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Gov. Brian Schweitzer hit the road Friday to criticize just-adjourned legislators for wasting time on "frivolous" bills while producing budget savings not unlike ones he proposed in January.

Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled House and Senate finalized the state budget for the next two years, cutting government spending by 6 percent. Schweitzer had proposed a 5 percent cut at the Legislature's start four months ago.

In a meeting with The Billings Gazette's editorial board, Schweitzer faulted the Legislature for wasting time on bills regarding the gold standard, birth certificates and spear hunting before getting around to the business of compromise in its final days.

So far, Schweitzer has signed 282 bills into law, made amendatory vetoes to 43 and vetoed 30, some of which were set afire with a hot-iron "VETO" brand.

"This is not a state that needs to be run by a political party," Schweitzer said. "This Legislature showed that these people who want to shout about things on the 10-yard line, they're not part of the solution."

His comments were in stark contrast to remarks made by Republican lawmakers who left Helena saying they'd not only passed a budget, cut spending and reformed medical marijuana, but did so with two days to spare.

Republicans controlled a 68-32 majority in the House and a 28-22 edge in the Senate, giving the party control of the Legislature for the first time since 2004.

The Democratic governor's 80-minute meeting with the editorial board was streamed live on the Internet and excerpts can be viewed at

Here are a few of the issues on which Schweitzer spoke:

Medical marijuana: While the Legislature managed to squeeze the profits from what had quickly become a multimillion-dollar industry, other unintended consequences will result, Schweitzer said. The new state medical marijuana law, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, begins July 1 and prohibits people from making a profit for growing medical marijuana for state recognized patients. It also limits the number of patients for which a grower can care to three, including the grower.

The new law targets large medical marijuana growers with multiple clients and poses new challenges to medical marijuana users, who will soon have to grow their own or find someone willing to service them for free.

The legislative fix, Schweitzer said, means there will be demand for at least 10,000 growers, one for every three of the state's 30,000 medical marijuana card holders. The number may decline over time as the cards, which have always had a renewal requirement, expire and people decide medical cannabis isn't worth the trouble.

The new law says that a grower can only grow for three patients at a time, so several thousand small, home-grow operations are likely to replace the large businesses now serving a hundred or more clients, Schweitzer said.

"That means there are 10,000 houses in Montana where somebody is growing medical cannabis. How can law enforcement possibly follow that?" the governor said.

But Schweitzer is most concerned that the Legislature undid a voter-created law. More than 60 percent of Montana voters legalized medical marijuana in 2004. Schweitzer said it should have been left to voters to change the law if they now had doubts.

"I don't think the Legislature should come in and say. 'You were wrong with your vote,'" Schweitzer said. "If they want to repeal it, it needs to be done by the voters."

(At a Helena press conference later in the day, Schweitzer said he will let the medical marijuana law take effect without his signature.)

Medical marijuana wasn't the only voter-created law Republicans upended, Schweitzer said. Lawmakers attempted to nullify a cyanide leach mining ban, for which voters have twice voted. Earlier this April, Schweitzer used a hot-iron "VETO" brand to kill that bill.

Republican leaders also attempted to undo the 2004 voter decision to spend 32 percent of the state's tobacco lawsuit settlement money on tobacco prevention. The bill was killed by the governor as well.

Eminent domain: Legislators faced a major decision about empowering utilities to take private properties for the "greater good" of the public, namely the delivery of electricity, oil and gas through transmission wires and pipelines. That power is normally reserved for governments, sometimes called upon to intervene when a utility and landowner can't reach an agreement. A successful lawsuit challenging a Canada-based company's attempt to acquire Montana private property through eminent domain changed that.

There were bills that favored landowners, but ultimately legislators approved a bill empowering utility companies.

Schweitzer said he planned to send the bill, sponsored by Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings, back to lawmakers with a suggested amendment giving private property owners better bargaining rights, but the Legislature left town before giving him the bill. Without lawmakers in session, the governor's only option is to sign the bill as passed or reject it. Schweitzer said he will pass it to keep energy projects on track for the next two years and leave it to the 2013 Legislature to shore up private property rights.

"It will have to be signed," Schweitzer said. "That's kind of a deal with the devil, isn't it?"

State construction: The Legislature rejected a bill authorizing $100 billion in bonding for construction of new state buildings across Montana. The Montana Contractors Association and Montana Chamber of Commerce had called the bill the Legislature's true jobs bill. Schweitzer said the state was well suited for construction projects with interest rates as low as 4 percent and building materials reduced in cost by 15 percent or more since the end of the housing boom.

Proposed projects included a new diesel technology center intended to produce mechanics for Montana oilfields and other natural resource industries, a new Montana Historical Society museum and a new science instruction and technology building at Montana State University Billings.

Coal: In its final hours, the Legislature resurrected a tax break bill for coal companies, which was criticized as a gift to Signal Peak Energy's Bull Mountain Mine. Schweitzer said there were dozens of mining companies with billions of tons of underground coal that would benefit from the bill, which was authored by Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge.

The bill, as amended by the governor, reduces the tax rate on gross coal proceeds from 5 percent to 2.5 percent for the first decade of a new or expanded underground mine. For Signal Peak, the tax break would be about $3 million a year.

Schweitzer said Carbon County has coal deposits that become more attractive for underground mining as a result of the approved tax break.

Contact Tom Lutey at or 657-1288


Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.