Long-delayed attempt to override late Gianforte veto from 2023 Legislature fails

Senate Bill 442 News Conference
Posted at 7:23 PM, Apr 19, 2024

HELENA — After almost a year of legal uncertainty, a bill that would have changed how Montana’s marijuana tax revenue is distributed is now dead.

The Montana Secretary of State’s Office announced Friday that there were not enough votes in the Legislature to override Gov. Greg Gianforte’s veto of Senate Bill 442.

41 representatives and 24 senators voted to enact the bill over Gianforte’s veto, falling short of the two-thirds majorities – 67 representatives and 33 senators – needed.

SB 442, sponsored by Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, would redirect some of the state’s marijuana tax revenues to help counties fund construction and repair of rural roads, as well as to increase funding to wildlife habitat improvement projects and to a state account that supports veterans and their surviving spouses and dependents.

It initially passed the Legislature with 130 out of 150 lawmakers in support, but Gianforte vetoed it, citing technical concerns with how it was written and saying it was inappropriate to use ongoing state funding for a local responsibility like roads. That veto came right around the time the Senate adjourned, and supporters of the bill sued, claiming the Legislature never had a legitimate chance to try to override the veto.

District Court Judge Mike Menahan, of Helena, ruled the state constitution intended that lawmakers always have an opportunity to attempt a veto override. He ordered the Secretary of State to conduct an override poll by mail – the standard procedure if a veto comes after the legislative session ends. Gianforte appealed that ruling, but the Montana Supreme Court allowed the poll to go forward while they consider the appeal.

However, many legislative Republicans said they objected to the court’s ruling, and they wouldn’t participate in the poll in protest. Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen said in a statement that a number of legislators either returned their ballots unvoted or refused to accept them.

All together, 64 Republicans and 4 Democrats didn’t return their ballots or declined to vote. 43 Democrats and 22 Republicans voted in favor of the override. 15 Republicans and one Democrat voted against it.

Gianforte hailed the result in a statement.

“I applaud the Montana Legislature for today rejecting radical judicial overreach, as the court sought to meddle in the legislative process,” he said. “Legislators also made clear that we should continue using marijuana revenue to fund addiction and recovery services, law enforcement, veterans, wildlife habitat, and state parks and trails, just as Montanans intended when they voted for recreational marijuana at the ballot box in 2020.”

House and Senate Democrats expressed disappointment.

“Today, Republicans chose party loyalty over supporting veterans, public lands, and rural roads,” said House Minority Leader Rep. Kim Abbott and Senate Minority Leader Sen. Pat Flowers in a statement. “These issues unite Montanans across party lines, and SB 442—which deserves to be law today—showed that we are still able to do good work for Montana. Unfortunately, when it came time to stand with Montanans, too many Republicans buckled under pressure from the Governor. These games are exactly what Montanans hate about politics.”

This result means that SB 442 won’t move forward, regardless of whether the Supreme Court upholds Menahan’s ruling. However, the groups that advocated for the bill – the Montana Wildlife Federation, Wild Montana and the Montana Association of Counties – said in a statement that they plan to bring the bill back in the 2025 legislative session.

“The historic coalition who supports SB 442 is not going away, and we expect to bring back similarly bipartisan and impactful legislation once again,” said Noah Marion, political and state policy director of Wild Montana. “We look forward to working with the multitude of legislators who have claimed they will eagerly support the policy in 2025, even if they refused to support the override. The Governor’s unconstitutional actions and the cynical political gamesmanship by his allies was the only chance he had to stand in the way of such a broadly supported bill, but the Court has been clear that cannot happen again.”