WHITEFISH – Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer opined about the state’s 2011 Legislature last week in Whitefish, naming the overhaul of the state’s workers’ compensation law and revision of eminent domain laws as the biggest successes of the 62nd session.
Schweitzer also took the opportunity, on stage at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center, to veto House Bill 316, a measure that would have used money from various state accounts, including the state’s bed tax revenues, to help fund education.
The state’s bed tax largely pays for tourism promotion, and the governor’s veto elicited a standing ovation from the audience, which was comprised of many Flathead residents who work in the tourism industry.
The May 5 forum, hosted by the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, was intended as a way to assess the impact of the recent Legislature, featuring Schweitzer as well as several Flathead Republican lawmakers.
Outside the venue where the forum was held, a large crowd of protesters urged Schweitzer to veto Senate Bill 423, which would eliminate for-profit medical marijuana businesses and tighten regulations.
Inside the full auditorium, Schweitzer touted a $330-million reserve in state coffers, touting Montana as one of two states that survived the recession without being forced to grapple with large deficits and layoffs of public employees.
The governor also praised two Flathead lawmakers – Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork, and Sen. Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish – for their work on the new workers’ compensation law. It should help create jobs for companies that Republicans said were leaving the state because the premiums were too high, Schweitzer said.
The Legislature’s passage of House Bill 198, which deals with eminent domain law, was another positive result of the session, Schweitzer said. The law should help bring more energy-based businesses and jobs to Montana, he said.
He noted that HB 198 forced lawmakers to walk a tightrope between developing the state’s resources and balancing private property rights. Schweitzer amended the law to sunset in 2013.
Schweitzer also aimed a few barbs at the Legislature during his address, including lawmakers’ attempt to nullify the federal Endangered Species Act, which he said would have cost the state considerable federal funding.
He also quipped about the practicalities of House Bill 513, which would have required the state to back its transactions in gold and silver.
“Do you know how difficult it would be to attract businesses to Montana?” Schweitzer asked.
The governor then spoke about tourism dollars and their importance to Montana’s economy. Before he vetoed HB 316 on stage, he said he did not understand lawmakers’ attempt to move money from various state accounts to shore up education funding when there was enough money in the general fund.
But the veto underscored the uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the Legislature’s budget bill, House Bill 2, since HB 316 affected funding mechanisms connected to the main budget bill. Schweitzer indicated that he would veto more bills that could affect HB 2 as well, leaving Montana’s final budget for the coming two years still an open question, as of this writing.
During the event’s question-and-answer segment, audience members asked Schweitzer to veto the new medical marijuana regulations proposed in SB 423.
The governor said the original version of the bill was “blatantly unconstitutional” when it landed on his desk, prompting his amendatory vetoes that included allowing providers to charge for their product.
Lawmakers rejected this and other amendments, but kept some of the governor’s suggestions. Schweitzer said the final version of the bill would anger people on both sides of the issue, since a segment of the state would like full repeal while others think the law is fine as it is.
“We have got to find a balance,” Schweitzer said.
Medical marijuana cardholders will still be allowed to possess pot, and he noted that people who now need to grow their own plants would likely find help from paid advisors, suggesting some form of a medical marijuana industry will continue to exist under the new regulations.
After the governor’s segment, Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, Zinke and Rep. Derek Skees, R-Whitefish, addressed their impressions of the recent session.
Tutvedt said lawmakers prioritized education funding by passing the now-vetoed HB 316, and said medical marijuana was a “very, very difficult issue” during the session.
“Will we be back to redo it? Probably,” Tutvedt said.
He said Republicans took a prudent approach to the state budget, cutting over 6 percent from the previous biennium while keeping the state’s education funding whole.
Zinke refuted Schweitzer’s assertions that the state has a $300-million surplus, citing a legislative fiscal analyst’s report that places the general fund balance around $200 million.
He also said the decision to pass HB 316 was difficult but necessary.
“I understand tourism. I get it,” Zinke said. “But sometimes you’ve got to make tough decisions. My priority is schools.”
Skees said he was proud of the job the Legislature did reducing the size of government, and that the current spending levels could not be sustained in the future.
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