By Tom Kuglin, Helena Independent Record

Montana state agencies would be allowed to charge members of the public or groups for commenting on environmental reviews under a law passed by a House committee this week.

Rep. Denley Loge, R-St. Regis, said he brought House Bill 695 to the House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday in part to discourage submission of form letters as public comment on environmental impact statements, or EISs. The bill would allow an agency while conducting public comment for an EIS to charge a fee for any written or emailed public comment, but would not charge a fee for commenting during a public hearing.

The bill does not specify what an appropriate fee would be, but does allow an agency to reduce or waive a fee should a commenter show that the charge presented financial hardship.

The Montana Constitution requires that citizens be allowed to observe and participate in the workings of government. That has manifested in public comment periods for myriad decisions, including environmental analysis. The Montana Environmental Policy Act dictates that state agencies prepare an EIS for work or projects predicted to have significant effects on the environment. The document will include predicted effects, mitigation measures and alternatives, and major projects often also include public hearings.

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