Democrats ask for explanation on stalled budget bill, others, call delays ‘chaotic way to govern’
The Montana State Capitol in Helena on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. (Photo by Mike Clark for the Daily Montanan)
Montana’s Democratic legislative leadership sent a letter Friday to Senate President Jason Ellsworth calling on him to sign several bills that have been awaiting his signature for weeks so they can be sent to the governor.
For several weeks since the legislature adjourned May 2, six bills that were passed by lawmakers, sent through the enrolling process, then signed by House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, have been awaiting Ellsworth’s signature – leading lawmakers and people and organizations who either have stakes or interest in them to wonder about the holdup, according to conversations with several of them over the past week.
Chief among them are House Bill 2, the $14 billion budget for the next biennium that starts July 1 that also contains the Medicaid provider rate funding, and House Bill 648, sponsored by Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman, a bipartisan agreement to codify and expand eligibility for a child care scholarship program for low-income Montana families.
“Dozens of child care facilities and providers across the state have been reaching out to me both via email and calling me and saying, “Hey, what’s the status of this bill? I see it’s been signed by the Speaker. Is the governor going to sign it?’” Buckley said in an interview this week. “And every time I say, ‘Go ask the president and write to the governor and tell him how important it is to sign this bill into law.’”
Some lawmakers, including the six Democrats who wrote to Ellsworth on Friday, have also raised questions about legislative rules and whether the delay is allowed under them. The Montana Free Press has previously reported on the questions surrounding the delays.
“Montanans expect transparency and accountability from us. Your actions, through gamesmanship and delay, threaten important policies from childcare for working families to the viability of community care for aging seniors,” the Democrats wrote in the letter. “Perhaps worst of all, your inexplicable delay threatens our ability to complete our one constitutional obligation – passing a balanced budget.”
Some worry the delay of sending HB2 to the governor’s desk could affect the July 1 start of the next fiscal year if Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte line-item vetoes any parts of it.
“It is unclear whether the Governor will receive the budget, assess it, potentially issue line-item vetoes, or veto it in its entirety before the new biennium begins on July 1st. This is an irresponsible and chaotic way to govern,” the Democrats wrote to Ellsworth.
The delays coincide with Gianforte vetoing 25 bills over the past several weeks, at least 19 of which had override polls sent out to lawmakers. Lawmakers have 30 days, per statute, to vote on an override via paper ballots that are mailed to lawmakers, which they in turn have to mail back or deliver in person to the Secretary of State lest they be counted as a “no” vote automatically.
Override polls can be conducted if the governor vetoes a bill after the legislative session is over and if two-thirds of the legislature voted in favor of the bill. A veto override also requires a vote in favor from two-thirds of lawmakers. The governor has 10 days to sign or reject legislation once it reaches his desk before it automatically becomes law.
Friday at 5 p.m. marks the deadline for the first two override polls, on House Bill 748, a zoning bill, and House Bill 33, which allows county commissioners to initiate civil proceedings in certain instances. Other deadlines are spread out over the next two and a half weeks.
Some lawmakers the Daily Montanan spoke with voiced concerns that if Gianforte vetoes any part of HB2, the poll override could last into July when the new budget is set to take hold.
House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said she hadn’t seen such delays in her six years in office and that they were creating a bad precedent, especially because the budget is the only legislation lawmakers are required by the constitution to pass each session.
“The idea that we passed that budget, it was transmitted on the 12th by the speaker to the president, and that we’re still waiting for it to get to the governor, is a problem for the state of Montana in terms of good government, which is about being predictable and transparent and efficient,” she said. “People should get to know what services are going to be funded and what are going to be funded before the next fiscal year. And I think Montanans expect that because it’s been true.”
Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, the sponsor of HB2 and House Appropriations Committee chairperson, said he still believes the Governor’s Office will act quickly once it receives the bill so it can be in effect starting July 1.
“As the Executive does their analysis, including possible line item vetoes, which have a defined turnaround time, they will need to keep this in mind,” Jones wrote to the Daily Montanan. “Obviously the Senate President has chosen a methodology and order for sending bills to the Executive. As the Executive can analyze the bill prior to its formal arrival, I expect they can act quickly once it is in hand.”
Other bills still awaiting Ellsworth’s signature include Hamilton Republican Rep. David Bedey’s House Bill 332, a $40 million public school health insurance trust; Hardin Republican Rep. Paul Green’s House Bill 819, a large workforce and affordable housing bill; and House Bill 587, a school funding and property tax reduction bill from Jones.
The legislature’s bill tracking website shows House Bill 355, sponsored by Rep. John Fitzpatrick, R-Anaconda, has not been signed by Ellsworth. But he said in a message the Governor’s Office told him Tuesday it had received the bill on Monday and that it would likely be processed this week or next.
“I’ve not heard anything about the bill but am inclined to think the delay is largely attributable to the volume of bills that were passed at the very end of the session,” Bedey told the Daily Montanan.
Kyle Schmauch, a spokesperson for Senate Republicans, said the remaining bills will be transmitted to Gianforte before they need to go into effect.
“Bills are being transmitted to the governor in an orderly fashion instead of all at once following the surprise sine die to end the session,” Schmauch said. “I’m unaware of any conversations President Ellsworth has had with the Governor’s Office about the timing of specific bills beyond not dropping all of them on the governor’s desk at the same time.”
Abbott said she takes issue with the holdup in the process and said the legislature and executive need to fulfill their duties.
“These guys have the Governor’s Office. They have supermajorities in both chambers, and they still need to break the rules to accomplish our one constitutional objective. And it’s disappointing to watch,” she said.
Democrats pointed to Joint Rule 40-160 in their letter to Ellsworth about the delay. That rule says that once a bill is enrolled, the presiding officer of the house in which the bill originated must sign it within one day if the legislature is in session and that the bill “then must be transmitted to the other house where the same procedure must be followed.”
But the rule also says that a bill that has passed both chambers by the 90th day of the session “may” be enrolled, signed by the Senate president and House speaker, and delivered to the governor for consideration “not later than five working days after the 90th legislative day.”
Legislative Code Commissioner Todd Everts said the “may” creates “some discretion” for the Senate president and House speaker and leaves the rule somewhat unclear.
“Over time, obviously one individual of the legislature couldn’t lock up a piece of legislation that passed. Both houses – it would eventually have to be delivered to the governor,” he said.
The Democrats say they have concerns about the Medicaid provider rate funding in HB2 as well as the codification and $7 million annual expansion of the Best Beginnings Scholarship program from Buckley, which will make the scholarships for child care for low-income families more widely available and cap families’ out-of-pocket costs at a lower level.
“I think there’s an urgency both with 648 and with provider rates – urgency from the people who would be impacted and whose lives would be impacted by these two pieces of policy,” Buckley said.
Her bill is slated to go into effect July 1 if it is signed. She said she had been hearing from families and child care facilities for more than a week about the bill’s status. Buckley is the House Minority Caucus chairperson and also signed Friday’s letter to Ellsworth in which leadership demanded an explanation for the delays.
She won bipartisan support for her bill as it made its way through the legislature, as it received 94 votes in a legislature that has 48 Democrats. The bill was also a top priority of Democratic leadership, top lawmakers said throughout the session.
“It’s certainly not just a partisan win; it’s a bipartisan win. It’s a win for the state of Montana. It’s a win for families, for communities, for businesses. It’s a win for the governor,” Buckley said. “So, it seems like such an easy signature for the governor and I feel really hopeful he’ll sign it.”
Kaitlin Price, a spokesperson for the Governor’s Office, referred questions about the delays and a possible override poll deadline should Gianforte line-item veto the budget bill to the Legislative Services Division and reiterated that the governor has 10 days to act on a bill once he receives it.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from Rep. Bedey.
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