Helena – A judge heard testimony in a case aiming to resolve an ambiguity regarding the interaction between the governor’s authority to veto a bill and the Legislature’s power to overturn that veto.
Attorneys presented oral arguments in a lawsuit concerning Gov. Greg Gianforte’s veto of Senate Bill 442. District Judge Mike Menahan, a former Democrat legislator, is reviewing motions from all parties, seeking either dismissal or an immediate ruling.
Senate Bill 442, sponsored by Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, sought to redirect some of the state’s marijuana tax revenues to support county road construction and repair, increase funding for wildlife habitat improvement projects, and contribute to a state account aiding veterans and their surviving spouses and dependents.
Although the bill received support from 130 of Montana’s 150 lawmakers, Gianforte vetoed it, citing technical concerns and deeming it inappropriate to use state funding for local responsibilities like roads.
The veto occurred on May 2, the last day of the session, coinciding with the sine die motion to adjourn the Senate. This created uncertainty for lawmakers who intended to attempt an override of the veto and enact SB 442 into law.
The ambiguity arises from the Montana Constitution’s delineation of veto and override procedures. During the session, the governor returns a vetoed bill to the Legislature, which can then vote on whether to override it. However, when the Legislature is not in session, the governor must return vetoed bills to the Secretary of State, who, if more than two-thirds of each chamber supported the bill, polls lawmakers by mail to determine if they want to override the veto.
Senators, including Lang, claim they were unaware of the veto before adjournment, and it was not officially recorded in the Senate, denying a legitimate opportunity to override it during the session. The governor’s office argues the veto occurred while the Legislature was in session, rendering the override poll provision inapplicable.
Two liberal nonprofit groups, Wild Montana and the Montana Wildlife Federation, sued the governor and the Secretary of State, advocating for lawmakers to vote in an override poll. The Montana Association of Counties filed its own suit, contending that either the poll should proceed or the veto was invalid. The cases have been consolidated.
Thursday’s arguments focused on interpreting the language in the Montana Constitution. While both sides acknowledged the unprecedented situation created by the veto of SB 442, they disagreed on the appropriate course of action. Rylee Sommers-Flanagan, an attorney for the liberal nonprofit groups, argued for an interpretation of Section 10 that ensures the Legislature’s ability to exercise its override power. She warned against creating a loophole by not allowing a poll in this case, potentially paving the way for misuse in the future.