannabis revenue, as voters intended, to fulfill his promise to improve Montana’s public access situation.”
The proposed budget gives the other two FWP programs some taxpayer money, but not the 4% mandated in HB701. The Non-Game Wildlife Program and Montana State Parks would each receive about $1 million in tax revenue per year, about $4 million less than they were each supposed to receive.
Non-wild wildlife program biologists care for a large number of Montana species, from sap suckers to porcupines. They can be overlooked in an agency that depends on big game animals for revenue.
Montana State Parks must have the resources to manage and maintain 55 state parks. In addition, a recent FWP reorganization requires the department to now also oversee fishing access points and wildlife management areas.
Another 4% of tax dollars should go to trails and recreation. Based on this proposed budget, it is unknown if marijuana tax revenue will be added to Montana’s Trail Stewardship Grant program.
This isn’t the first time Gianforte has written conservation programs out of budget. Two years ago, its 22-23 budget gave no marijuana tax money to FWP programs. However, the executive branch’s budget proposal may vary widely from what the legislature finally approves.
“Our goal over the next year will be to ensure that all of these funds are accounted for in the final budget so they can be used as intended to support state parks and public trails and improve our hunting, fishing, hiking and camping opportunities.” .” said Noah Marion, Wild Montana’s policy director.
Gianforte said he wants to use the surplus to reduce income and wealth taxes by $1 billion. His budget reduces the income tax rate most Montanans pay from 6.5% to 5.9% and would cut property taxes by $500 million over the next two years.
He would also increase the business equipment tax exemption from $300,000 to $1 million. Such changes could weigh on the budget once the government runs out of surplus, some analysts say.
But Gianforte also proposes doubling the state’s rainy day fund. According to the Pew Charitable Trust, the fund is currently said to hold $117 million, which would keep the state going for about 16 days.
“While our budget is historic for its tax cuts and critical, prudent investments, our budget is also fiscally responsible,” Gianforte said in a press release.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at [email protected]