“We never thought for a moment he would actually override the will of the Legislature and turn his back on the beneficiaries of the bill.”
By Amanda Eggert and Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Montana Free Press
The sponsor of a popular initiative seeking to divvy up more than $50 million of marijuana tax revenue is requesting that lawmakers be given an opportunity to override a veto Gov. Greg Gianforte issued in the final hours of the 2023 legislative session.
At issue is Senate Bill 442, which proposes to divide tax revenues levied on recreational marijuana sales between the General Fund, county road construction and maintenance, conservation and recreation programs, addiction treatment and veterans services.
Gianforte vetoed SB 442 May 2, the day after it passed its final legislative hurdle, a 48-1 endorsement by the Senate, arguing that the bill created a “slippery slope” by making the state responsible for “matters that are strictly under the jurisdiction of local authorities.” The governor also expressed concern that county governments would use the increased breathing room in their budgets to redirect taxpayer dollars to “capricious, unnecessary projects,” which he said would add to Montanans’ tax burden.
SB 442 backers questioned both the speed with which Gianforte issued the veto and its timing.
In a press conference the day after he successfully moved to adjourn the Senate, Senate Minority Leaders Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, said he found it “curious” how quickly the bill landed on Gianforte’s desk.
“Somehow that bill left our chamber and got to his veto pen more quickly than any other bill,” Flowers said. “The only thing I can assume is [Gianforte] really didn’t like the bill and was determined to get it vetoed immediately.”
The governor’s veto letter came down just before the Senate adjourned sine die Tuesday, said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls. Gianforte spokesperson Kaitlin Price said in an email that the veto was issued “sometime in the 2 o’clock hour.” The sine die motion passed 26-24 at 3:20 p.m.
The bill’s sponsor, Mike Lang, R-Malta, who was among those who voted for the motion to adjourn, said he assumed lawmakers would be able to override a veto via polling after the session. But because the veto letter came down while the Senate was still in session, and because the Senate, seemingly not aware of the veto letter, didn’t act on it, there has been some question whether the chamber missed its chance to override the veto.
“It came in before the sine die, but it doesn’t matter. One chamber is still in progress so we are still in session. That bill is dead,” Fitzpatrick told a gaggle of reporters after the Senate adjourned. “Those guys just screwed themselves so bad. It really is an ironic twist to it all.”
Lang said he disagrees because lawmakers were given no notice of the governor’s veto when they began business on May 2. There are a range of interpretations regarding how veto rules should be applied in this instance, he added.
“If you ask three different people, you’d probably get three different responses,” Lang said. “I think the bill [veto] should have been read over the rostrum, but that’s just what I think. We’ll see what the lawyers think.”
For a governor’s veto to be overridden when the Legislature is out of session, Montana law directs the secretary of state to to poll lawmakers by mail. If two-thirds of both bodies affirm the measure, it becomes law.
If lawmakers remain consistent, the Legislature should have plenty of votes to override Gianforte’s veto: At last count, 130 of the Legislature’s 150 members had greenlighted SB 442.
The Montana Association of Counties and conservation group Wild Montana expressed frustration with the logic and process surrounding SB 442’s veto.
“We never thought for a moment he would actually override the will of the Legislature and turn his back on the beneficiaries of the bill,” Eric Bryson, executive director of Montana Association of Counties, said in an email. “From veterans to public land advocates to farmers trying to get their goods to market, SB 442 carved out limited marijuana tax resources exactly where the public wanted them spent. We believe that this was the wrong choice for Montana and encourage the secretary of state to follow the law and conduct a veto-override poll.”
Bryson also criticized Gianforte’s logic in issuing the veto, arguing that there are other examples of county governments accepting and spending taxes that are levied statewide, including the gasoline tax.
Noah Marion, the state policy director for Wild Montana, said lawmakers should have another opportunity to weigh in on SB 442.
“For months, the administration told us that if we got good bipartisan bills on the governor’s desk, he’d sign them,” Marion said. “We all held up our end of the deal, but the governor didn’t. SB 442 is bipartisan. It’s popular. It’s got something for everyone. It should be law and the Montana Legislature has the right to take another look at this.”
In his letter to Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, Lang argued that the circumstances of the veto indicate an attempt to circumvent the Legislature’s constitutional check on the executive branch.
“As an independently elected official with your own statutory authority, it is of utmost importance that you protect the Legislature’s ability to review and evaluate the Executive’s veto action,” Lang wrote. “We look forward to receiving a copy of the bill, veto message, and ballot with a return envelope so we can perform our duties as well.”
The secretary of state’s office did not return MTFP’s request for comment on SB 442.
The allocation of marijuana tax funding was a source of careful political maneuvering this session as lawmakers scrapped over where the money should be funneled. They also argued about the appropriateness of establishing long-term allocations for that revenue in statute, as opposed to dividing it up on a session-by-session basis.
A handful of competing proposals for marijuana tax revenue, including one favored by Gianforte that sought to cut Habitat Montana’s allocation and funnel more toward law enforcement and the Department of Justice, and another directing the majority of the statutory allocation toward the General Fund, failed to garner the support from lawmakers that Lang’s proposal had.
According to SB 442’s fiscal note, tax collections from recreational marijuana are expected to approach $53 million in fiscal year 2024 and increase slightly in subsequent years.
This story was originally published by Montana Free Press at montanafreepress.org.