HELENA -- In vintage political theater in front of Montana's Capitol, Gov. Brian Schweitzer wielded three red-hot branding irons to burn "VETO" messages on some Republican bills Wednesday as a large crowd cheered him on.
Schweitzer emblazoned his "VETO" brand on seven paper bills attached to planks of wood that already had the bill numbers burned on them. The planks were hung on a display board. The worse the bill in Schweitzer's opinion, the larger the branding iron he used.
The bill papers would catch fire as the branding iron went through it to sear the wooden planks.
In all, the Democratic governor vetoed 17 Republican bills Wednesday, plus one he can't legally veto until it reaches him. That brings Schweitzer's total actual outright vetoes to 21, not counting the premature one. All were Republican bills.
Through Wednesday, he's also made 10 amendatory vetoes in which he suggests changes to bills. All but two have them have been to Republican-sponsored measures.
Schweitzer strode down the front steps of the Capitol as the cheering crowd waited. A small propane-powered barbecue heated his three branding irons.
"Frivolous, unconstitutional and just ba-a-a-d ideas," he said as the crowd cheered.
At real brandings, he said, ranchers not only brand their cattle, but they dehorn them if necessary and vaccinate them.
"At an actual branding party, there's some castration, but we're not doing any of that today," he said as the crowd booed.
It was classic political showmanship by Schweitzer, who's been pulling stunts like this since his introduction to Montana politics in 1999.
At that time, Schweitzer, a newly announced U.S. Senate candidate, called a press conference in the Capitol rotunda. He pulled $47,000 in borrowed cash out of a satchel, laid it on a table and dropped it all on the floor. That's how much his opponent, then-Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., had raised in donations from tobacco companies, he said.
On Wednesday, Schweitzer vetoed major bills that would have repealed Montana's medical marijuana law and moved the voter registration deadline to the Friday before Election Day. The current deadline is Election Day.
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Other victims of Schweitzer vetoes were bills to give counties a say in the movement of wild bison, forbid the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks from using hunting license fees to buy land, and grant the state eminent domain authority on federal lands.
He rejected bills aimed at capping damage awards for motor vehicle accidents and malpractice lawsuits against hard-to-recruit medical "subspecialists." Schweitzer turned back bills to weaken Montana's "clean and green" energy standards that he pushed through during his tenure and had led to a flourishing of wind power projects. He snubbed several GOP health care bills and vetoed a bill dealing with parental control over sex education in schools and forbidding schools from allowing "abortion providers" to provide any course materials.
Schweitzer drew some of the biggest applause for vetoing a bill to allow the expansion of cyanide heap leach gold mining, something voters have twice rejected. However, it turned out that Senate Bill 306, by Rep. Terry Murphy, R-Cardwell, has not yet reached the governor. Schweitzer vowed to deep-six the bill when he gets it.
"We've had a little fun here," Schweitzer said. "I hope you had a little fun, but this is serious business about real families, about real jobs in every community in Montana."
He said he would return to the Capitol to officially veto the bills. And Schweitzer vowed to veto "a lot more bills," drawing more loud cheers.
"When I swore to uphold the constitution, I meant it," he said. "Some in this building would say we don't care about the constitution and we don't care about the will of the people. I care about both deeply."
The Republican-controlled Legislature can override the vetoes if two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate concur. While the House has enough Republican votes to do it, there aren't enough GOP votes in the Senate to overturn the vetoes if all Democrats unite behind Schweitzer.
Republicans were not amused.
"Today the governor rejected bipartisan legislation that would have put people back to work," said House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade. "Vetoing a good idea in tough times does nothing but leave folks feeling the burn of fewer jobs, more expensive housing and higher health care costs. If the governor insists on burning Montanans by vetoing common-sense legislation, he can expect the overrides to continue."
The House has overridden one veto, but the Senate hasn't acted on it yet.
Over in the Senate. Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge, topped the list by having three bills vetoed. He said Rep. John Esp, R-Big Timber, presented him with his own branding iron that says "BS" for Gov. Brian Schweitzer giving Montanans "a bum steer for vetoing some good jobs bills."
Priest said one vetoed bill would have lowered health care costs for Montanans and another would have lowered the cost of building entry-level homes, putting hundreds of people back to work.