Lawmakers applaud Gov. Greg Gianforte at the State of the State address in Feb. 2021. Credit: Eliza Wiley/MTFP

HELENA — Montana’s Senate voted unanimously Friday to override the first veto issued by Gov. Greg Gianforte, defending a bill that would make it easier for the Legislature to repeal administrative rules issued by state agencies. 

In order to successfully override the governor’s veto on Senate Bill 227, a similar motion in the House needs support from 67 of 100 representatives. Even so, the vote tees up a fight over the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches of state government.

While the state Constitution tasks the Legislature with the work of writing and debating Montana’s full-fledged laws, the details of policies adopted by the Legislature are often delegated to state agencies, most of which operate under the authority of the governor. Agencies routinely adopt administrative rules that specify those details — sometimes in ways that legislators dislike.

Current law gives the Legislature the ability to repeal administrative rules by passing bills. However, bills are subject to the governor’s veto power, meaning a governor who wants to defend agency rules from displeased lawmakers has the power to do so unless lawmakers can muster the two-thirds majorities necessary to override a veto.  

“We were created as three equal branches of government in this state and we no longer are.”

Sen. Gordon Vance, R-Belgrade

Instead, SB 227, sponsored by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, would let the Legislature repeal administrative rules with a joint resolution, which can pass with simple majority votes in the House and Senate.

Fitzpatrick said on the Senate floor Friday that his bill gives the legislative branch an important check on agency rulemaking.

“When the executive branch writes the rules, it’s almost impossible for us to repeal the rules,” he said.

Minority Democrats didn’t initially support the bill when it passed the Senate, but joined Republicans for the unanimous veto override vote in the Senate Friday. SB 227 passed the House 96-4 March 18.

Gianforte, a Republican, vetoed the bill Thursday, the first time he has rejected a bill passed by the Legislature since he took office in January. In his veto memo, he wrote that he believes the bill steps on powers that should be the purview of the executive branch.

“SB 227 is an unlawful violation of the separations of powers,” he wrote. “It attempts to remove from the governor, the chief executive officer of the state with the final authority over the rulemaking activities of the executive branch, the power to approve or disapprove the legislature’s review of the administrative rules implemented by the executive branch.”

Before the veto override, Fitzpatrick and other Republican senators said they see the tussle as an effort by the Legislature to maintain the balance of power between the Legislature, the executive branch and the state judiciary.

Sen. Gordon Vance, a Belgrade Republican who has served in the Legislature since 2009, said he’s worried that the legislative branch’s stature has eroded in recent years.

“We were created as three equal branches of government in this state and we no longer are,” Vance said. 

After the unanimous vote was taken, the Senate chamber broke out in applause.

A House legislative spokesman said Friday that the House will take its own veto override vote on SB 227 next week. 

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Eric Dietrich is a journalist and data designer and the founder of the Long Streets economic reporting project. His reporting focuses broadly on Montana’s governance and economic opportunity, with particular focus on the state budget and tax policy. He also contributes data reporting across the MTFP newsroom. Before joining the MTFP staff in 2019, he worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network and also earned an engineering degree from Montana State University. Contact Eric at edietrich@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 2, and follow him on Twitter.