Gazette opinion: Talk it out before Legislature adjourns

2013-06-14T00:10:00Z Gazette opinion: Talk it out before Legislature adjourns The Billings Gazette
June 14, 2013 12:10 am

When a Montana governor issues a veto, it has greater than a 99 percent chance of being sustained, according to the record of the past 40 years.

When the Legislature delivers 200 bills to the governor as the biennial session adjourns, there’s no more time for negotiating or amending. The governor must make yes or no decisions.

Those facts were confirmed by the bushel of vetoes Gov. Steve Bullock issued since the 2013 session ended. Even bills that garnered a two-thirds majority vote in the Legislature failed to get two-thirds of the House vote to override a veto.

Some Democrats who had supported the legislation before adjournment didn’t support overriding the veto of the Democratic governor. Some Republicans who voted against the bills in the House and Senate, voted to overturn Bullock’s veto. The result: It’s still been 14 years since a Montana governor’s veto has been overturned.

Although they knew the odds were against an override, proponents of House Bill 218 made a strong case for lawmakers to vote again for the oil-impacted community grant program. HB218 would have pumped $35 million over the next two years into such things as sewer and road improvements and public safety service in Eastern Montana.

Likewise, human service providers statewide appealed for an override on the House Bill 12 veto. HB12 would have used about $6 million in state general fund money for one-time payments to nursing homes, daycare centers, mental health centers, disability services and other care providers who have struggled with zero increase in state payment rates for several years. That state investment would have been matched with $12 million in federal Medicaid funding, so the defeat of HB12 cost Montana service providers about $18 million.

The main reason Bullock gave for those and other spending bill vetoes was his commitment to keeping a projected ending fund balance of at least $300 million in the state checking account in July 2015.

The Bullock administration’s addition showed that lawmakers authorized too much spending. Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, sponsor of HB218, is among the legislators who dispute that conclusion. Ankney told The Gazette State Bureau that Bullock got bad advice from his budget director, Dan Villa.

If Bullock and legislative leaders had talked out their concerns and come to a compromise before adjournment, there would have been fewer vetoes. There probably would have been some aid for Eastern Montana towns overwhelmed by oil patch growth and some relief Montana’s care providers who’ve been spending reserves and cutting services to keep their doors open.

In his State of the State speech, Bullock proposed a $15 million oil-impact grant program. Surely, forward-thinking elected leaders could have reached an agreement that was somewhere between zero and $35 million.

“I understand we left in a mess,” said the sponsor of HB12, Rep. Carolyn Pease-Lopez, D-Billings. “I’m disappointed for the providers and on behalf of the people they serve.”

The outrage and disappointment over session-end vetoes ought to be channeled into more discussion and negotiation earlier in the 2015 session.

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