Marijuana Funding Bill Dies After Lawmakers Decline to Override Veto  

Despite garnering wide support during the 2023 legislative session, a bill to redistribute marijuana tax dollars to county roads died after a large bloc of lawmakers abstained from a vote to override the governor’s veto

By Denali Sagner
The North Fork Road on July 3, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A bill designed to redistribute marijuana tax revenue towards county road repairs and conservation projects is dead after lawmakers voted not to override a veto by the governor.

According to a poll of legislators released by the Montana Secretary of State’s office on Friday, 62 lawmakers voted to overturn a veto of Senate Bill 442 by Gov. Greg Gianforte, falling short of the 100 needed to overturn the veto. Sixteen lawmakers voted against the veto override, and 72 lawmakers did not vote.

Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen reported that several legislators returned their ballot packets indicating a refusal to participate in the process, some with letters explaining their reasoning. Others refused to sign their ballot packets or did not return them at all.

All members of the Flathead Valley’s legislative delegation declined to vote except for Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, who voted against the veto override, and Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, who voted for it.

“I applaud the Montana Legislature for today rejecting radical judicial overreach, as the court sought to meddle in the legislative process. 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,” Gianforte said in a statement.

Senate Bill 442 represented a rare moment of bipartisan cooperation during an otherwise contentious legislative session, garnering support from Democrats and Republicans, as well as groups such as the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, Montana Conservation Voters and the Montana Petroleum Association.

The bill reconfigured how marijuana tax revenue would be spent in the state, distributing the funding between county road repairs, conservation and recreation programs, addiction treatment, veterans’ services and the state’s general fund, which the governor has discretion over. The current funding structure, the product of a 2021 law, does not allocate any of the revenue towards county roads.

Senate Bill 442 met a contentious end during the final moments of the 2023 legislative session, when a procedural irregularity spiraled into a months-long legal battle between the governor’s office, county officials, advocacy groups and legislators.

Gianforte vetoed Senate Bill 442 about an hour before the state Senate adjourned. Though it was technically vetoed during the session, lawmakers did not know the bill had been vetoed and did not conduct a veto override vote. Lawmakers are permitted to override vetoes either in-person during the session or by mail after the session is over.

The governor argued that the bill had been vetoed during session, meaning that it was dead following the Legislature’s conclusion, and refused to send the official veto to the secretary of state’s office so she could allow the post-session veto override process to unfold. Lawmakers contended that a post-session mail-in poll was in order.

The Montana Association of Counties, Wild Montana and the Montana Wildlife Federation in June sued Gianforte and Jacobsen, alleging that the governor and secretary were derelict in their duties by refusing to carry out the post-session veto override poll.

A Lewis and Clark County District Court judge ordered the governor and secretary to comply with the veto override process, arguing that “the Framers clearly intended the Legislature’s veto power to exist regardless of the timing of the veto.”

Jacobsen complied with the order last month, sending the veto override poll to lawmakers.

Despite wide support for the bill during the legislative session, lawmakers soured on the legislation in recent months, raising questions about the fate of the once-popular proposal.

Rep. Wendy McKamey, R-Great Falls, last month called Senate Bill 442 “a redistribution of wealth scheme.” Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, said the bill is “poor public policy and should not be enacted into law.”

Both McKamey and Salomon voted for the bill during the session.

Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, told the Beacon on Friday that lawmakers likely rejected the veto override due to frustrations over judicial overreach and the ending of the 2023 Legislature.

Montana Republicans in recent months have accused the state’s court system of encroaching on the duties of the legislative branch, blocking laws and ruling on legislative procedures.

According to Fitzpatrick, the decision by a district court judge that mandated Gianforte and Jacobsen carry out the post-session veto override process served as yet another example of intrusion by Montana’s judicial branch into the affairs of the Legislature.

Sen. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, said he refused to vote in the poll as he “felt that it was an unconstitutional order by the court to the secretary of state.”

Fitzpatrick also said lawmakers expressed concerns about which counties would receive the bulk of marijuana tax revenue for road funding. Phillips, Beaverhead, Valley, Flathead, Blaine and Lincoln counties would have all received over $300,000 in funding. Phillips, Beaverhead, Valley and Blaine counties each have a population of less than 11,000. The state’s most populous counties, as well as counties containing tribal nations, were set to receive far fewer funds.

Advocacy groups criticized the Legislature for failing to override the veto, alleging that its members put politics over people in allowing the bill to die.

“The circumstances surrounding SB 442 and its veto should be of great concern to Montanans,” Jason Rittal, deputy director of the Montana Association of Counties, said in a statement. “ … SB 442 is good policy that would have benefited Montana far and wide, and when the 2025 session arrives, County Commissioners throughout the state will again rally in support of another SB 442.”

“Kicking the can down the road didn’t solve any of the problems SB 442 would have addressed,” Wild Montana Political and State Policy Director Noah Marion said. “The historic coalition who supports SB 442 is not going away, and we expect to bring back similarly bipartisan and impactful legislation once again. 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. Unfortunately, Montanans will have to wait yet another year for these investments they so critically need. Rest assured this is not the end.” 

The results of the veto override poll can be viewed here.

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