Hardball negotiations over potential veto overrides could jeopardize major bipartisan legislation from the 2023 session that still awaits consideration by Gov. Greg Gianforte, including a high-profile childcare funding bill and a portion of an increase to Medicaid provider reimbursement rates written into the state budget, several lawmakers said this week.
House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, told Montana Free Press Thursday that Gianforte is threatening to veto House Bill 648, which would expand eligibility for the state’s childcare scholarship program, as well as $15 million the Senate added to the state budget to increase Medicaid provider rates, if Democrats support efforts to override previous Gianforte vetoes.
“The governor’s office is attempting to leverage policies that will help everyday Montanans by threatening to veto those if we exercise our constitutional right to check his power with veto overrides,” Abbott said in an interview.
The governor can both veto bills outright and strike specific expenditures in budget bills — the latter action known as a line-item veto. Lawmakers can overturn the governor’s vetoes with a two-thirds vote, a process that takes place via mail polling when the Legislature is out of session.
Gianforte flexed his line-item veto power Thursday, when he cut $23 million worth of projects out of House Bill 5, a long-range infrastructure bill, deriding the expenditures as “unnecessary pork.” Those line-item vetoes largely correspond to requests Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, made in a May 18 letter. In that letter, Fitzpatrick also suggested that the governor veto the Senate’s $15 million supplement to an existing Medicaid provider reimbursement rate increase.
The governor used his line-item veto power to cut $23 million from the $1.2 billion House Bill 5, striking projects that were criticized as pork-barrel spending.
A 2022 state-commission study found a dramatic gap between the cost of services delivered by Montana health care providers and the rate of reimbursement from the state. This session, the governor proposed partially closing that gap, a budget subcommittee went further, and the Senate ultimately approved an additional $15 million that would bring the state’s average reimbursement rate on par with the study’s benchmark recommendation.
“The politics of this are awful,” said Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, a champion of the Medicaid rate increase. “They’re using people as pawns.”
In a statement to MTFP Thursday, Gianforte spokesperson Kaitlin Price said the governor will consider House Bill 2, the budget proposal that contains the Medicaid rate increase, “in the same way he considered House Bill 5, with the mission to protect taxpayer dollars, cut pork, and bring greater fiscal discipline to the budget.”
As to Abbott’s specific claim, Price said: “Montanans elected the governor to get things done. That’s what he’s doing, and he’ll leave playing political games and engaging in the rumor mill to politicians in Helena.”
Gianforte has vetoed 25 bills since the 68th Legislature ended, several of which passed the Legislature with bipartisan support. Efforts to override many of those vetoes are already underway, including a slate of popular child protective services reforms: House Bill 37, which required Child Protective Services to obtain a judicial warrant before removing children except in emergency situations; House Bill 29, a bill to expedite the transfer of patients with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and traumatic brain injuries from the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs to more appropriate clinical settings, and Senate Bill 4, a proposal to increase oversight of abuse and neglect reports at the state hospital.
Caferro said she received a call from a Republican lawmaker earlier this month asking her to oppose veto override efforts, though the lawmaker wasn’t specific about which ones. She said she and her colleagues later came to understand through discussions with other lawmakers that Gianforte and his legislative allies were looking to head off veto overrides of, among other bills, HB 37 and HB 29. Also in the mix are several so-called budget companion bills that Gianforte vetoed this week.
Caferro said that while she’s hesitant to ascribe motivations to Republicans, she took Fitzpatrick’s letter as a threat.
“Democrats help us protect the governor and support his vetoes because we’re so worried about overrides, and the second part is, if you won’t cooperate, then he’ll veto them, and this letter gives him political cover,” Caferro said of her interpretation of the letter.
Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman, who shepherded House Bill 648 through the Legislature, declined to comment on the situation, but confirmed receiving an entreaty from the governor’s office in the last week and a half along the same lines.
“If you’re going to be petty enough to veto good bills because you didn’t get your own way on something else, I guess I’ll meet you on the front page,” Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, told MTFP Thursday. Carlson sponsored both HB 37 and HB 29, and has been whipping her colleagues to override the governor’s veto.
“The Legislature has been loud and clear that we want to see [the Department of Public Health and Human Services] change the way it does business in child welfare,” she wrote in an email to lawmakers Monday. ”Please vote for the override.”
In an email of his own, Sen. Barry Usher, R-Laurel, highlighted five bills he supported that were up for an override vote, including HB 37, HB 29 and SB 4. He encouraged lawmakers to fill out their polls and fulfill their duty to check the executive’s power.
“Seems that there are a lot of vetoes of good bills,” he wrote. “It appears to me that the governor does not understand or respect the legislative process and the hard work we all do during interim committees and during our legislative sessions. You can surely tell that there are several vetoes that [are] close to 150 votes. It is my belief that the governor is counting on historical low returns of the veto override ballots.”
But those sentiments weren’t shared by all lawmakers, some of whom have received letters from their local county attorney urging them to oppose HB 37 in particular. In other words, Republicans who want to override the Gianforte veto would need to pick up some Democratic votes if they want to reach the 100-member threshold.
Usher told MTFP Friday he had heard of Democrats facing pressure from the governor’s office, which he called “stinky politics.”
HB 2 and HB 648 have both awaited a signature from Senate President Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, for weeks, even as the Legislature’s joint rules say a bill that passes both chambers must be delivered to the governor “not later than 5 working days after the 90th legislative day.” Democrats are suspicious that the delay is intended to allow Gianforte time for negotiations before he decides what to do with the two bills. The governor has 10 days to act on legislation once it reaches his desk.
Kyle Schmauch, a spokesperson for Senate GOP leadership, said “bills are being transmitted to the governor in an orderly fashion, spaced out a bit instead of all at once.”
Fitzpatrick, the Senate majority leader, acknowledged bringing his veto requests to Gianforte and his budget director, Ryan Osmundson, but said the executive is making its decisions independent from lawmakers. He also said he knew nothing of communications between the governor’s office and Democrats.
But he did say in an interview Thursday that there’s “quite a push by certain [GOP] members to try to override vetoes.”
He said that’s a manifestation of Republicans wanting to prod Gianforte, not necessarily a judgment of the policies’ merits.
“I don’t know why, but we’ve got a bunch of Republicans that are really upset with the governor,” he said.
The vetoes provide another example of a divide between certain Republican lawmakers and the executive branch that’s been clear all session. Factions of Republicans held up Gianforte priorities with Democratic support and jostled over the budget. Lawmakers passed a bill expanding the Legislature’s physical control of the Capitol, and another increasing their own pay — a proposal Gianforte vetoed. The governor sometimes used his press conferences to chide fellow conservatives about their votes on legislation he favored.
“It’s our job to make laws. It’s the agencies’ job to follow the laws,” Carlson said. “And just because it’s not the way they did it where they’re from … doesn’t mean it’s not what the people want. I think that’s one of the frustrations for the legislators.”
The number of vetoes so far this year pales in comparison to the days when a Democrat sat in the governor’s office, but exceeds the 2021 session, when Gianforte vetoed only 14 bills. The fact that Republicans have triumvirate control of the state and a two-thirds legislative supermajority but are still sometimes out of sync is a source of bemusement to the super-minority Democrats.
“Say what you will about Gov. Bullock, but he was able to pass budgets with his party in the minority that he could sign without this kind of horse trading,” Abbott said.
How seriously Democrats might take the pressure from the governor’s office remains to be seen. Several Democratic legislators said they expected that the governor was going to veto a $3.7 million appropriation in HB 5 to remediate lead in school drinking water — a line item Fitzpatrick asked the governor to strike — but were relieved to find the money intact.
It’s also possible the governor will do whatever he intends to do regardless of how Democrats respond to his pressure.
“I think the governor is going to do what he’s going to do,” said Rep. Jonathan Karlen, D-Missoula. “And [his office is] trying to leverage this period of limbo to get as much as they possibly can.”
Mara Silvers contributed reporting.
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