A current and a former state senator took opposing positions on a bill that would give the state authority to take land from the federal government using eminent domain.
Greg Jergeson of Chinook, a former Democratic state senator and chair of the state Public Service Commission, told Sen. Rowlie Hutton, R-Havre, that Hutton’s bill could have “dire financial consequences” for Hi-Line farmers and ranchers, as well as overstepping the bounds of the Montana Constitution.
Hutton, speaking Wednesday from Helena during a video conference in Havre, said the bill would allow future legislators to decide whether it is in the best interests of the state to take land from the federal government. He said Utah passed a similar law last year.
He added that recent actions and information from the U.S. Department of the Interior have raised concerns on the Hi-Line about “how much land the federal government is going to take, and what they’re going to do with it.”
A leaked memo last year listed an enormous region in Phillips and Valley counties as one of 16 areas in the nation where the land owned by the federal government could be declared a federal monument, and a recent decision to allow the department to set federal land as wilderness areas, similar to a policy that was canceled during the administration of President George W. Bush.
Hutton said he sees farmers and ranchers from Phillips County in Helena every week expressing their concern over the issue.
“They’re not happy with what’s going on, they’re edgy, they’re nervous,” he said. “I’m not saying this is the complete answer or the totally right answer, but we are listening to the farmers and ranchers.”
Jergeson said a problem with taking land from the federal government — aside from constitutional questions — is that the state is required by its constitution to charge market rates for land leased for use by farmers and ranchers.
That means agricultural producers now leasing land from the Bureau of Land Management could see a doubling, tripling, even quadrupling of the lease costs, Jergeson said.
“Is that really something you think is a good thing to do, shoot yourself in the foot and your own cowboys in the foot over the disagreement with certain policy provisions that BLM may be discussing related to how the land is managed and operated?” Jergeson asked.
Hutton said all the bill would do is give future legislators a way to take land if they believe it is in the state’s best interests.
“They can look at the land in question, they can then determine, is this a good idea or is it not a good idea,” said Hutton, who has announced he will be resigning his seat after the session to take a job as a pastor in Omaha, Neb.
He said the proposed Montana law is following the lead of Utah, which has taken a three-rung approach. As well as passing the law, that state has identified land, primarily in high natural-resource areas, to take and has set up a $3 million legal defense fund for the actions.
He assured the audience that Montana is just following the lead of Utah, and is not setting up a defense fund nor planning to enter any lawsuits.
But Jergeson said the action is counterproductive.
“I don’t think that’s in their interest and I don’t think it’s in the interest of any of the communities up here,” he said. “I don’t know why you didn’t just have a resolution saying, ‘Go, Utah.’”
Hutton said he would never back any action to hurt the farmers and ranchers.
“If it looks like that’s going to happen I’ll back off quicker than you can imagine, however, this looks like it could be beneficial for that state of Montana.”
Havreite Rick Dow told Jergeson that there is support for the bill.
“This perpetual encroachment on state lands by the federal government, be it monuments or back-door policies so that you look and set aside lands without the formal process … so you’ve got support up here,” Dow said.
Jergeson said there are other problems. The Montana Constitution expressly says the state can use eminent domain over private land — not federal.
Because Hutton’s bill doesn’t change the constitution, future legislators won’t be able to take action on the bill, he said.
Hutton said he did not draft the bill on his own — legal counsel has said it may be a long shot, but it could benefit the state.
“One thing I have noticed in Helena is, if you have a one-page bill and two lawyers, you get three different opinions,” he added.