Montana lawmakers casting votes on veto overrides

2013-05-30T18:45:00Z 2013-06-10T11:32:08Z Montana lawmakers casting votes on veto overridesBy CHARLES S. JOHNSON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette

HELENA — Although the 2013 Legislature adjourned last month, lawmakers are still casting votes — this time on whether to override Gov. Steve Bullock’s 24 vetoes.

Votes on the first five veto overrides are due Monday at Secretary of State Linda McCulloch’s office. The deadline for the remaining 19 is June 10.

Legislators are voting by mail from their homes, not at the Capitol, on whether to overturn the vetoes.

In his first legislative session, Bullock vetoed 71 bills, the second most of any governor, but only 24 are subject to override votes. Only those vetoed bills that were approved by two-thirds of the legislators voting on the final vote are subject to the override poll.

It’s a difficult feat to topple a governor’s veto. In the past 20 years, Montana legislators have overridden a total of one veto by three governors, excluding Bullock, McCulloch said.

Two-thirds of the total members of each house must vote to override a veto. That is least 67 of the 100 representatives and 34 of the 50 senators. If legislators don’t return their ballots, as is common, that amounts to a “no” vote on the override tally.

Put another way, either 34 representatives or 17 senators can vote to sustain the veto, stopping the override effort in its tracks.

McCulloch said it’s not uncommon for legislators who are in the minority party to stand behind their governor of the same party and muster enough votes to turn back veto overrides.

Bullock is a Democrat. Although Democrats are in the minority in the House and Senate, they have enough members — 39 in the House and 21 in the Senate — to stop an override if they vote as a bloc or close to it.

McCulloch, whose office mails and tallies the veto override votes, said overturning a governor’s veto is rare. The post session votes cost $5,545 this year.

A look at the past 20 years compiled by her office shows that Gov. Marc Racicot, a Republican, had the lone veto overridden since 1993. That was a 1999 bill requiring the Revenue Department, under certain conditions, to use two of three methods to determine market value of property.

His successors, Gov. Judy Martz, also a Republican, and Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, had no vetoes overturned throughout their tenures, even though Schweitzer vetoed a record 78 bills in 2011.

McCulloch, a Democrat, said one reason Bullock vetoed so many was because a number of bills were delivered him after the session ended. That prevented him from making amendatory vetoes, or suggested changes, for the Legislature to consider.

One vetoed bill still generating plenty of discussion is House Bill 218, by Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip.

It would have created a $35 million fund to be spent on public works improvements such as water and sewer system upgrades and improved roads in the areas affected by the Bakken oil boom. The final votes on HB218 were 48-2 in the Senate and 93-6 in the House.

Bullock vetoed the bill, calling it “excessive and duplicative.” He said other bills allocated more than $40 million in infrastructure and other impact funds for the area.

Votes on HB218 aren’t due until June 10. As of late Thursday, the tally showed 40 representatives supporting the veto override and 10 against, while 12 senators backed the override and four opposed it.

McCulloch said she suspects plenty of behind-the-scenes lobbying goes on for and against the veto override.

Kevin O’Brien, Bullock’s deputy chief of staff for Bullock, confirmed there are ongoing discussions.

“As is the case always, the governor and his staff keep open lines of communication with legislators — both Democrats and Republicans,” O’Brien said.

Bullock, he said, was forced to veto bills with $150 million in spending to preserve Montana’s fiscal stability.

“The governor believes that if Montana’s going to continue to create jobs and attract businesses to invest here, we can’t be a place that has a budget awash in red ink,” O’Brien said. “He’s making that point clear to legislators.”

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