Gov. Gianforte’s last-minute attempt to sink bipartisan bill fuels anger - TAI News
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A judge of the Montana 1st Judicial District Court in Helena this week issued a blunt rebuke of Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s attempt to dodge an override of his veto of a broadly bipartisan bill that would allocate the revenue stream resulting from the state’s new recreational marijuana tax. The matter could well resonate into fall elections because the governor’s tactics have fueled bipartisan anger extending deeply into his own Republican base.

The actions of respondents Gianforte and Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen “have interrupted the political process in an impermissible way by preventing the legislature from having the final say in the process by which a bill becomes law. Staying the Court’s judgment would allow Gianforte to continue to exercise an unconstitutional level of control over the lawmaking process,” wrote District Court Judge Mike Menahan in his order denying the governor’s request for a stay of an earlier ruling. His action was the latest in a tangled series of legal gymnastics triggered by an attempt by the governor’s tactics.

Both houses of the Republican-dominated Legislature overwhelmingly passed the bill in April of last year. In total, 130 of the state’s 150 legislators voted for the bill.

The key to the bipartisan support was the broad array of beneficiaries of the tax revenue. Improvements for state parks, work on trails and support for wildlife would each get 4% of the money, while the state’s legacy account for wildlife habitat would take 20%. This drew wholehearted support from the state’s active collection of environmental groups, which lean Democratic. Meanwhile, county road improvements got 20%, and the state’s counties are largely Republican-run. Another 5% was allocated to veterans’ programs, and 11% to the state’s HEART fund for addiction counseling. 

The governor challenged that broad base with his veto, but did so in a manner that raised the political stakes. Montana’s citizen legislature meets only every two years in a session that lasts only a few months. Because of that, the state has procedures to allow legislators to consider a veto override with a mail ballot on bills vetoed after the lawmakers adjourn. This is where the dodge came in. Gianforte signed the veto in the early morning hours of May 2, a few hours before the lawmakers adjourned on that same day, but they apparently did so unaware of the veto. That allowed the governor to argue that the veto came while the Legislature was still in session and therefore not subject to the provisions of the vote-by-mail override.

Gianforte issued a veto message that, if anything, heightened tensions with a particular element of the coalition of supporters, the Republican base. In his statement, Gianforte wrote that the bill was a “slippery slope” that would allow county commissioners to spend money on “capricious and unnecessary projects.”

“I read that quote and I said, that felt like a slap in the face, Gov. Gianforte,” Mike McGinley, a conservative Republican commissioner from Beaverhead County, said in an interview. McGinley confirmed he was so angered by this move and another of the governor’s actions that affected local property taxes to entertain the idea of challenging him on the primary ballot this year. But, he said, the odds of unseating a millionaire incumbent governor were too steep, so he finally decided against running.

Nonetheless, McGinley is not alone. A key player in the coalition opposing the governor on this is the Montana Association of Counties, and Montana’s counties are overwhelmingly Republican. 

Eric Bryson, executive director of the association, issued a statement following Menahan’s ruling this week: “We applaud the District Court in its denial of Gianforte’s frivolous motion. Once again, the Court instructed the governor to stop playing games and allow the legislature the opportunity to perform its constitutional duty.”

It is the undertone of this battle with the Legislature that can be expected to linger into November, and not just in the governor’s race. Gianforte’s opponent, Democrat Ryan Busse, and the  Montana Democratic Party already are ramping up attacks on millionaire out-of-state newcomers. Gianforte fits that profile, but so does Tim Sheehy, the Republican seeking to unseat Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in November. Sheehy is the handpicked candidate of Sen. Steve Daines, a close ally of Gianforte.

Asked if this matter is going to percolate through electoral politics this year, state Democratic Party chair Sheila Hogan said in an interview: “Absolutely. You can see it in Tester’s ads. We are losing the Montana we all love.”

Gianforte still has a legal option. Menahan’s ruling this week denied his motion to stay a Jan. 16 order to begin the mail-in vote in order to give the governor time to appeal the matter to the state Supreme Court. He can still file that appeal, but Menahan’s order says even if he does, the secretary of state must begin the mail poll of the legislators within 14 days of his ruling this week. 

A spokesman for the governor’s office said there has still been no decision regarding the governor’s next move. Responding to a request for comment from the Montana Independent, the office sent a one-sentence email this week: “We are reviewing the decision before we determine next steps.”

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