Judge orders poll to go forward on vetoed marijuana revenue distribution bill

Lewis and Clark County Courthouse
Posted at 8:03 PM, Mar 06, 2024

HELENA — A district court judge in Helena has ordered state leaders to go ahead with a poll on whether the Montana Legislature wants to overturn a veto Gov. Greg Gianforte issued on the last day of the 2023 legislative session.

On Tuesday, District Judge Mike Menahan denied Gianforte’s request to stay his January decision, when he ruled lawmakers should have a chance to vote on whether to override the veto on Senate Bill 442. He directed Gianforte and Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen to begin the process of polling the Legislature by mail within 14 days.

“Respondents’ actions have interrupted the political process in an impermissible way by preventing the legislature from having the final say in the process by which a bill becomes law,” Menahan wrote. “Staying the Court’s judgment would allow Gianforte to continue to exercise an unconstitutional level of control over the lawmaking process.”

SB 442 would redirect some of the state’s marijuana tax revenues to help counties fund construction and repair of rural roads, as well as to increase funding to wildlife habitat improvement projects and to a state account that provides assistance for veterans and their surviving spouses and dependents.

The bill passed with support from 130 of Montana’s 150 lawmakers, but Gianforte vetoed it, citing technical concerns with how it was written and saying it was inappropriate to use ongoing state funding for a local responsibility like roads.

Gianforte made his veto right around the time the Senate adjourned on a surprise sine die motion. That created an uncertain situation for lawmakers who wanted to try to override the veto. When the Legislature is in session, both chambers have to hold votes on whether to enact a bill over the governor’s veto. When the veto comes after the session, the Secretary of State polls lawmakers by mail.

Menahan ruled the state constitution clearly intended that lawmakers always have an opportunity to override a veto, and that the Legislature didn’t have a legitimate way to hold an override vote on SB 442 before adjournment because it hadn’t officially received the veto.

Gianforte’s office asked Menahan for a stay, arguing that their right to appeal the case to the Montana Supreme Court might be rendered moot if a poll went forward first.

“The public interest is served by having novel constitutional questions finally resolved by the Montana Supreme Court, especially when those issues involve the separation of powers,” Gianforte’s attorneys said in a filing last month.

But Menahan said there’s no reason the Supreme Court can’t consider the appeal even as the poll is happening.

“Delaying initiating that process until after a final order on appeal extends the time in which the status of SB 442 remains unknown,” Menahan wrote. “However, if the poll proceeds concurrently with the appeal process, the entire issue may be resolved at the same time. Should the Montana Supreme Court overturn this Court’s judgment on appeal, the Governor’s veto will stand regardless of the results of the poll. On the other hand, if the Montana Supreme Court affirms this Court’s judgment, the results of the poll will control SB 442’s status.”