HELENA — The Montana Senate is considering a bill passed by the House 62-38 late last month that would provide partial forgiveness of student loans for farmers.
Introduced by Rep. Zach Brown, D-Bozeman, House Bill 631 would repay up to half of a farmer’s student loans if he or she commits to farming or ranching for a minimum of five years.
“Student loan debt is a big issue facing our economy in general,” Brown said. “It’s holding back young professionals.”
Brown said the issue is particularly relevant to the agriculture industry, which he described as “aging.” According to the latest statistics from the USDA’s Ag Census, which is done every five years, the average age of the American farmer in 2012 was 58. That’s five years older than the average age in 1992.
HB 631 would be administered through Montana’s Growth Through Agriculture grant program, created by the 1987 Legislature to “strengthen and diversify” agriculture by helping fund projects across the state. The bill would create a new division called the “Montana Farmer Loan Repayment Assistance Program.” It would require at least 51 percent of the recipient’s income to be generated through farming.
Eligibility for repayment of student loans would take into account factors like financial need, the likelihood of remaining in the farming industry and whether or not applicants belonged to groups underrepresented in the industry. No one opposed the bill at the hearing.
Supporters of HB 631 said the bill would help revitalize Montana’s farming industry by bringing in younger workers.
“We’re not keeping up with our aging population by getting young people back in the industry,” said Chelcie Cargill, representing the Montana Farm Bureau.
Kori Anderson of the Montana Stockgrowers Association said the bill would only benefit Montana farmers.
“This isn’t for out-of-state students trying to get their loans paid off so they can have a ranch in Montana,” Anderson said.
The committee took no immediate action on the bill.
Hunting program could expand
A bill making its way through the Montana Legislature would expand a program that the bill’s sponsor says could create incentives for new hunters to take hunter’s safety.
Senate Bill 218, introduced by Rep. Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell, would allow anyone between the ages of 10 and 32 to obtain an apprentice hunting license, which requires new hunters to hunt only in the presence of a mentor, age 21 or older.
The bill also would clarify provisions of current law that previously could have prohibited 10- and 11-year-old hunters from obtaining apprentice licenses, and would prevent such hunters from holding black bear, mountain lion and wolf licenses.
“I want to incentivize these kids to go get hunter’s ed, so they’re limited on what they can hunt,” Blasdel said.
The Apprentice Hunter Program was created by the 2015 legislature. The license is only applicable for two years, after which the hunter must complete a hunter safety and education course.
Blasdel said the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks held a vote after the bill’s passage last session to allow 10- and 11-year-old hunters to obtain apprentice licenses after it was discovered the bill’s original language would prevent them from doing so. This bill would put that temporary ruling into law.
“This really helps bring this program into focus, refine it, make it something that can work,” said Ben Lamb, representing the Montana Wildlife Federation.
Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, said the addition of adults younger than 32 to the program makes sense as Montana’s population increases.
“We’re constantly wrestling with the notion that people moving in may want to enjoy the things that we have,” Minard said. “This gives them an opportunity for that new neighbor to come over with you, enjoy something in a very controlled setting, and then buy in, become part of that cultural fabric.”
The committee did not take any immediate action on the bill.
Insurance bill advances
With health insurance costs rising, one lawmaker is proposing a solution that would allow Montana residents to purchase health care plans from other states.
Senate Bill 340, introduced by Sen. Cary Smith, R-Billings, passed the House Human Services Committee last week. The bill would allow out-of-state providers to sell plans within Montana. Smith said it would “help to drive down the cost of health insurance.”
Smith said that the bill provides measures to ensure providers are in good standing in their home state, and that the insurance commissioner would be responsible for allowing providers to sell policies.
“We think that more competition in Montana will bring cost down, [and] allow consumers more choice in finding the policy that will suit their lifestyle and their needs,” said supporter Zach MacQuarrie, representing Americans for Prosperity.
Critics of SB 340 said it would open the door for confusion and the possibility of purchasing a plan that doesn’t cover necessary services. Al Smith, representing Montana Trial Lawyers, said buyers will tend to opt for the lowest cost, regardless of whether it covers essential services. He also said mandated services vary from state to state, and therefore plan to plan.
“We’re not talking about car insurance. If you screw up on your car insurance and don’t get comprehensive, you’re out a car,” Al said. “If you screw up on one of these and don’t have the proper insurance, you could be losing a family member.”
The bill passed on a vote of 9-6. It will now be heard by the House.
Brewery laws spark controversy
The Senate amended and passed a bill last week that would increase the number of barrels a brewery can produce and still be able to sell in a taproom.
House Bill 541, introduced by Rep. Adam Hertz, R-Missoula, originally would have allowed breweries to brew up to 60,000 barrels of beer a year while still maintaining their taproom. Under current law, breweries can only produce 10,000 barrels and still sell beer on premises.
The bill was amended several times before reaching the full Senate, decreasing that number to 12,000 barrels. The bill was sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, who successfully proposed amendments to restore that number to the original 60,000.
“It is smart for us to raise the limit on production from breweries, allowing them to brew more, because … it adds to our base of economy in Montana,” Thomas said.
Thomas said the amendments were drafted before last Thursday’s hearing, with both tavern and brewery owners present to help work out a compromise.
That compromise means that in addition to capping production at 60,000 barrels, the bill now also allows a maximum of three taproom locations per brewery, and only allows for 2,000 barrels’ worth of on-site sales in taprooms.
Thomas said the bill would probably go to a special conference committee, so the public could testify on the proposed amendments once they are sent back to the House. Nineteen of 50 senators opposed the amendments.
“This is about still being able to act as a bar,” said Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls. Buttrey owns a liquor license for the Cashout Casino in Great Falls.
Buttrey said current laws regulating breweries prevent them from becoming too much like taverns by restricting hours of operation and the amount of barrels they could produce while still operating a tasting room. He said only breweries would benefit from the bill as amended. Buttrey eventually voted in favor of the bill.
Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, said she resented the amendments being made in a “backroom deal.”
“I have listened to these alcohol bills, and watched these people argue and fight with each other,” Brown said. “We have to be the playground supervisor for a bunch of people who can’t get along. I’m tired of it.”
The amendment passed 31-19. As amended, the bill passed third reading 40-9.
Air ambulance bill passes both houses
The House passed a bill last week that would remove the financial responsibility from patients who are forced to use out-of-network air ambulances.
Senate Bill 44, introduced by Sen. Gordon Vance, R-Belgrade, would require insurance companies to cover excess charges from air ambulance providers. The bill has also passed the Senate.
“Senate Bill 44 is the most important air ambulance bill that we’ve heard yet,” said Rep. Vince Ricci, R-Laurel, who carried the bill in the House.
Air ambulances, sometimes referred to as “life flights,” provide emergency transportation to hospitals in life-threatening situations in which regular ambulances would not be quick enough. They often transport patients from rural hospitals to those with necessary services.
However, air ambulance providers are not always in Montana insurance networks, which can leave patients and families saddled with substantial debt.
Ricci said the bill would only require patients to pay their deductible on air ambulance services. Air ambulance providers and insurance companies would then have to come to an agreement on payment for services between themselves.
During the bill’s first hearing in January, several Montanans spoke on the high cost of using air ambulances.
Benjamin Power, a Dillon resident, said he was life flighted to Salt Lake City for an emergency neurological procedure.
“Within a few weeks of the procedure, when I was at my absolute worst, I received a bill for $56,000,” Power said.
Six others spoke at that hearing, all saying the service cost them into the tens of thousands of dollars. One woman, Sonia Moscolic-Andrews of Anaconda, saw reprieve from the cost of her husband’s life flight to Missoula only after he died.
However, opponents of the bill argued that SB 44 would end up sending the debt back to consumers.
“When you tell health plans to just pay up, the cost is passed through to taxpayers of Montana,” said Bruce Spencer, representing America’s Health Insurance Plans. “That is a public policy decision you have to make, and I guess I’m asking that you take a deep breath.”
Michael Siebert is a reporter with the UM Community News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism and the Montana Newspaper Association.