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Montana Gov. Gianforte vetoes 8 bills this week

Posted at 7:44 PM, May 12, 2023

HELENA — Gov. Greg Gianforte vetoed a set of bills this week – including several where the Montana Legislature wrapped up its work without accepting his proposed changes.

Gianforte submitted veto letters for eight bills Thursday and Friday. So far, he’s vetoed a total of 12 bills from the 2023 legislative session.

Two of the most recent vetoes were on bills that came out of a legislative interim committee’s study of the ongoing issues at the Montana State Hospital.

House Bill 29, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, would have required the state to begin transferring patients out of the State Hospital if their primary diagnosis is Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or traumatic brain injury. The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services would have needed to find new community placements for those patients by 2025.

During the last legislative interim, lawmakers raised concerns about the conditions for patients with dementia at MSH.

In his veto letter, Gianforte said HB 29 “fails to offer a realistic mechanism” for transitioning these patients to new placements. He had submitted extensive proposed amendments to the Legislature – including removing the 2025 deadline, which he called “unworkable.” The Legislature received those amendments on May 2, shortly before they adjourned sine die.

Without the changes, Gianforte said the bill could require the state to discharge vulnerable patients without a guarantee that an appropriate placement for them was available.

“This is irresponsible, inappropriate, and inhumane,” he said in his letter.

Senate Bill 4, sponsored by Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, would have required DPHHS to share reports about allegations of abuse and neglect at MSH with Disability Rights Montana, the organization with the responsibility of protecting and advocating for Montanans with disabilities.

Gianforte said the bill had technical issues and that it didn’t sufficiently protect the right to privacy because it prohibited redacting information from the reports. He again requested May 2 that the Legislature amend the bill, and he said the bill was “legally insufficient” and would lead to “the sharing of inconsistent information” without those changes.

Gianforte also vetoed Carlson’s House Bill 37, which would have required DPHHS to get a warrant before removing a child from their home and family “unless the child is likely to experience sexual abuse or physical abuse in the time that would be required to obtain a warrant.”

In his veto message, Gianforte said HB 37 “ties the department’s hands in exigent circumstances when a child’s life may be at risk and immediate removal is needed.” His proposed amendments, again submitted May 2, would have added exceptions to the warrant requirement when the child is experiencing physical neglect and when care is not available from a parent, guardian or other responsible individual.

“Let me be clear: while I am open to testing new and innovative public policy in Montana, we must not experiment with the well-being or lives of children in need of protection,” his veto letter read. “House Bill 37 is undoubtedly a step too far.”

On Friday, Carlson shared a statement with MTN, expressing her disappointment.

“The inflammatory language of the governor’s veto letter ignores the reality that warrants, or court orders, to remove children from their homes in cases that are not emergencies are used in at least 20 other states,” she said in the statement. “This is not ‘experimenting’ and not ‘a bridge too far.’ It is a step in the right direction.”

Carlson said there are systems for getting warrants quickly when needed, and she didn’t believe that time would be a major issue. She said she saw “substantial Constitutional issues with removing a child without a warrant when the situation is not an emergency,” and she is concerned Montana is not in a good position to defend its current policy in court.

The governor also vetoed House Bill 828, sponsored by Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls. That bill aimed to provide additional financial support for Montana ambulance providers by allowing them to charge themselves a fee and use the money as a match to bring in more federal dollars.

Gianforte said there needed to be more analysis done to ensure the program would benefit all providers, since they would not be able to opt out. He proposed amendments, including removing a 2024 deadline to implement the program.

Unlike the other bills, Gianforte’s amendments on HB 828 did receive a hearing in one chamber. The House approved the changes 80-15 on May 2. However, by that time, the Senate had already adjourned after a surprising sine die motion.

Dozens of ambulance providers in the state signed on to a letter backing HB 828. They said it could bring in additional money they could use for things like increased wages and upgrading their ambulances and equipment.

“This was huge for all of us,” said Don Whalen, an emergency medical technician-paramedic and the manager of Missoula Emergency Service.

Whalen, who is also the president of the Montana Ambulance Association, said he was disappointed in the veto. He said he and most of the other providers who supported the bill were new to the legislative process this year, and they hope to be able to move this idea forward in the future.

“That’s one of the lessons we’ve learned, is we’ve still got to continue to connect with all of the folks that provide emergency ambulance transport,” he said. “We’re just trying to figure out what we can do next time to be successful.”

All four of these bills got support from more than two-thirds of House and Senate members – with SB 4 even passing unanimously. That means there is a possibility that lawmakers could override Gianforte’s vetoes, allowing the bills to become law over his objection.

The Montana Secretary of State’s Office will mail lawmakers a ballot for each eligible bill. Two-thirds of the members of each chamber must vote in favor in order to override a veto.

Gianforte also vetoed Senate Bill 485, sponsored by Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, which would have significantly increased legislators’ daily salary during the legislative session. The bill would have based their compensation on 40% of the governor’s salary – raising the daily rate from $128.86 to $192.03 in 2025.

Supporters of the bill said they hoped raising legislators’ pay would make it easier for a broader array of Montanans to serve in the Legislature.

“It’s getting harder and harder to recruit people, because nobody can come up here for absolutely nothing,” Small said during a debate on the bill in March.

Gianforte said in his veto letter that the proposed increase was “inappropriate and excessive,” especially in comparison to the smaller increase state workers received this year, and that they had already increased per diem compensation for lawmakers.

“If legislators’ pay is to be adjusted, it should be done prudently and in line with what Montanans, including our state employees, see with their paychecks,” he said. “Better approaches exist than having legislators vote on their own pay, including ballot initiatives, by which lawmakers could take their pay raises to the people and let Montana voters approve or disapprove them.”

SB 485 did not receive support from two-thirds of the Legislature, so it is not eligible for a veto override poll.

The other bills Gianforte vetoed include:

· House Bill 423, sponsored by Rep. Amy Regier, R-Kalispell, which would have revised Montana’s laws for compensation to people who were wrongfully convicted, including shifting financial responsibility for that compensation from the counties to the state. HB 423 received two-thirds support and will be eligible for a veto override poll.
· Senate Bill 275, sponsored by Sen. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus, which would have revised definitions related to water quality regulations in subdivisions. SB 275 did not receive two-thirds support and the veto cannot be overridden.
· Senate Bill 301, sponsored by Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, which would have exempted certain existing docks, boat ramps and other structures from being challenged under lakeshore protection regulations. SB 301 did not receive two-thirds support and the veto cannot be overridden.