HELENA – The title of Rep. Dan Bartel’s bill, House Bill 677, seems broad enough: “A law that prohibits certain nonprofits from buying agricultural land.”
That was the only thing that both opponents and supporters seemed to agree on – the bill would stop land sales. They also agreed that the nonprofit identified in the bill was clearly targeting the American Prairie Reserve, a large nonprofit that has acquired large tracts of land in central and northern Montana for conservation, public access, and bison.
In a long hearing late Tuesday afternoon, ranchers spoke against other ranchers, Republicans were shocked by other lawmakers, and attorneys debated whether the Lewistown Republican law would pass constitutional scrutiny at either state or federal level.
The one and a half page bill is one of the shortest in a tidal wave of laws in the Capitol of this session. The main thrust and sticking point is: “Non-profit companies are not allowed to buy agricultural land in parcels larger than 80 acres.”
The bill continues to exempt certain nonprofit groups, including churches, schools, universities, hospitals, and cemeteries. But land trust, public land, and conservation organizations would be subject to the new law.
Proponents of the bill, mostly ranchers and farmers, said they had an unfair advantage by having to market the interest rates against large nongovernmental interest groups that are driving property values so high that the land cannot be bought by individuals. They argue that once Montana is removed from agricultural production, it will lose the ability to produce and contribute to the economy. Farmers and ranchers warned that if land continued to be sold, America’s food stability would remain in equilibrium. You told lawmakers that agricultural land needs to be protected.
Opponents, including many Republicans, told lawmakers that regulating the government to whom they could sell land was overreaching and violating property rights. Lawyers argued that singling out a group of nonprofits was not only unfair, but gave certain groups special privileges.
“I believe a nonprofit that buys agricultural land is an abuse of tax law,” said Bartel.
He pointed out that 70 lawmakers had signed the bill and that nonprofits could use tax-free donations to pay for the land, an unfair advantage. Bartel said nine other states have passed similar laws, including North Dakota and South Dakota, and these have withstood legal challenges.
“This is not a charitable cause that deserves protection,” said Chuck Denowh, who represents United Property Owners of Montana.
Dick Dolan of the Northern Rockies Public Areas Trust said the focus on tax exemptions and status is a red herring.
“There’s an idea that nonprofits and land trusts are paying more than fair market value,” Dolan said. “That is wrong. The IRS would shut that down immediately. “
Glenn Marx of the Montana Association of Land Trusts said that nonprofits like the American Prairie Reserve have the highest respect for property rights – which is essential to them.
“This undermines the rights of private property. In this way, the state can determine who you can sell your land to, ”said Marx. “It is aimed at a group but penalizes a wide range of corporations, nonprofits and landowners.”
One of these groups, the Prickly Pear Land Trust, helped preserve Fort Harrison, near Helena. Jim Utterback, one of the trust’s directors, said it was not possible to acquire land to expand the historic site.
“That hurts our military. It hurts our veterans. And it hurts our state, ”said Utterback.
Brett Doney, executive director of the Great Falls Development Authority, said the law change could cost his area millions. He warned lawmakers that if the bill were passed, the community would lose a $ 2.1 million food processing facility backed by Ag land.
“If you pass it, it will kill it,” said Doney.
John Tietz, the trust’s vice president and attorney, also disagreed with Bartel, saying he found the bill unconstitutional.
“The government would have to show a compelling state interest and the least onerous means in order to achieve the goal,” said Tietz. “HB677 does not have such a compelling government interest in discriminating against non-profit organizations. There would be no constitutional pattern. “
Tietz wasn’t the only lawyer who expressed skepticism.
James Huffman founded the Western Resources Legal Center to help many agricultural landowners.
He spoke out against the bill, highlighting three options that he believed raise serious concerns about equal protection. Huffman said this discriminated against some nonprofits and exempted others. Any acreage has also been selected and a private party can buy and take agricultural land out of production. He asked why a celebrity, such as Ted Turner, could buy an AG property and take it out of production and APR or another land trust could not.
“It’s not just unconstitutional. It’s bad policy, ”said Huffman.
Some advocates of the law said it was about protecting the land so future generations could continue farming.
“These nonprofits threaten my future,” said Dalton Bliss of Garfield County. “We cannot compete with non-government money.”
Leah Latray, a Lewistown farmer, said she relied on lawmakers to protect her from the domestic threat from nonprofits that she described as “free for all”.
When people came out against the bill, several different groups, including the Montana Nonprofit Association, timber organizations, and agricultural groups devoted to feeding hungry Montans and establishing food sovereignty, said the bill would affect them, despite a handful of nonprofits are excluded from this.
Liz Moore, executive director of the Montana Nonprofit Association, who represents more than 600 groups nationwide, said food cooperatives, 4H clubs, and even rodeo and fair clubs would be affected if HB677 becomes law.
“It goes further than meets the eye and the assumption is that certain groups may or may not need to purchase land,” said Moore.
She told the committee that she, too, grew up on a ranch in Garfield County.
“It is not the place of government to interfere in the market by saying who a person can sell the land to and who can buy it,” Moore said. “I’m the daughter and sister of ranchers, and I can tell you what they’d say about who we can sell our land to.”
Others said the legislation only set some rules for the use of the land.
“It’s time to sideboard these nonprofits,” said Ross Morgan of the Rocky Mountain Stockgrowers. “They are after Ag Land for one reason – that Ag Land is what Montana, Montana, kept. You’re behind because we got it. We have to start containing them. This is just the beginning. “
But the ranchers quarreled with other ranchers and supporters of agriculture.
“I think it’s pretty incredible that you would consider this attack on private property rights,” said Les Gilman, a fifth generation landowner from Madison County who also identified as a Republican. “I can’t think of a situation where the government will tell me who to sell my property to or not to. I’m not a supporter of APR, but there has to be a better way to get what you want to do. “