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Bill looks to cut Huckleberry red tape

by KEILA SZPALLER Daily Montanan
| January 18, 2023 12:00 AM

Just try to get a huckleberry picker to divulge the location of their patch.

Cort Jensen, chief attorney for the Montana Department of Agriculture, said no one is going to spill the beans on huckleberries — and by comparison, he’s regulated hemp.

“People are far more willing to tell me where their marijuana field is than their huckleberry growing patch,” Jensen said.

Jensen offered testimony Tuesday in support of the bill, one of four the committee heard that aim to reduce regulations in the state, or “red tape,” an initiative of the Governor’s Office.

At the House Agriculture Committee meeting, Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras testified in support of each proposal, legislation related to hucks, noxious weeds, pigs and livestock.

The huckleberry bill, House Bill 94, would repeal a law that imposed strict requirements for products labeled as containing Montana huckleberries and set a misdemeanor for scofflaws.

Jensen said his wife would certainly endorse the law’s intention — making sure real Montana huckleberries were in products labeled as such.

But he said since the law was passed in 2007, exactly zero people have complied with it.

Among other things, it called for pickers to inform the department, confidentially, of where they harvested the berries.

Fat chance, Jensen said.

He also noted prosecutors are busy dealing with problems of a different scale, such as fentanyl.

“Prosecuting people for improper use of huckleberries was not high on the priority list,” Jensen said.

Rep. Paul Green, R-Hardin, sponsored the bill, and in testimony, Juras cheered the idea: “Wasn’t this one a gem?”

She commended Jensen, who she said was the first person to give her a complete list of rules and statutes he thought could use reform when the Republican Governor’s Office announced its “red tape relief project.”

No one spoke against any of the bills at the hearing.

House Bill 93, also sponsored by Green, consolidated a couple of boards that deal with noxious weeds, but he stressed that it didn’t eliminate a successful program that addresses the weeds. House Bill 66, sponsored by Rep. Greg Kmetz, R-Miles City, streamlined reporting and payment deadlines for owners of livestock.

Rep. Ken Walsh, R-Twin Bridges, presented House Bill 84, which says you can’t feed pigs “garbage,” or waste with animal products, if you’re a business or other organization.

(The bill makes an exception for people feeding their own household scraps to their own pigs.)

Walsh said Montana hasn’t had any licensed garbage feeders since 2013 anyway, but proponents said the bill supports consumer safety.

Tahnee Szymanski, assistant state veterinary with the Department of Livestock, said African swine fever is moving this direction, and Montana wants to decrease the risk it hits and reduce spread if it does.

Juras, also in support of this bill, said she had a question at first when the legislation came across her desk: Her nephews raise 4-H pigs, and she wanted to be sure she could still give them pumpkins and leftover cabbage from her garden. The answer is yes.

She also explained the bigger picture with changes proposed to state boards, commissions and advisory councils, part of red tape relief. As proposed, she said some similar boards would be consolidated, and some would be eliminated if a program could be better managed through a state agency instead.

Montana has 160 such councils and committees, and she said the legislature will see roughly 15 bills similar to the one that eliminated the noxious weed advisory council. The idea in that case is one of the members of the sunsetting board will sit on a separate, existing noxious weed group that meets more frequently and will assume the former council’s duties.

Juras said the boards and councils require a lot of taxpayer dollars and staff time, board members are reimbursed for travel, and some are entitled to a $50 per diem.

“The cumulative effect is to run government more efficiently at a lower cost to the taxpayer,” Juras said.

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