Home Part of States Newsroom
Montana counties: Keep eye out for legislators ‘playing politics’ with popular bill


Montana counties: Keep eye out for legislators ‘playing politics’ with popular bill

Mar 28, 2024 | 9:38 pm ET
By Blair Miller
MACo tells Montanans to ensure their legislators aren’t ‘playing politics’ with SB 442 override
Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, prepares to speak to supporters of Senate Bill 442 on Monday, May 1, 2023, just ahead of its final Senate passage. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)

Local officials are decrying efforts to stymie a possible veto override vote in the Montana Legislature of a 2023 bill that redistributed cannabis revenue, urging Montanans to be sure lawmakers aren’t ignoring counties’ needs and “playing politics” with the poll.

Thirty-three county commissioners, superintendents, and county clerks from across the state signed a letter this week from the Montana Association of Counties telling Montanans to watch how their lawmakers respond to the Senate Bill 442 veto override poll after Republican leadership in the House and Senate threatened to not participate in the poll.

“If legislators decide to play politics and cite claims about ’separation of powers’ as an excuse to sabotage SB 442, then it is clear that those legislators are more concerned with engaging in political games than they are working to represent you,” reads the letter, which is addressed “to the citizens of Montana.”

Last week, more than 10 months after Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte vetoed the bill that redistributes Montana’s marijuana tax revenue to send upwards of $15 million toward county road maintenance, Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen sent the veto override poll out to lawmakers for consideration following a court order.

Political and legal drama have surrounded the override poll.

MACo and two conservation groups that worked to garner support for the bill – Wild Montana and the Montana Wildlife Federation – sued. They alleged the governor was using a legal loophole to block an override poll, but they argued legislators under the constitution must have a way to override a governor’s veto.

A district court judge in January and early March agreed, saying that Gianforte needed to send the bill and his veto message to Jacobsen for her to conduct the polle by Tuesday of last week.

But last Monday, on the eve of that deadline, Republican Senate leadership issued letters signed by 27 members of their caucus to the Supreme Court and to Jacobsen saying they believe the courts’ orders to be unconstitutional.

House Republican leadership followed on Wednesday with a similar letter to the court saying their caucus would not participate.

Jacobsen herself said in a letter accompanying the poll that she was unsure about sending out the override poll because of what those Republicans had said in the letter a day earlier.

The letter signed by MACo members on Tuesday – many of them Republicans in rural counties – says the latest efforts to stymie the veto override, and the 10-month process, amount to little more than political gamesmanship for a bill that passed its final votes with 130 of 150 lawmakers in support and was sponsored by Sen. Mike Lang, a Republican from Malta.

“We respect the right of the governor to veto legislation. We respect the rules established by the Legislature on how they conduct their business. We respect any legislator’s vote on the poll being conducted on the veto of SB 442,” the letter says. “But we do not respect the political spin that when a governor fails to allow the Legislature the opportunity to review his veto action—and the Court is required to compel him to allow the Legislature their constitutional duty—that it somehow justifies a legislator refusing the participate in the poll.”

The letter does criticize Gianforte’s veto in its substance and timing, pushing back on the governor’s stance that state dollars shouldn’t fund local infrastructure by saying infrastructure investments benefit all Montanans and reiterating that they believe Gianforte tried to issue a “pocket veto” that would be impossible for lawmakers to try to override.

“The litigation surrounding SB 442 sought to protect the Legislature’s authority under the Montana Constitution, a right that was violated by the Executive Branch, which in turn required the Judicial Branch to intervene and mandate the Executive Branch into compliance. Any twisting or spinning of the case is pure political gamesmanship,” the letter says.

It goes on to press the lawmakers who originally supported the bill who are now hinting they might not support the override poll. The letter says if SB 442 was good policy when they voted for it last spring, it remains good policy ripe to become law nearly 11 months later.

Several of the MACo members who signed the bill live in counties that stand to receive upwards of $200,000 or even $300,000 per year for county road maintenance – even if they do not allow adult-use marijuana sales in their counties, according to an analysis released last week by the Legislative Services Division.

The letter urges citizens to keep an eye on their lawmakers and how they vote when the poll is finalized on April 18. Two-thirds of lawmakers would need to support the override for it to succeed.

“As legislators return their ballots on this critical issue, we would urge you to watch carefully to see how your local legislator votes—because a vote to support SB 442 is a vote in the best interests of Montanans, and a vote to let the governor’s veto stand is proof your local legislator is ignoring you, and just playing politics,” the letter says.