Montana Legislature adjourns, but fight over marijuana money continues after governor’s veto

By: - May 2, 2023 11:38 pm
The Senate shortly after it voted to adjourn on Tuesday, May 2, 2023.

The Senate shortly after it voted to adjourn on Tuesday, May 2, 2023. (Photo by Blair Miller)

The Montana Legislature adjourned the 2023 session on Tuesday – the 87th day of the session – finishing up the budget and signing off on millions of dollars’ worth of major infrastructure, pension and other spending projects.

The session involved lofty goals from a Republican supermajority, a surplus that topped $2 billion, a series of major tax cuts, long discussions over LGBTQ+ rights and attacks on them, a Medicaid provider rate saga that lasted four months, the censure of a transgender lawmaker, one of the longest sessions in recent history, and major deals over the last couple of weeks.

On the final day, there was one more surprise in store : The fight over Montana’s marijuana tax revenue might continue beyond the final gavel.

Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte vetoed Senate Bill 442 Friday afternoon sometime around the time the Senate voted to approve a sine die motion from the minority leader to end the body’s work for the 2023 session.

The timing of the veto was still unclear late Tuesday, but it set off a flurry of activity at the Capitol on Day 87, as lawmakers, lobbyists and legal officials tried to figure out if the broadly supported bill was totally dead or if legislators  still had other options to make it law.

Sen. Mike Lang’s bill redisperses the $50+ million in marijuana tax revenues to county roads, a Habitat Legacy Fund, trails, parks and recreation, the HEART Fund, and veterans’ services. It passed the Senate Monday in a 49-1 vote after it got 82 votes in favor in the House.

But Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, has said repeatedly over the past week that the governor would veto the bill, and a spokesperson for the governor said Monday Gianforte had “substantial concerns” about it.

From the start of 2022, when recreational marijuana sales started, through March, the state brought in $58 million in tax revenue, and sold around $25 million each month.

But legislators disagree on how the money should be spent and whether voters appropriated money by the I-190 that legalized marijuana. Competing bills aimed to put nearly all the money to the general fund, or to law enforcement, but were killed off during the process.

The concerns from the Governor’s Office involved the ongoing funding of the Habitat Montana through the revenue as well as the legislature’s decision not to put more of the money toward the Department of Justice.

Over the past couple of weeks, bills that have passed both chambers have generally taken a few days to be enrolled, signed by the Senate president and House Speaker, and then delivered to the governor’s desk. But SB442 went through all of those steps within 24 hours – which some lawmakers also said was not atypical for priority bills.

On late Tuesday afternoon, Kaitlin Price, a spokesperson for the Governor’s Office, said she believed the governor signed the veto letter “sometime in the 2 o’clock hour.”

The Senate had been on a break during that hour, but the body came back to do third readings on a series of bills at 2:45 p.m. About half an hour later, at 3:18 p.m., Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, made the motion to sine die, which was agreed upon in a 26-23 vote at 3:19 p.m.

Many of the Republicans who voted in favor of adjourning were also supporters of Lang’s bill who appeared with the Malta Republican at a news conference on Monday urging the governor to sign the bill.

Before floor sessions, lawmakers were seen gathered devising plans for how to make Lang’s bill the final one standing, and some met changes made to other senators’ bills — to try to revive different policies — with swearing in the hallways at times.

As lawmakers cleaned out their desks to head home, word trickled out that Gianforte had vetoed the bill backed by a wide swath of groups and organizations spanning the political spectrum, along with the 131 lawmakers who supported the legislation.

Fitzpatrick said he believed lawmakers who voted in favor of the sine die motion wanted to adjourn before Gianforte could veto the bill so they could take the override to a poll post-session that Lang said he thought would overrule the governor’s decision.

“The governor’s veto came in time, and because they’ve sine died now, all those guys just lost a chance to have a veto override,” he said about an hour after the Senate had adjourned.

“Those guys just screwed themselves, so it really is kind of an ironic twist to it all.”

The legislature is allowed to try to override a veto from the governor through physical polls mailed to them if the veto happens after both chambers adjourn. It can also override a veto if both chambers are in session still, and each chamber votes with a two-thirds majority in favor of the override.

But Fitzpatrick and others with deep knowledge of the legal and legislative processes said the veto, and the Senate’s adjournment, have killed the bill entirely.

“We are not still in session, right? That bill is dead,” Fitzpatrick said.

Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, talks to Rep. Steve Gist, R-Cascade, on the House floor after his Senate Bill 442 was vetoed by Gov. Greg Gianforte.
Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, talks to Rep. Steve Gist, R-Cascade, on the House floor after his Senate Bill 442 was vetoed by Gov. Greg Gianforte. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)

Lang, who is term-limited, said he was surprised the bill had moved to the governor’s desk so fast and that he did not know it had been enrolled when he and others voted to adjourn. He said he believed the bill would get vetoed after the legislature adjourned, and that the Senate and House had the votes to override the veto.

“I’m very disappointed; I think it’s a setback for Montana,” Lang told reporters. “What we tried to do with the bill was get everybody together to build some habitat, build some good relations out there in the land.”

Several Democratic supporters of the bill were upset about how it got vetoed. And some lobbyists who supported the bill said they felt the governor’s veto letter contained falsehoods – first, claiming it did not contain an appropriation though that money is appropriated in House Bill 868, and second, that the money is coming from the general fund when it is coming from the marijuana state special revenue account.

While Lang’s bill became a broader effort over time, two of the groups that had worked the hardest to keep the Habitat Montana funding from the marijuana tax revenue intact issued a statement saying they were “incredibly” disappointed by the governor’s veto but would press forward to try to override it.

“SB442 is a shining example of how democracy is supposed to work, and vetoing it ignores this will of over 130 legislators, numerous counties, farmers, ranchers, veteran groups, conservation groups, and thousands of other Montanans who supported SB442,” said the two groups, Wild Montana and the Montana Wildlife Federation, in a statement. “We’ll keep working to get this bill over the finish line, and we look forward to continuing working with county commissions, our neighbors in agriculture, and so many others who fought to build a bill that invests in all of us.” 

What happens from here remains to be seen, but some in the building discussed possible legal action despite a consensus from some that the bill is dead for good.

The House and Senate leadership will hold news conferences and interviews on Wednesday morning to talk about the session, described by several lawmakers in their final words as one to remember in many ways.

But Lang is disheartened that his work on the bill – which has been praised by many lawmakers of both parties and local governments – is not likely to be made into law.

“I’ve had defeats in my life before. There’s lots of worse defeats in the world. You’ve got to go on and hope these guys will pick it up and go the next time,” he said. “I’m really discouraged Montana’s not going to get a chance to work through this process.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Blair Miller
Blair Miller

Blair Miller is a reporter based in Helena who primarily covers government, climate and courts. He's been a journalist for more than 12 years, previously based in Denver, Albuquerque and mid-Missouri.