Jonathon Ambarian

HELENA (KPAX) — Montana lawmakers have failed to override Gov. Greg Gianforte’s decision to veto $23 million in projects from a long-range spending bill, resolving one of the final open questions remaining after the 68th legislative session.

Since the end of the session in early May, lawmakers have been voting by mail in a series of polls, to see whether they’d overturn the governor’s vetoes. The last of those polls dealt with Gianforte’s “line-item vetoes” on House Bill 5, a major long-range spending bill.

The 150 lawmakers had to vote separately on 11 different appropriations that Gianforte had rejected in HB 5 – meaning the Montana Secretary of State’s Office sent out and processed 1,650 ballots for that bill alone.

It takes two-thirds of House members and two-thirds of Senate members to override a governor’s veto. None of the line items on HB 5 reached that threshold.

The closest vote was on a $6 million appropriation to complete a sixth and final skilled nursing cottage at the Southwest Montana Veterans’ Home in Butte. It received support from 48 House members and 26 Senate members – 19 representatives and 8 senators short of what it needed to move forward.

Gianforte said the veterans’ home project was worthy, but he opposed the funding model in the final bill. Originally, HB 5 included $1 million in state funding, with the rest of the cost to be paid by the federal government, but it was amended in the Senate to pay the full cost with state dollars.

Gianforte said in his letter announcing the line-item vetoes that the state shouldn’t be “crossing our fingers that the federal government might reimburse us once we’ve spent the money.”

In a statement Friday, Sen. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, said upholding the veto was “kicking veterans to the curb.”

“Montanans need to let Gianforte and Republican legislators know how disappointed they are in this insulting decision,” he said.

Overall, 42 Democrats and 32 Republicans voted to override the veto on the veterans’ home funding. 52 Republicans voted to uphold the veto. 18 Republicans and 6 Democrats didn’t record a vote.

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, encouraged Gianforte to use his line-item veto power to remove several projects from HB 5, saying he objected to the way they were added into the bill at the end of the session.

Gianforte also vetoed $8 million for conservation grants to the city of Billings and the Yellowstone Conservation District, $1 million for water and sewer upgrades in Columbus and $2 million for local governments to improve parks – all items added to HB 5 during a late committee meeting.

He vetoed $2 million to the Chippewa Cree Tribe for a language immersion school and repairs to a cultural ceremony building, and $250,000 to Missoula for a public plaza on the Riverfront Trail – projects that weren’t for state-owned property.

Finally, he removed $3.8 million in funding for construction projects at Fort Harrison, saying the Montana Department of Military Affairs had decided not to move forward with them.

In total, Gianforte vetoed 25 bills this session, plus the line-item vetoes on HB 5. That’s higher than in 2021, when he vetoed 16, but significantly lower than in sessions like 2015, 2017 and 2019, when the governor was a Democrat and the Legislature was controlled by Republicans.

19 of the bills Gianforte vetoed this year were submitted to lawmakers for override polls – compared with seven in 2021. The Legislature voted to enact four of them into law over the governor’s objections:

· House Bill 693, sponsored by Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, says a public agency can’t refuse to disclose public information simply because it may be part of litigation.
· House Bill 29, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, requires the state to begin transferring patients out of the Montana State Hospital if their primary diagnosis is Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or traumatic brain injury. The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services will need to find new community placements for those patients by 2025.
· Senate Bill 4, sponsored by Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, requires DPHHS to share reports about allegations of abuse and neglect at the state hospital with Disability Rights Montana, the organization with the responsibility of protecting and advocating for Montanans with disabilities.
· House Bill 868, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Schillinger, R-Circle, is a “companion bill” designed as a placeholder to include any necessary provisions to implement one of the sections of the main budget. This year, it includes coordinating language connected with Senate Bill 442, sponsored by Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta – a bill Gianforte vetoed just before the end of the session. SB 442 would have revised the distribution of state marijuana tax revenue, redirecting money toward county rural roads, wildlife habitat projects and veterans’ services. It passed the Legislature with broad support but didn’t get an override poll because of the timing of the veto. Lawsuits have been filed, saying that deprived lawmakers of their opportunity to decide whether to uphold the veto.

Successful veto overrides have been extremely rare in Montana in recent years. In 2021, the Legislature voted to override one veto from Gianforte. Prior to that, MTN had not been able to identify any since at least 2009.