Governor signs Wilson, Melle bills on pet treats, child support

 

Havre Daily News/Derek Hann

Rep. Jacob Bachmeier, D-Havre, left, Paul Tuss, second from right and Keeley Wilson, right, look on as Stewart Wilson presents Gov. Steve Bullock with two bags of Keeley Wilson's Ladybug Bites dog treats. Stewart Wilson made the presentation after Bullock signed into law a bill sponsored by Bachmeier reducing licensing and registration expenses for small pet treat businesses like Keeley Wilson's.

HELENA - During the 2019 legislative session two Havre women made their voices heard in Helena, and Gov. Steve Bullock signed into law Tuesday two bills they requested.

Havreite Keeley Wilson, owner of Ladybug Bites, and Andrea Melle, divorced mother of two adults with autistism spectrum disorders spoke to their local representative about the bills that they wanted to see in the Legislature.

Rep. Jacob Bachmeier introduced House Bill 607, which eliminates the cost of the licenses and lowers the product registration fee to $25 to register 20 products, if the business' annual sales are $25,000 or less at Keeley Wilson's request. The 20 products will still have to be analyzed and tested but at no additional cost.

Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, sponsored and Bachmeier co-sponsored House Bill 726 for Andrea Melle's request, extending the period of child support obligations at children with disabilities when the custodial parent is the caregiver.

Keeley Wilson and her father, Stewart Wilson, traveled to Helena for the bill signing ceremony. Andrea Melle was unable to attend the signing of her bill due to her obligations to her children.

Melle said that she would have liked to make it to the ceremony, but her children take priority.

"The main thing is that it gets signed," Melle said.

Regulating small pet treat businesses

Seven months after first receiving a letter from the Montana Department of Agriculture, Keeley Wilson, owner of the homemade pet treat business Ladybug Bites, watched first-hand as Gov. Steve Bullock signed House Bill 607 into law.

HB 607 was the first bill signed by the governor Tuesday.

"Are these made out of ladybugs?" Bullock asked, teasing Keeley as he signed the bill.

Stewart Wilson, Keeley's father, handed Bullock two bags of dog treats after he signed the bill. Wilson said that he knew that Bullock had two dogs and thought that it would be a good gift.

The Wilsons asked Rep. Jacob Bachmeier, D-Havre, to sponsor the bill to reduce restrictions on small-scale pet treat businesses.

Keeley Wilson, who has Williams Syndrome, operates her business in the front of the business of her mother, Dottie Wilson, The Infinity Bake Shoppe.

Keeley and her family received a letter in November from the Montana Department of Agriculture, informing her that she was in violation of the law, and she had to obtain a license and register each one of her products. If she didn't, further action would need to be taken, the letter said. The license would cost $100 and the registration was $50 for each product. For her small business, that was an exorbitant amount of money and threatened to close her business.


Stewart Wilson said that he and Keeley produce their treats at home and the letter that they received in November stated that Keeley needed to register each on of her products to be analyzed for accrued protein, fat, moisture and fiber.

"It was quite a process to get that registered," he added.

Wilson said his daughter has registered 13 of her products and will be going off of the old program until the end of the year. Next year, he said, they can make up to 20 different treats. He added that they will be bringing back some of their old products that they haven't been able to make because of the previous regulations.


Stewart said that while the bill was being written and working its way through the Legislature they received frequent calls from the Department of Agriculture about the procedures they had to go through with the previous system.

"It was like they were waiting for someone to challenge this," he said.

He added that HB 607 will not only affect Keeley's business but a number of small-scale pet treat producers across the state.

Bachmeier said passing the bill generally went smoothly.

"For the most part, I think things went pretty well working with both the family the Department of Agriculture and members of the committee," he said.

"The whole concept of the bill was exciting," Bachmeier said, adding that he was excited to help Keeley Wilson but as the bill was being worked on they found that it could positively impact more than 300 producers in the state.

A few amendments were added to the bill, but they were good changes that he agreed with, Bachmeier said. He added that one of the amendments was increasing annual sales from $10,000 to $25,000. The change was modeled after a cottage foods bill in the 2015 session and was requested by economic development groups. Bachmeier said that they didn't want to increase the annual sales so much that it would exclude large producers, and $25,000 was a number everyone could agree with.


He added that, at one point, the Republicans wanted to expand the intent of the bill to include any pet treat producer and expand it to dog food. That amendment would eliminate most of the regulations for anyone producing dog treats and dog food, which was not the intent of the bill.

"I think if that amendment would have been introduced, the Department of Agriculture probably would have ended up opposing the bill and the governor would have not supported the bill," Bachmeier said.

He said he was able to convince them not to introduce the amendment, but even at the very end it was a possibility. He said that if they wanted to introduce their own bill next session it would be a different matter, but it was important that HB 607 was passed this session.

"I'm grateful that they held off to support Keeley and other small producers," he said. "It was important that we got this bill through this session."

Stewart Wilson said that in the House some legislators opposed the bill, but once it got to the Senate side it was unanimously passed by the Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation Committee.

It passed the House 60-40 on final reading, with Bachmeier and Reps. Joshua Kassmier, R-Fort Benton, and Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, voting for it, and Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, voting against.

It passed the Senate 50-0 on its final reading.

During the session Keeley Wilson and her family traveled to Helena to testify on behalf of the bill.

She said that she was nervous testifying but was happy to be able to speak on the importance of the bill. One of the questions that was asked by the committee was what her favorite treat was to make, she said.  

"Peanut brittle," she answered.

After the signing Bullock asked Wilson if she had any secret recipes or ingredients.

"Lots of stuff," she said with a smile

Bachmeier said after the signing that he was glad that everything worked out and the bill was signed.

"It's really great to have this all wrapped up," Bachmeier said. "It's been a really fun experience working with Keeley and the Department of Agriculture and some other members on the agriculture committee, but it's certainly nice to have it finished up, and I'm glad that we can keep Keeley's business going."

Stewart Wilson said that he was happy the bill was signed.

"Glad we got the process over and we are ready to move on," he said.

He said he helps his daughter with the business. Keeley was diagnosed as an infant with the developmental disability Williams syndrome, and also has been diagnosed with a wide span of other medical issues such as common variable immune deficiency, narcolepsy and seizures.

Because of her health issues she cannot work a regular job and having her own business with her family allows for someone to be near her at all times in case of an emergency.

She said the whole experience has been pretty good and it was fun to be able to work with everyone to get the bill passed.

"I just want to say thank you to Jacob," Keeley said.

Her father said that he hopes his daughter's business will be able to grow a little bit now that the bill has passed. He added that working with Bachmeier was a positive experience for them and he hopes that now that the bill has passed more small businesses like Keeley's will be able come forward.


"It was kind of cool to see how the process should work," Wilson said.

Support for adults with disabilities

With high school graduation right around the corner, Andrea Melle said that she can rest easier knowing that House Bill 726 passed.

Bachmeier said that he is really proud that Melle had brought the issue to their attention.

"This was a very important piece of legislation to pass this session," Bachmeier said. "It will help provide important resources and income for vulnerable Montanans."

He said that Melle has been a really great person to work with during the session. He added that he went to school with her children and, after he graduated high school, got to know her better through the campaign process for his first term as a state representative.

Melle's daughter, Kerrie, 22, and son, Drew, 19, both have autism spectrum disorder and require her constant attention. After her son graduates from Havre High School later this year, Melle would have lost the child support payments she needs to care for her family.

In July 2005, she found out both of her kids were autistic and in 2015 her divorce from her husband was finalized.

When she was going through her divorce she was told by her attorney a law required lifetime support for children with special needs. But as the proceedings continued, her attorney then told her such a law didn't exist.

To hire a full-time caregiver would cost $20 an hour, costing her more than $40,000 a year, she said. The caregiver would also not be able to get her children involved with the community the way she does and they would have to stay in the house for most of the day.

Melle added that she can't find a job which would cover the cost.

Another option would to be to put her children in a home for their care, which would cost anywhere from $80,000 to $100,000 dollars a year. She added that she would never consider that choice, in her opinion it would not be the right choice for her family.

She said that this legislative session she has been more involved than ever before, adding that the experience was overwhelming and very scary but ultimately rewarding. She said that there are a number of families all across the state that struggle with losing their child support after their children with special needs graduate high school. Melle added that many people who are not on this position don't know that there was no law protecting children with special needs.

"I didn't know that it wasn't a law, either, until I was put into this situation," she said.

Bachmeier said that the biggest accomplishment with the bill is the fact that vulnerable Montanas are going to be able to continue to get resources into adulthood. Many people didn't know that child support did not continue once children with special needs become adults. Now that the bill has passed, single parents who are also caretakers for their children with special needs are protected.

"I think that's important for the health and wellbeing for the family involved," he said. "... I think it was kind of shocking when she brought that to our attention and, you know, unless you are in that specific situation, you probably wouldn't know."

Melle said that the bill will help a lot of families who are struggling with similar situations to her own.

"It feels pretty good that I put myself out there and worked hard and got something that should have been done a long time ago into law," she said.

She added that she was worried that she would get a lot of backlash for speaking out, but throughout the process she got no negative feedback which was encouraging.

"It's nice to have people who realized that and are nice," she said.

Bachmeier said he was surprised by the amount of support they got for the bill during the legislative session.

"Truthfully, we didn't think it was going to pass," he said.

The bill was introduced late in the session, he said, and political tensions were running high in the Legislature. Every step of the way he and Caferro were nervous that the bill could be killed at any time. But they were both happily surprised when it passed through both the House and the Senate and was signed by the governor. Bachmeier added that everyone in the Legislature ended up seeing the importance of the bill.


"We thought basically at every step of the way it was going to die, but we are glad that it got through," he said.

The bill passed its final reading in the House 65-34 with Bachmeier, Kassmier and Windy Boy voting in favor and Knudsen against.

It passed its final reading in the Senate 43-7 with Sens. Mike Lang, R-Malta, Frank Smith, D-Poplar, and Russ Tempel, R-Chester, all voting for it.

Melle said that now the bill is signed she is going to take a moment to breathe, and after the bill takes effect July 1, will start moving forward to protect her children and arrange support for them.

She said she will never be able to be as active as she was during this year's legislative session because of her being a full-time caregiver for her children, but she plans to still be involved to some extent and continue to fight from home.

Both Caferro and Bachmeier worked hard this session, she said, adding that working with both of them was a pleasure.

"Jacob has been so supportive and listens to me," Melle said. "He is a great guy and we are lucky to have him representing us in Helena."

"I think most of the credit should go to Andrea and Mary," Bachmeier said. "Certainly I was happy to co-sponsor the bill and provide support to it and help lobby for it, but Andrea is the one who brought the situation to us."

Melle said that through this process she learned that no matter who someone is they can always work to make positive changes.

"It just goes to show that you can't be intimidated by something," she said. "You've got to fight for something that you believe in because you can make changes, you can make changes for the good. ... You can't sit by and let things fly by and think someone else is going to do it, you have to go get it yourself."

Havre Daily News/Derek Hann

Keeley Wilson looks on as Gov. Steve Bullock, center, shakes the hand of her father, Stewart Wilson. Bullock signed into law Tuesday a bill Keeley Wilson requested governing the regulation of small pet treat businesses and one requested by Andre Melle extending the period child support must be paid for adults with disabilities.

 

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