Veto Threats

By Kellyn Brown

For someone who says he doesn’t like talking about vetoes, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer sure likes to talk a lot about vetoes. But making vague declarations are one thing and putting pen to paper is quite another.

The truth is it’s hard to guess how many pieces of legislation the governor will eventually nix. There are a few layups, such as those involving nullification, many of which the Legislature’s lawyers say are unconstitutional. And there are also “frivolous” bills that Schweitzer has publicly panned, such as an author’s Code of the West being adopted as the Code of Montana. Don’t expect many of those to make it past his desk. But other, more far-reaching pieces legislation are harder to gauge.

There are, for example, those bills that address the high cost of worker compensation; weaken the Montana Environmental Policy Act to promote business; and shutter medical marijuana dispensaries, which may be the most controversial of the three. Remember, state statistics show that 28,362 have medical marijuana cards and scores more make a living off the industry.

But House Republicans have voted overwhelmingly to repeal the voter-passed program. House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, carried the legislation to battle back against “an out-of-control organized drug trade,” which makes it sound like the mafia might relocate to the state any minute.

Some Republicans say, mimicking their rhetoric toward the federal health care law, that the medical marijuana system in Montana is so broken it needs to be thrown out completely so lawmakers can start over from scratch. But I’m not going to hold my breath that the GOP will prioritize the reintroduction of medical marijuana upon repealing it completely.

Nonetheless, Schweitzer himself has expressed reservations about the law, which was approved by 62 percent of Montanans in 2004, and he has acknowledged that many Montanans are getting medical marijuana cards to simply smoke pot legally. That doesn’t mean he supports outright repeal, however. And it’s unclear whether the general public does either.

Competing polls on the topic of medical marijuana were released in recent weeks and the results include numbers that could satisfy just about everyone.

The conservative NSON conducted a poll of likely voters for the Northern News Network and found that 49 percent of Montanans support repeal compared to 44 percent who oppose it. The sampling included 400 Montanans with a margin of error of 4.65 percent.

Another poll, from the left-leaning firm Public Policy Polling, released its own results from a survey of 2,212 state residents that found just 20 percent supported repeal, 49 percent wanted strict regulations added to the law; and 27 percent thought the Legislature should leave it alone. The Marijuana Policy Project sent out a press release touting the results.

Of course, the discrepancy between the two polls in regard to how many support repeal can be attributed to the three options offered by PPP and the two by NSON. Still, I asked Aaron Flint, with Northern News Network about the varying results. He wrote on his website that both Schweitzer and Milburn could use the numbers to their advantage and asked, “Will the governor issue a clear veto threat if it looks like a repeal bill is moving forward? Or, will he just wait, let a repeal bill pass – veto it – and keep the current system in place so he can blame Republicans for not getting a regulatory bill on his desk?”

It’s a good question. And a similar one could be directed at other legislation, such as those affecting workers’ comp and environmental regulations. Will Schweitzer remain quiet on those as well until they get to his desk, or ask for concessions beforehand?

The governor says he doesn’t want to talk about vetoes. But he told the press that he registered a new cattle brand “VETO” with the Livestock Department and is having a branding iron made. Before using it, perhaps he should show Republicans his hand a bit in regard to some of the most pertinent laws being discussed this session?

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