Montana Supreme Court Clears Path For Lawmakers To Override Governor’s Marijuana Revenue Bill Veto

Montana Supreme Court Clears Path For Lawmakers To Override Governor’s Marijuana Revenue Bill Veto

“Regardless of Gianforte’s motives in relation to SB442 specifically, he advocates for a troubling precedent.”

By Blair Miller, Daily Montanan

The Montana Supreme Court on Friday afternoon denied the State of Montana’s request to pause a lower court decision ordering the governor and secretary of state to send out an override poll for a marijuana fund redistribution bill Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) vetoed at the end of the 2023 legislative session.

Gianforte and Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen (R) officially filed their notice of appeal on Wednesday of Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Mike Menahan’s district court rulings, which said the two officials have “interrupted the political process in an impermissible way” by blocking a chance for lawmakers to override the Senate Bill 442 veto.

On Thursday, the two defendants asked the Supreme Court to pause Menahan’s order pending the full appeal, arguing that if the override poll was sent out and lawmakers override the veto, their legal claims will be rendered moot.

But the justices disagreed, saying attorneys for Gianforte and Jacobsen have not proven that is the case, and saying the court is certainly able to address the appeal of Menahan’s ruling on veto procedure while a poll is conducted.

At issue is whether to change how revenue from recreational marijuana taxes is distributed. A supermajority of lawmakers, including both Democrats and Republicans, supported the idea of allocating more of the revenue toward outdoor and wildland habitat acquisition and distributing it to counties for road improvement, ideas which Gianforte rejected.

“Because the fate of SB 442 could ultimately go either way, a stay denial does not moot Appellants’ appeal. Appellants have not demonstrated irreparable harm,” six justices wrote in Friday’s unanimous opinion. The only justice who did not sign the opinion was Dirk Sandefur.

The justices did allow the appeal to proceed, but the high court’s order means that the governor will have to send his veto message to Jacobsen, who will have to send out an override poll to lawmakers by Tuesday, March 19, per Menahan’s order.

“We are thankful to the Montana Supreme Court for upholding the constitution and requiring the governor and secretary of state to issue the override poll with haste,” said Noah Marion, the political and state policy director for Wild Montana, one of three plaintiff groups in the case that helped craft the bill last year. “We look forward to helping Sen. [Mike] Lang and the Legislature finally make SB 442 law; sending millions of dollars across Montana benefitting infrastructure, veterans, mental health, agriculture and timber industries, wildlife, public access, hunter and anglers.”

Once the override poll is sent out, it will have been more than 10 months since Gianforte vetoed the bill, sponsored by Sen. Mike Lang (R-Malta), which passed with 130 votes out of 150 possible, in what would be the final hours of the legislative session.

Senators did not learn the bill had been vetoed until they adjourned sine die last May 2, causing a storm of confusion among lawmakers and lobbyists who worked for months to get the bill into its final form and brought in a wide range of supporters on the industry side and among lawmakers because it both put more money toward a Habitat Legacy conservation program and funded county road maintenance.

Competing bills supported by the governor and some Republicans sought to put more money toward the Department of Justice and the General Fund but were pushed aside by lawmakers in favor of the final version of SB 442.

The question at the heart of Gianforte’s veto was whether he properly vetoed the bill while the full Legislature was still in session or not, as his office had said he vetoed the bill before the Senate adjourned, but the veto message was never read across the Senate rostrum where the bill originated. The governor and a legal opinion from the code commissioner each maintained that since the House was still in session, the full body was in session.

But the plaintiffs—Wild Montana, the Montana Association of Counties, and the Montana Wildlife Federation—sued to challenge their stance, saying lawmakers must have an opportunity to override a veto, and had not gotten one.

After hearing arguments in the case in December, Menahan in January ordered Gianforte to transmit the veto to the secretary of state and for her to send the override poll out to lawmakers. Two-thirds of the Legislature will have to vote to override the veto for it to be successful.

The governor balked at the order, asking Menahan to pause his own order in February. But Menahan also denied the stay request, saying time was running out before the 2025 session starts and the lawmakers must have the chance to vote on an override or the “crucial balance of powers” will be upset between the branches of government.

“Staying the court’s judgment would allow Gianforte to continue to exercise an unconstitutional level of control over the lawmaking process,” Menahan wrote in the order earlier this month. “Regardless of Gianforte’s motives in relation to SB442 specifically, he advocates for a troubling precedent.”

The governor’s office had told the Daily Montanan in February it planned to appeal Menahan’s January decision to the Supreme Court, but it did not file that notice until this week, along with the request for the stay.

The Supreme Court’s four-page opinion returned one day after the request for the stay says the court can get to the bottom of the constitutional veto issues without one.

“Although the Legislature must vote on whether to override SB 442, the outcome of the underlying appeal will determine whether the District Court’s ruling was correct, and therefore whether the governor’s veto ultimately stands over the Legislature’s vote,” the justices wrote. “This Court can address the underlying issue in due course regardless of whether we issue a stay.”

The court’s ruling clears the way for the groups and Lang to try to keep hold of the strong bipartisan support they received for the bill at the end of last year’s session. The governor’s request for a stay postulated that perhaps support has waned in the months since the session. But the plaintiffs in the case say they are pleased that they will have the opportunity to prove that theory wrong.

“Despite ongoing attempts to stall, the courts have upheld the necessity for legislative involvement in the veto override process,” said MACo Executive Director Eric Bryson. “We appreciate and commend the Supreme Court for promptly addressing the matter.”

This story was first published by Daily Montanan.

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Photo elements courtesy of rawpixel and Philip Steffan.

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