HELENA — There are only a few bills left for Governor Greg Gianforte to act on after this year’s legislative session – including House Bill 2, the main state budget bill. This week, Gianforte said he would approve one of the remaining pieces of legislation – House Bill 5, a major long-range spending bill – but he rejected several of the projects added into it.
The governor has the authority to use a “line-item veto” on spending bills, meaning he can remove specific appropriations of money. Gianforte’s decision to veto $23 million in spending from HB 5 comes as a top legislative leader urged him to use that power on HB 5 and HB 2.
Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, the Senate majority leader, sent Gianforte a letter last week. In it, he expressed concerns about the way lawmakers changed both bills at the end of the session, and he recommended the governor veto about 16 provisions in the bills.
Fitzpatrick acknowledged it was an unusual step, telling MTN Thursday he wasn’t aware of any legislative leader doing something similar in the more than a decade he's been in the Legislature.
“My view on this is that we in the Legislature have a responsibility to police ourselves,” he said. “We shouldn't be engaged in pork barrel politics. We need to be policing ourselves. We need to make sure that what we recommend for spending is appropriate, it's justified, it's worthwhile.”
In a letter announcing his line-item vetoes, Gianforte said HB 5 “largely makes prudent, necessary long-term investments in state facilities,” but that he agreed with Fitzpatrick that some of the spending was unnecessary and should be removed.
His vetoes included $6 million to complete a sixth and final skilled nursing cottage at the Southwest Montana Veterans’ Home in Butte. Gianforte and Fitzpatrick both said the project was worthy, but they objected to the funding model in the 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.
“House Bill 5, however, appropriates $6 million for the project, leaving Montana taxpayers crossing our fingers that the federal government might reimburse us once we’ve spent the money,” Gianforte said in his letter. “That, however, is not a wise strategy, and I will not hold my breath that the federal government will repay the state any portion.”
Gianforte 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. Each of those items was added to HB 5 during a long meeting of the Senate Finance and Claims Committee. Fitzpatrick recommended they be cut because they aren’t for state-owned property and didn’t go through the same vetting process as other projects.
The governor also followed Fitzpatrick’s recommendations to veto three other projects that weren’t for state property: $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. However, he did not veto two other appropriations Fitzpatrick had recommended he reject for the same reason: $5 million for nonprofits that provide emergency shelter to the homeless, and $3.7 million for grants to reduce lead exposure in school drinking water.
Finally, Gianforte 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.
Senate Democrats were critical of Gianforte’s veto decisions, particularly on the veterans’ home.
“The Governor, with great haste, signed legislation that gave himself and his rich friends nearly a billion in tax breaks this session, but turns around just days before Memorial Day and vetoes $6 million for our veterans to build the last cottage and complete the Southwest Montana Veterans Home in Butte,” said Sen. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, in a statement Thursday. “And it’s not because the state doesn’t have the money. The Governor has grown the state budget by almost $2 billion and has the audacity to call that ‘conservative.’ His priorities and decisions are completely out of touch with most Montanans.”
Lynch called on veterans to contact their legislators and encourage them to override Gianforte’s veto. A line-item veto can be overturned by two-thirds of the members of both the House and Senate, voting by mail ballot, just as with a veto of a full bill.
Fitzpatrick said he believed many Republicans in the Legislature would be supportive of the governor’s action.
“I think there are a lot of people that are very frustrated with some of the pork spending this session,” he said. “I was, I know many other members of the caucus were. There's no doubt in my mind that these vetoes will be sustained.”
HB 2 still hasn’t been officially sent to Gianforte’s desk. A spokesperson for legislative leadership said they held on to that bill to give him time to get through the other bills he had to take action on. Once a bill is transmitted to the governor, he must act on it within ten days – and HB 2 is by far the largest and most complicated bill he has to go through.
Fitzpatrick recommended Gianforte make several line-item vetoes on HB 2 once he receives it. The most notable would be reducing the proposed increase in Medicaid reimbursement rates, which the state pays to providers for services like behavioral health, senior and long-term care and care for people with disabilities. Throughout the session, Gianforte and lawmakers from both parties all agreed some increase was needed in order to help providers meet the actual costs of their services, but there were many different opinions on what was needed to accomplish that.
The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services commissioned studies to determine “benchmark rates” for continued quality services. Based on the work of the Legislature’s budget subcommittee focusing on health and human services, HB 2 added enough funding to reach well over 90% of the benchmark rates. The Senate then added an additional $15 million in state funding – to be matched with just under $30 million in federal funds – to further close the gap.
Fitzpatrick’s letter called for removing the Senate amendment and returning to the rate set by the subcommittee. The additional funding is listed as a separate appropriation, so it can be vetoed without affecting the rest of the increase.
“We obviously want to provide the service, but it has to be done in a way that's fair to the taxpayer,” Fitzpatrick told MTN. “Going to 100% without taking into consideration the other factors that go into that calculation – to me, it doesn't make a lot of sense. I think you need to ask, ‘What are your costs, what are your expenses? Are you actually going to increase the wages and the benefits you're providing?’”
Fitzpatrick’s other recommended vetoes for HB 2 include several expenditures for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks that he believes are already covered by their base budget, as well as proposed studies on weather modification and the economic impact of fishing that he argued were unnecessary.