Bullock vetoes draw GOP criticism

Governor Steve Bullock has finished working through bills from the 2013 Legislative Session. Bullock signed 393 bills this session.

But Capitol Reporter Dan Boyce says he vetoed 71.  

In addition, check out this report from Matt Gouras of the Associated Press:

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A legislative session that began with promises of compromise ended with a whole bunch of vetoes from Gov. Steve Bullock on Tuesday — and plenty of criticism from Republicans who argued the governor was undermining bipartisan efforts.

Bullock let 10 low-profile measures become law without his signature on Tuesday, the last of the bills sitting on his desk from the session that adjourned late last month. A day earlier he was much more active when he issued 27 vetoes to bring his total to 71 for the session — just shy of Brian Schweitzer’s record of 78 from two years ago.

Republicans — including members of a coalition that helped advance the session’s biggest bills — criticized the governor’s moves as overly partisan. The lawmakers had entered the session hopeful of improved relations after mostly coming up short in battles with former Gov. Brian Schwietzer.

Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, addresses the House Taxation Committee. He is proposing legislation to change Montana's income, property and business equipment taxes. (Photo by Amy R. Sisk. Community News Service. University of Montana.)

Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, addresses the House Taxation Committee. (Photo by Amy R. Sisk. Community News Service. University of Montana.)

“I wish the governor had taken a different tact. It appears he took an aggressive tact just like Brian Schweitzer,” said Republican state Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, a Kalispell farmer. “It hurts. Truthfully hurts. At least we knew with Schweitzer that he didn’t respect us. And while there was never a quid pro quo with this governor, we were working with him to deliver good responsible legislation and now when it was his turn to do the right thing for the right reasons it appears he took a very partisan attitude.

Tutvedt, who is among a dissident GOP group billing itself the “responsible Republicans,” noted that Bullock took out many measures from that group such as plans to improve agricultural research and to help oil-boom towns deal with overloaded infrastructure.

Tutvedt said those Republicans who had been willing to work with Democrats will be much more cautious next session.

“I had high hopes for Gov. Bullock,” Tutvedt said. “We are going to have to take a more guarded view next time.”

Bullock argued in veto messages sent to the lawmakers that he needed to save money with the vetoes to get closer to his targeted surplus of $300 million, compared to the less than $200 million left by lawmakers. He also argued the GOP tax measures disproportionately helped the wealthy.

The governor was planning a news conference for later Tuesday.

Republican leaders bemoaned the loss of some of their priorities, including income tax cuts that included a plan for simplification that reduced rates and got rid of most tax credits.

Representative Mark Blasdel (R-Somers)

Representative Mark Blasdel (R-Somers)

Republican House Speaker Mark Blasdel criticized the governor for vetoing a bill that would have exempted businesses from paying equipment tax on pollution control equipment mandated by the federal government. Yet he noted the governor signed money-spending measures, such as those to fix the state’s pension system and give state employees a pay raise.

“I think a lot of his actions show that his interest has been to take care of state government and not to take a look at addressing concerns of everyday citizens,” Blasdel said.

Blasdel commended Bullock for improving the tone in Helena, compared to when Schweitzer was torching Republican bills with a hot-iron VETO brand. The results, however, were the same, Blasdel said.

“I still think his vetoes show his ideology and his political stances. I think the tone changed, but his ideology and stances didn’t,” said Blasdel, a Somers restaurant owner.

Lawmakers will be polled on many of the measures for a veto override, which requires a supermajority of lawmakers and would require unlikely Democratic support. Such veto overrides are rare.

In total for the session, the governor received 490 bills. He signed 387 of them, vetoed 71, used line-item veto authority on three spending bills and let another 28 become law without his signature.

Conservative Republican leaders — who rarely supported any of the budget bills that were largely crafted by Democrats and some Republicans — bashed the governor. Estimates show spending goes up about 13 percent over the next two years under the plan becoming law.

“His vetoes show that he just wants the status quo. He wants the establishment running supreme over taxpayers,” Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich of Bozeman said.

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Unofficial ‘pocket vetoes’ kill several bills

pocket vetoGovernor Steve Bullock says GOP leadership blocked a number of measures during the 2013 Legislature using an unofficial parliamentary procedure called a ‘pocket veto’, where a presiding officer will fail to schedule a bill for a vote or hearing by the deadline to do so.

At least two bills in the House have been identified as ‘pocket vetoes’–HB217 and SB19. Both made it to the Governor’s desk in their original forms but were not scheduled in the House after they returned with amendatory vetoes from Bullock. At least one bill in the Senate, SJ27, was not scheduled in the Senate.

“Nowhere in how we explain the way government works to kids is it ‘Well, you provide an amendatory veto and then if one individual doesn’t like it he can just not schedule it and make sure the bill dies,'” Bullock said.

“Well, obviously I have the opportunity to choose when to schedule them,” House speaker Mark Blasdel, R-Somers said, adding the Legisature has rules in place that can override a speaker’s decision not to schedule a bill.

“Part of my job is to stand up for legislators when their bills take a turn for the worst and something they didn’t intend for and didn’t expect,” he said.

HB217 was originally designed to clarify election laws regarding religious organizations. Yet, after Bullock received the bill he amended in disclosure provisions from his failed campaign finance overhaul legislation, the TRACE Act. Speaker Blasdel calls this a ‘hijacking’ of the bill’s original intent.

“Bills like that, and my vetoes,” Bullock said, “they should rise and fall on their merits. Let individuals actually vote them up or down. Don’t just try to hide them away in some desk drawer.”

In a Thursday interview, Bullock also said dozens of bills that passed both the House and Senate have yet to be signed by Republican Leadership and delivered to his desk. Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, was in his office at that time signing those bills. Essmann’s office said Friday all were signed and delivered.

Republican infighting, Democrat wins and the new Senate race

Johnson, Mauk & Dennison 3SMALLTonight on “Capitol Talk”, our weekly legislative analysis program, News Director Sally Mauk talks with Lee newspaper reporters Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison about the growing split in the Republican party, who won and lost what in this legislative session, and the week’s political stunner: Senator Baucus’s decision not to seek re-election…

Governor, GOP leadership react to 2013 Legislature

Montana Capitol. Jacob Baynham, Community News Service, UM School of Journalism.

Montana Capitol. Jacob Baynham, Community News Service, UM School of Journalism.

The 2013 Legislature garnered largely positive remarks from Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and a host of criticisms from conservative Republican leadership after lawmakers concluded their business Wednesday.

“The Democrats were able to work with commonsense Main Street Republicans, and we got a lot of great things accomplished,” Bullock said, citing the passage of state employee pay raises, a fix of indebted retirement systems and funding for major construction projects on college campuses.

The governor did not see his entire legislative agenda passed, however. House Republicans halted legislation to use federal Medicaid expansion money to extend health insurance to tens of thousands of Montana’s poor. Bullock also lamented the failure of his plan for a $400 per homeowner tax rebate.

This session saw an often-dramatic split between GOP leadership and a group of moderates who label themselves “Responsible Republicans,” as Jackie Yamanaka of Yellowstone Public Radio reports. The conservative leadership team of Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, and Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, say few, if any, of their priorities made it through the process.

“The people who like to spend a lot of government money were winners,” Wittich said. “The losers were the taxpayers and the people hoping for reform.”

Wittich believes at least a quarter of the state’s record-setting $500 million dollar surplus should have been given back as tax relief. He sponsored a tax rebate bill which passed the legislature and is on the way to the governor’s desk, yet Bullock has been critical of the proposal as providing too much relief for corporations and the wealthy when compared with his failed $400 rebate plan.

Wittich also calls the pension fixed passed by the legislature a “bail-out” of a failed system, and believes the pay plan spends too much.

“We, in effect, had three minority caucuses,” President Essmann said about the split in the Senate GOP,  “that at various times on various issues would coalesce as a majority to act.”

“We kept track,” Wittich said, “and for every vote where we held firm on a partisan basis, we lost two.”

But Wittich says conservative Republicans still accomplished more this session than in 2011.

Legislative Services reports that 1201 bills were introduced in total during the 2013 Session. The Governor has signed 268 as of Thursday afternoon. At least another 200 bills passed by the legislature wait for his decision.

 
 
 
 

Montana Senate uproar over missing Democratic Senator, referendum bills

Senator Mike Phillips (D-Bozeman) holds a copy of the Legislature's rulebook while Democrats pounded their desks and shouted in protest Friday

Senator Mike Phillips (D-Bozeman) holds a copy of the Legislature’s rulebook while Democrats pounded their desks and shouted in protest Friday

Decorum in The Montana State Senate dissolved into an uproar Friday over a missing Democratic Senator.  Republicans saw the absence of Sen. Shannon Augare as the use of an obscure parliamentary procedure by the Democrats to stall floor action and kill some GOP-backed bills. The decision of Republican leadership to take votes on the bills anyway resulted in the Democratic minority leaping to their feet, shouting loud objections and pounding on their desks with anything from glass mugs to copies of the Montana Constitution.

“I don’t want to characterize what they did as a Hail Mary or failed, but we did what we had to do and it’s done,” said Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich about passing the bills which, if also passed by the House, will put measures on the 2014 ballot asking to remove the state’s same-day voter registration practice and put in place a new primary election system that only allows the two political parties receiving the most votes move forward to the general election.

Any ballot-measure bills which pass the Montana Legislature with a simple majority of both chambers move right to a public vote—bypassing the governor’s office. Historically, this was rarely utilized, but that’s changed the last couple years. The majority Republicans in both chambers have been using the tactic more often as a way to get certain measures past the veto of the state’s Democratic Governor.

“Just as they used the rules to their advantage to try to move those referenda forward, we were gonna use the rules to our advantage to stop that nonsense in its tracks” said Senate Minority Leader, Democrat Jon Sesso. “Enough is enough with this stuff.”

Friday was the deadline for referendum bills to transfer over to the opposite chamber from where they started. In a caucus meeting, Democrats discussed using a seldom-employed procedure known as a ‘call of the Senate’ to find Senator Augare, who had gone missing. Using that procedure would halt action on any bills until Augare was found. If the floor was halted for the remainder of the day, the bills objected to by the Democrats would not make the deadline and die for this year’s legislative session.

Meanwhile, Republicans were meeting too, including with legislative legal staff, and decided they could take the votes before recognizing the Democrat’s motion to call the Senate. Senator Wittich said the rules exist to keep the chamber in order so “it was important that we do the people’s business and transfer those bills to the House in time.”

“I’m saddened by what we saw today—it’s worse than Washington, D.C.” said Governor Steve Bullock. “I’m not embarrassed by men and women demanding a right to speak—I’m disappointed by those who denied it.”

Democrats say the votes taken on the referendum bills should not count because the party’s objection to the votes and their motion to call the Senate were not recognized by Republican Senate President Jeff Essmann.

The story in the Senate so far this session has been over a split in the body’s GOP caucus between conservatives and more moderate Republicans who have been siding with Democrats on some key issues including education funding and Medicaid Expansion. Now, some Republicans are saying the actions of Democrats have re-unified the party.

Montana lawmakers cite term limits a top reason for decline in legislative statesmanship

State lawmakers convene in less than two weeks for the 2013 Montana Legislature.

Political leaders are touting what they hope will be a productive session, one perhaps more civil than the rancorous 2011 Legislature.

At this point, however, those hopes are still just that.

It’s been a long time since Republican Verner Bertelsen served in the Montana Legislature.

Well, about 30 years.

The 94 year-old former Secretary of State felt lawmakers in his day had more freedom to act outside party dogma.

“We had the opportunity to act as individuals and not as puppets on a string,” Bertelsen said.

Bertelsen was known for being very moderate and voting with Democrats regularly. He did eventually lose his seat in the Legislature after losing his primary to a more Conservative Republican in the 1980s. Still, Bertelsen doesn’t like the tone he’s been seeing from modern legislatures, and the first reason he cites is the implementation of term limits in the early 90s.

“And I didn’t really see that to begin with,” he said. “I thought maybe some of those old boys who have been there 25 or 30 years need to take a vacation. But I didn’t realize doing away with all of this knowledge about how to operate a legislature and how to be able to negotiate across the lines made a terrific difference in what you can accomplish.”

Legislative term limits were put in place by Montana voters in 92. That constitutional initiative was passed by a large majority, and term limits still enjoy wide public support. Lawmakers cannot run for an office if they have held that position for any 8 years in a 16 year period.

Senate Minority Leader from the 2011 Legislature, Missoula Democrat Carol Williams is reaching the end of her term limit at the end of this year.

She wasn’t able to think of any positives from the implementation of term limits.

“With term limits the really serious power all moved to the executive branch or to the lobbyists,” she said, adding the part-time legislators cannot stay around long enough to gain that kind of clout.

Williams also believes the rise of the Tea Party has made the state legislature more prone to bickering.

She says Tea Party lawmakers didn’t seem to want to make government work in 2011.

“Consequently, you can’t fix anything because that isn’t what their intention is, their intention is to make it go away,” Williams said.

“Obviously the atmosphere in Helena could have been better,” Incoming Senate President, Billings Republican Jeff Essmann said of the 2011 Legislature. “We’re obviously looking forward to working with the new governor, establishing a new tone and getting down to work.”

“What can you do to promote a greater tone of civility in the issues that will be heated and divisive?” I asked.

ESSMANN: “I think number one the focus needs to be on policies and not personalities…There’s been a trend within our society to try to demonize people with whom we disagree and I’ve always tried to avoid that in my work in the legislature,” he said.

But Essmann also says term limits have reduced the strength of leadership in the Legislature.

Spokesman for Governor Elect Steve Bullock Kevin O’Brien says Governor Bullock will be a partner to anyone who wants to create jobs, but if “spear hunting and gold standard bills” reach Bullock’s desk, he says they will be rejected.

Legislature reaches unprecedented stalemate on revenue estimate

A committee of state lawmakers found themselves in an unprecedented stalemate earlier this week.

The legislature’s Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee failed to pass an official revenue estimate in their last scheduled meeting before the legislative session begins in January. It’s the first time the committee has not passed a revenue estimate since the current process was put into place a couple decades ago.

The estimate failed on a party line vote as democrats are trying to get some change into the process.

The Montana Legislature’s revenue estimate is a big deal. Legislative services chief legal counsel Todd Everts says it’s the starting point lawmakers use to set their budget. Because by law, budget expenditures cannot exceed the revenue estimate. So you have to have a revenue estimate “and under law it’s the revenue and transportation interim committee that’s required to introduce that resolution,” Everts said.

And normally the Revenue and Transportation committee passes the resolution on their last meeting before the session. They are required to do so before the first business day in December.

This time it failed on a six to six party line vote. Democrats wanted to take the revenue estimate resolution and put it into a bill—specifically the general budget bill known as House Bill two.

The Governor’s office has thrown their support behind the idea.

“What we’re proposing to do is no different than what every family in Montana does with their checkbook. Make sure your expenses and your revenues are all kept in one place,” said the Governor’s Budget Director, Dan Villa. It’s also a strategy.

“It would require that all 150 Legislators for the first time in four sessions actually have the opportunity to vote not only on what the expenses look like but what the revenues look like,” Villa said.

During the last few sessions, both Democratic and Republican Speakers of the House have sort of held the revenue estimate hostage from the Senate. This happens by the Speaker keeping the revenue estimate in the House Taxation committee and it never gets debated by the full House or Senate. Lawmakers on both sides during the interim have been working on a way to address this situation. The idea of moving the revenue estimate into the larger budget bill was the Democrat’s way of going about this. But Legislative legal counsel Todd Everts says it would be in conflict of the state constitution.

“The Constitution requires that the general appropriation bill shall only contain appropriations,” Everts said.

The Governor’s office disagrees. But Senate Minority Leader, Butte Democrat Jon Sesso says they will accept the recommendations of legislative staff.

“OK, we don’t want to push for an alternative our own attorneys are advising us against, so we set that down,” Sesso said.

But the Democrats still didn’t approve the resolution. Sesso says the Revenue and Transportation committee should wait until the Rules committee meets on December 3rd to consider some rule changes and then convene a last minute impromptu meeting to pass the revenue estimate.

Sesso says he’s worried by passing the revenue estimate first the rules to change how it would be implemented would not have been passed by the rules committee “and as a result it would have been business as ususal and I thought that we had bipartisan support that business as usual was not acceptable anymore,” he said.

Sesso and Senate President, Billings Republican Jeff Essmann  both sit on the Revenue and Transporation Committee.

Essmann calls this irresponsible. He says the committee was talking about rule changes to how the revenue estimate is put to use. But he says passing those rules is the job of the rules committee. The revenue committee, he says, is supposed to pass the estimate.

“To attempt to use their effort to block the fulfillment of a statutory duty in an effort to force a rule change I think was counter productive,” Essmann said.

Especially when there is general consensus on the amount of the revenue estimate which is rare. He’s not so sure there will be an impromptu meeting on December 3rd.

“I expect the rules committee to meet to discuss the proposed rule changes and make a decision,” he said.

“And then you will all meet as Revenue and Transportation right afterward?” I asked.

“No, that meeting has not been called,” Essmann replied.

“Do you expect it to be called?” I asked.

“Not at this point.”

“So then what happens if there is not a meeting held on its last statutorily possible date to pass that revenue estimate?”

“I’ll be discussing that with the Speaker of the House,” Essmann said.

If the estimate is not passed as required by law, Legislative legal Counsel Todd Everts isn’t sure what is going to happen.

“I’m not sure what the remedy would be,” he said.