Almost two months after the conclusion of the 2023 Montana Legislature May 2, Gov. Greg Gianforte has finished issuing signatures and vetoes on the more than 800 measures passed by legislators this year.
The governor, a Republican, has signed the vast majority of bills sent to his desk by the Montana House and Senate, both controlled this session by GOP supermajorities. He has, however, broken with Republicans and Democrats alike on issues ranging from marijuana tax revenue allocation to child welfare reforms to a pay bump for lawmakers, vetoing 25 bills and striking several line items from the state’s long-range infrastructure spending bill. This total doesn’t include bills the governor returned to the Legislature with suggested changes, known as an amendatory veto.
For comparison, the governor issued 14 vetoes in 2021, when his presence in the governor’s office gave Republicans unified control of Montana’s legislative and executive branches for the first time since 2005. That said, the Legislature in 2021 also passed more than 200 fewer bills. And Gianforte’s total this year is well behind the veto counts routinely tallied by Democratic governors working with GOP legislative majorities — 36 in Gov. Steve Bullock’s last session in 2019, for example, or 78 in 2011, one of the years Democratic Gov. Brian Schwietzer famously took a branding iron to Republican bills on the steps of the state Capitol.
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.
Several of the bills the governor vetoed were efforts by the Legislature to increase its standing and authority as a branch of government, whether that meant increasing reporting requirements for executive agencies or bumping lawmaker pay.
Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, acknowledged that dynamic in an interview with Montana Free Press Thursday.
“I think the legislative branch over the last 30 or 40 years has been weakened substantially,” Fitzptrick said. “We’re only there four months of the year. The executive branch has a lot of ability to do things without us knowing. And we’re gonna have different priorities — they’re not necessarily going to be a fan of giving up executive power.”
But Fitzpatrick also said that the governor vetoed many bills for technical reasons or differing interpretations of current statute. He said others met the veto pen because amendments the governor favored died when Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, made a surprise, successful sine die motion.
“I think there’s a natural tension between the executive branch and legislative branch, and that’s normal and I think it’s healthy.” Fitzpatrick said. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a legislative branch that has a different point of view than the executive, even when we have the same party. I don’t have a problem with vetoes.”
Not all lawmakers agreed and successfully gathered the requisite 100 votes across both chambers to override four of the governor’s vetoes. Lawmakers have that power under the Montana Constitution even when they are out of session when veto overrides are conducted via mail poll. Lawmakers failed to tally enough votes on 16 override efforts.
“It is disappointing to have a handful of great legislation that was crafted by many stakeholders and vetted by 150 legislators meet the veto pen in the 11th hour,” House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, said in an emailed statement. “However, there was an extraordinary amount of freedom-centric legislation that the Legislature and the executive branch passed that made giant steps forward for Montanans.”
A spokesperson for Gianforte said the governor “carefully considered each of the more than 800 bills the Legislature sent to his desk, and with an eye to protecting vulnerable Montanans and safeguarding taxpayer resources, the governor exercised his veto authority on only a small fraction of bills.
“The governor would have vetoed fewer bills had the Senate minority leader and a band of senators not decided to quit early and sine die before the work was done, leaving bills unchanged and deeply flawed.”
- ❌Senate Bill 73 was a bill drafted by the Legislative Audit Interim Committee that would have clarified — or in the governor’s eyes, unreasonably increased — state agencies’ responsibility to respond to legislative audit requests and hand over documents accordingly. State agencies opposed the bill throughout much of the session, arguing that the bill would require agencies to turn over confidential information. But its legislative backers, including sponsor Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, maintained the bill didn’t let auditors have anything they already can’t access — it’s more of a matter of making sure agencies don’t stall and obfuscate when they receive audit requests, he said. Nevertheless, and despite negotiations between lawmakers and the governor’s office, the governor vetoed the bill, writing that while he supports “government transparency and the public’s right to know, (he) must also ensure those interests are being pursued in light of countervailing, constitutionally mandated obligations.” Lawmakers attempted to override the governor’s veto but failed to gather enough votes.
- ❌Senate Bill 485 would have increased the daily salary paid to legislators by fixing their wages to 40% of the governor’s compensation on an hourly basis. Lawmakers are currently paid $104.86 a day, or about $13 an hour, when the Legislature is in session or when they’re conducting other legislative business. Existing law would raise legislator compensation to about $16 an hour for the 2025 session, according to an analysis produced by the governor’s budget office. The proposed increase would have brought legislators’ pay to about $24 an hour, or $192 a day. Supporters of the bill argued that increased pay would help attract a more diverse pool of potential lawmakers to the Capitol — not just retirees and the wealthy. But Gianforte wrote in his veto letter that while he’s sympathetic to the economic needs of state employees — he pushed for House Bill 13, a state employee pay bump that applied to legislators — he firmly opposes “legislators’ efforts to use taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars to fund themselves a 74% pay increase.”
- ↩️House Bill 693 says state agencies can’t deny a records request because of ongoing litigation. The executive branch — in particular the state Department of Environmental Quality — opposed the bill in committee hearings, arguing it would allow litigants to circumvent the discovery process by sending public records requests. Gianforte, in his veto letter, reiterated that logic, arguing the bill “encourages trial lawyers with deep pockets to abuse the Right to Know, giving them an unfair advantage.” Lawmakers successfully overrode the governor’s veto.
- ❌Senate Bill 442, which seeks to reallocate recreational marijuana tax revenues, was one of Gianforte’s more controversial vetoes. In his May 2 veto letter, Gianforte argued that using marijuana tax revenues for county road maintenance would funnel money properly belonging to the state into county government coffers, a “slippery slope” with no assurances that county tax collections would decrease as a result. Due to the timing of Gianforte’s veto (just before the Senate voted to adjourn for the 2023 session), Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen didn’t submit SB 442 to lawmakers for a veto override poll despite its earlier passage through both legislative bodies with broad margins. The veto override poll issue has inspired two lawsuits that are winding through state courts.
Health, Warm Springs and child welfare
- ↩️Senate Bill 4, which requires the state health department to share abuse and neglect reports from the Montana State Hospital with Disability Rights Montana, a federally authorized watchdog group. The governor’s veto was successfully overridden by lawmakers.
- ↩️House Bill 29, a bill to stop the involuntary commitment of people with a primary diagnosis of Alzheimers, dementia or traumatic brain injuries to the Montana State Hospital by 2025, routing those people instead to medically appropriate community placements. Lawmakers overrode the governor’s veto.
- ❌House Bill 37, which primarily would have required state child welfare workers to obtain a judicial warrant before removing a child from their home. The bill made exceptions for emergency cases of physical or sexual abuse. The Legislature’s veto override effort was unsuccessful.
- ❌Senate Bill 296, a bill to boost state reimbursement rates for room and board at assisted-living facilities and revise how existing services are covered under Medicaid waivers. Lawmakers did not override the governor’s veto.
- ❌House Bill 828, a bill to stabilize funding for ambulance providers by authorizing an ambulance provider assessment program within the state health department. The House approved amendments suggested by the governor, but those suggestions were never considered in the Senate. The governor vetoed the original version of the bill, and the Legislature’s override effort failed.
- ❌House Bill 968, a bill to require parental consultation for a minor seeking abortion. The governor vetoed the measure because it lowered the age of consent to 16 and because he said it inserted a physician into the parent-child relationship. The Legislature fell short of overriding Gianforte’s veto.
- ❌House Bill 707, which would have allowed one or more adjoining, independent elementary school districts to join forces in creating a new shared high school district, pending approval from area voters. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Jodee Etchart, R-Billings, arose from a local nonprofit push to establish a new high school in southwest Billings. Gianforte argued that, regardless of how well-intentioned it was, HB 707 would increase taxpayer burdens and educational bureaucracy through the creation of “unnecessary, uncoordinated” high school districts. Lawmakers failed to override Gianforte’s decision in a veto poll in June.
- ❌House Bill 419, a measure that would require groups suing over hunting regulations to post a minimum bond of $50,000 before filing a lawsuit to block those regulations, was vetoed by Gianforte on May 17. He argued that while he shared the Legislature’s frustration with a Helena judge’s recent wolf-trapping ruling, requiring a bond to bring litigation against the state “opens the door for future mandatory bond requirements, to the detriment of the freedom of Montanans.”
- ❌Senate Bill 275, which would have changed the law intended to make sure septic drainfields don’t contaminate drinking water wells by grandfathering in more systems. The governor argued that change would increase the risk that newly grandfathered systems encroach on neighbors’ property.
- ❌Senate Bill 301, which would have grandfathered most boat ramps, docks and other lakeshore structures built before 2023 from current lakeshore protection regulations.The governor argued the bill was unfairly favorable to owners of noncompliant pre-2023 properties.
- ❌Senate Bill 499, which would have expanded Montana’s adverse possession law, which in some situations allows people to claim ownership of land they’ve been living on. The governor argued the bill would compromise property rights. An effort to override this veto failed.
- ❌House Bill 748, which would have changed one of the legal justifications local governments can use for zoning regulations from “morals” to “separation of incompatible uses of property.” (The others are “public health,” “safety” and “general welfare.”) The governor argued the new language, which would have changed a long-established legal standard, was too vague. An effort to override his veto failed.
- ❌House Bill 797 would have required the state Office of Budget and Program Planning to compile a report of all state or federal assistance that the state disperses to a tribal entity. Gianforte vetoed the bill, arguing that its definitions of assistance were too broad and its reporting requirements too burdensome. Lawmakers failed to override the veto.
- ❌House Bill 423, which would have firmed up a state process for compensating people who have been wrongly convicted of violating the law. Gianforte expressed frustration that the bill specified the state government would cover the entire cost of compensation while exempting counties, which prosecute most felony cases in Montana, from a proportional share of the bill. An effort by lawmakers to override this veto failed.
- ❌House Bill 479, which would have given Lake County $5 million for providing law enforcement services on the Flathead Indian Reservation under a unique arrangement in place since the 1960s. Gianforte objected that the bill didn’t provide a permanent resolution to county officials’ concerns over the arrangement. An effort to override this veto failed.
- ❌House Bill 808, which would have raised insurance requirements for bail bondsmen. Gianforte, who noted he signed another bill intended to address concerns about the bail bond industry, said he worried the requirements in this bill would have been so strenuous they would have reduced competition in the bail bond industry. The veto override effort for HB 808 also failed.
Gianforte used line-item vetoes to strip $23 million from the $1.2 billion House Bill 5, a major spending measure nominally geared toward funding construction on state-owned properties. The governor criticized those line items, including $8 million for a Billings-area reservoir and park project and $6 million for a federal veterans home in Butte, as unnecessary pork-barrel spending. Lawmakers were unable to gather the requisite votes to override any of Gianforte’s line-item vetoes to HB 5, with majority-party Republicans voting against many of the overrides in droves.
Gianforte also vetoed three budget companion bills, House Bills ↩️868, ❌916, and ❌917, which included policy provisions intended to complement the state’s primary agency budget bill, House Bill 2. Among other provisions, those bills would have required agencies to supply lawmakers with additional reports on their activities.
Lawmakers were able to override the governor’s veto of HB 868, which is a component in the broader fight over SB 442, the Legislature’s flagship marijuana funding allocation proposal. HB 868 contains the fund transfer to a habitat program that’s laid out in SB 442, among other provisions. And since Gianforte vetoed SB 442, and part of HB 868 was contingent on SB 442’s passage, the governor reasoned that much of the companion bill was invalid and deserving of a veto. The successful override of the HB 868 veto keeps a key element of the new marijuana revenue scheme alive while litigation over the validity of the governor’s veto to SB 442 makes its way through the courts.
While there had been some speculation that the governor would flex his line-item veto power on aspects of the state budget, specifically some of the money that had been allocated to increasing Medicaid provider rates, he ultimately signed the budget bill as it was passed by the Legislature.
- ❌ House Bill 889, which would have expanded legal protections for mobile home park tenants, who often own their home but rent the land beneath it. Among other things, the bill would have guaranteed those tenants the option of signing one-year leases instead of month-to-month contracts. Gianforte’s veto memo argued the bill would have harmed the property rights of mobile home park owners.
- ❌ House Bill 33, which would have made it easier to for county commissions to file court actions to remove local government officials who aren’t fulfilling their job duties. The governor said he was concerned the bill would have potentially allowed judges to remove elected officials from office. An effort to override this veto failed.
Eric Dietrich, Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Mara Silvers, Alex Sakariassen and Amanda Eggert contributed to this story.
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