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Gianforte says no ‘larding up’ bills, line-item vetoes $23M in long-term infrastructure spending


Gianforte says no ‘larding up’ bills, line-item vetoes $23M in long-term infrastructure spending

May 26, 2023 | 3:17 pm ET
By Blair Miller
Gianforte says no ‘larding up’ bills, line-item vetoes $23M in long-term infrastructure spending
Gov. Greg Gianforte touts historic tax cuts during the 2023 Montana Legislature. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

Gov. Greg Gianforte this week line-item vetoed about $23 million in spending on 11 projects, including for a veterans cottage in Butte and a conservation area in Yellowstone County, that were part of a $1.2 billion infrastructure spending bill.

The governor slashed the portions of House Bill 5 in a letter to legislative leadership sent Tuesday, calling some of the projects “unnecessary” and saying they spend taxpayer money without leveraging federal funding and were “snuck into” the bill at the last minute.

He noted a letter sent to him by Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, in which Fitzpatrick called for some cuts to the bill – parts of it he had called “pure pork” on the Senate floor in April when he railed against what he said was unneeded spending.

“Majority Leader Fitzpatrick provides sound, thoughtful recommendations to bring greater fiscal restraint and responsibility to House Bill 5, and I agree with his assessment that there are ‘several projects and areas of spending which are unnecessary and should be removed,’” Gianforte wrote to Republican legislative leadership.

“We must be good stewards of taxpayer resources, and the more than $23 million in line-item vetoes I have made ensure we are,” he added.

The Republican governor cut the $6 million appropriation in the bill for a sixth cottage at the Southwest Montana Veterans Home in Butte – which Sen. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, had said in April would complete the last piece of the proposed design for the facility and would add 16 beds.

“It’s the least we could do to have a place for veterans to live,” Lynch said at the time.

In his veto letter, Gianforte said he opposed the spending because it leaves the state on the hook to see if the federal government will reimburse the money – the bulk of which it has provided for the rest of the facility.

“That, however, is not a wise strategy, and I will not hold my breath that the federal government will repay the state any portion. A more fiscally responsible approach is to allocate the state’s portion of the project and secure federal funds for the balance, as we have done in the past,” Gianforte wrote, adding that he hoped lawmakers and his office could fund the project “more prudently and responsibly” ahead of the 2025 session.

In a statement, Lynch said voters should reach out to the lawmakers who represent them and push for a veto override of what he called “a terrible decision.”

“The governor, with great haste, signed legislation that gave himself and his rich friends nearly a billion in tax breaks this session, but turns around just days before Memorial Day and vetoes $6 million for our veterans to build the last cottage and complete the Southwest Montana Veterans Home,” he said. “And it’s not because the state doesn’t have the money. The governor has grown the state budget by almost $2 billion and has the audacity to call that ‘conservative.’”

Gianforte also vetoed $8 million for the Yellowstone Conservation Area project, $2 million for a local park facility improvement grant, $1 million to upgrade and repair the water and sewer system in Columbus, $2 million in Chippewa Cree building repairs and school construction, and $250,000 for a riverfront trail public plaza in Missoula. He said in his letter the additions were made at the last minute without proper vetting and debate.

“Regardless of the merits of these line-item appropriations, there are more transparent, fiscally responsible methods to appropriate taxpayer dollars than racing to add unrelated projects into the state government infrastructure appropriations bill as the legislative session ends,” Gianforte said in his veto letter.

During the April Senate floor discussion, Fitzpatrick was angry about the additions lawmakers of both parties worked to get into HB5 in the Finance and Claims Committee shortly before the bill hit the floor.

“We take pride here in this Capitol that we are not Washington D.C., that we follow the right process and don’t lard up bills with unnecessary pork,” he said at the time. “… This is the session of gluttony.”

Other lawmakers had pushed back, criticizing other spending Republicans had already passed and some of the governor’s priority tax cuts the Republican supermajority had already pushed through earlier in the session.

“We’re not deficit spending up here like the feds; we’re not borrowing any money,” said Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings.

But Gianforte riffed off that language in his veto letter, saying while Washington, D.C., “is notorious for larding up appropriations with pork, Montana is different.”

“As fiscal conservatives, we must avoid the temptation to recklessly spend taxpayers’ dollars,” the governor said. “We must avoid appropriating funds, which are supposed to be dedicated to long-range planning for state-owned facilities, toward projects that are dedicated for neither long-range building planning nor state-owned facilities.”

One funding pool that remained in HB5 was a $5 million grant for emergency shelter facility infrastructure grants. The concept for the grant allocation was originally in a bill sponsored by Rep. Gregory Frazer, R-Deer Lodge, which proposed $2 million dollars and died in House Appropriations after contentious debate on the House floor.

Nonprofits in receipt of grants larger than $25,000 must provide dollar-for-dollar matching funds from private sources. Grants are being facilitated by the Department of Commerce and projects per county can receive a maximum of $750,000.

Frazer said in an interview Friday he was surprised the funding for shelters survived the line-item veto, but was saddened that funding for the veterans home didn’t make it.

“I feel that the logic behind why it was vetoed doesn’t outweigh the sacrifice that the men and women that would benefit from that cottage, that they paid for with their service to the country — it should have been something guaranteed in there,” he said.

Frazer also said the issue of funding shelters has been going on for some time, and one that will continue as the state grows in population.

“It’s not something that we can just ignore, overlook, pretend that it doesn’t exist, and hope that it’ll go away,” he said.

House Bill 2, the budget bill, is still awaiting action by the governor, who can also line-item veto the budget. According to the legislature’s website, it is still awaiting Senate President Jason Ellsworth’s signature.

The Daily Montanan’s Nicole Girten contributed to this report. This story was updated to include comments from Republican Rep. Gregory Frazer of Deer Lodge.