Quagga mussels

A pipe covered entirely with quagga mussels.

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State lawmakers advanced a bill to pay for the state’s fight against aquatic invasive species to the House floor Friday night, but not before slapping on new amendments and removing a controversial non-resident bicycle fee from the bill.

The House Natural Resources Committee voted unanimously to send Senate Bill 363 up to the House floor. The bill would charge fishermen more money and tax hydropower facilities to raise money for efforts to contain the spread of invasive mussels, the larvae of which were discovered in Montana for the first time last year at Tiber Reservoir.

Mussels stick to hard surfaces and can cause major damage to hydroelectric infrastructure and irrigation systems. They can spread via unwashed boats, and there isn’t a known way to eradicate them. To monitor them and stem their spread, the state plans to ramp up its water sampling program and increase the number of boat inspection stations, an effort they’ve said will cost roughly $6 million a year.

SB 363, sponsored by Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, is how lawmakers plan to fund that work. It would charge hydropower producers for the electricity they provide — a cost likely to be passed on to ratepayers — and annually charge resident anglers $2 and nonresident anglers $15. And, until Friday, it included a $25 charge for nonresident bicyclists who come to Montana.

That fee was added via an amendment from Senate President Scott Sales, R-Bozeman. After it passed on a narrow vote, the bill made national headlines. Some lawmakers considered the amendment a joke and expected that it would be removed, but bicyclists were outraged.

On Friday, House committee members voted to replace the bicycle fee with a 2-cent deposit fee for recycling the caps on plastic water bottles.

Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, proposed the amendment. Retailers would collect the 2 cents on each bottle of water sold — likely by increasing the cost to the consumer — and send most of that money to the state. A person could collect bottle caps and bring them to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks for a refund, but only if they had collected 500 or more.

White said it could be a good funding source for the program and that the money could eventually be directed elsewhere, like to the state parks program. But Rep. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls, didn’t support the amendment, saying he didn’t like that the retail industry hadn’t been consulted.

“We’re placing a requirement onto an industry that has not had a seat on the table in any of this discussion,” Brown said.

Despite Brown’s concerns, the amendment passed 11-4.

Two other amendments also passed. One exempted a closed-loop pumped hydropower project from the fees in the bill. The other would prevent one rural electrical co-op from being charged twice, but it also lowered the fees that hydropower facilities would pay per megawatt of power produced.

Under the change, power companies would pay $795.76 per megawatt of power produced by a hydroelectric dam instead of $967.62. Doug Hardy, of the Montana Rural Electric Cooperatives Association, said the amendment would reduce total collections from power companies from $4.5 million to $3.7 million.

The amendment passed unanimously, but afterward, Rep. Zach Brown, D-Bozeman proposed reducing the fee on nonresident anglers included in the bill from $15 to $10. He said reducing the hydropower fee would give big companies a big break, and that he wanted to give anglers a break.

“I just think it’s a matter of fairness,” he said.

Other committee members opposed Brown’s amendment, though, saying hydropower producers were already paying a lot of money, and that since the mussels likely hitchhiked over on an out-of-state boat, the nonresident angler fee was fair.

“Fairness to me is where the problem is coming from,” said Rep. Kelly Flynn, R-Townsend.

That amendment failed.

The bill will now go to the House floor. It needs to clear the full House by the end of next week, and if it does, the Senate will have to vote on whether they agree to the House’s amendments.

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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