When our theatrical governor fired up his veto branding irons last week and put 'em to some mock-ups of terrible bills, the flames jumped high, the crowd cheered, and Brian Schweitzer was on a roll. He got national media attention out of it, but the Republicans were not amused. Now, in this last week of the 2011 legislative session, it looks like they're going to try to turn the tables on Schweitzer in the Battle of the Brands—and the outcome is anything but certain.
As most Montanans know, there's no love lost between their Democratic governor and the Republicans who control the Legislature by overwhelming majorities. Schweitzer has heaped some angry and insulting diatribes on the legislature, including calling it the "Flat Earth Society," while ridiculing such measures as allowing hunting with spears and nullifying federal laws.
For their part, the Republicans did what the Republicans always do—they banded together and used their voting power to continue to push their agenda, which included chopping down Schweitzer's budget proposal, disemboweling environmental laws, and pushing a variety of measures targeting renewable energy, family planning, and President Obama's "Affordable Care Act," which they call "Obamacare." They also stuffed through a bill carried by Speaker of the House Mike Milburn to repeal Montana's medical marijuana law, a law that was approved by 62 percent of Montana voters.
Meanwhile, a number of major bills seemed to dawdle along for most of the session and now, in the last few days, will have to be acted upon. These include such important issues as the state pay plan for its 11,600 employees, a second medical marijuana bill ("repeal in disguise"), and a nearly $100 million bonding bill for state buildings and a new Historical Society museum in Helena.
On their first try, the Republicans sent a passel of measures to Schweitzer and then recessed to see what he would do with them. And sure enough, he did what every governor has the perfect right to do within 10 days of receiving bills from the Legislature. He accepted some and signed them into law, he vetoed some with his branding iron on the lawn of the Capitol, and he sent back some with amendatory vetoes in which he suggested changes to make the bills more acceptable to his administration.
But this time around, the once-burnt politicians fear the fire. The Republicans are changing tactics. The regular 90-day legislative session runs out Saturday; with so many big bills yet to head to the governor's desk, the Republicans are trying something new—they won't send him the measures until the last minute, in order to limit the governor's ability to issue amendatory vetoes that would change, perhaps significantly, the content of the bills.
The key to the new strategy can be boiled down to two words: Sine die. In Latin, it means "without day," which is an accurate description since, when the legislature adjourns sine die it means the final day of the session is over and the 150 tired and burned-out legislators can return to their jobs, families, and hometowns.
But when the session adjourns sine die it also has a particular significance for the Legislature's relationship with the governor. Unlike when the Legislature is in session, the governor cannot issue amendatory vetoes once the taillights leave town. So on all those big bills that have been held to the last day, the governor's options are to either sign them into law as is, veto them, or allow them to become law without his signature after 10 days.
Once the session ends, the only way to override a governor's veto is to attain a two-thirds vote of all legislators through a poll conducted by the Secretary of State—and even that is only allowed on bills that originally passed with a two-thirds vote of the legislature.
This new ploy will likely precipitate a high-stakes, "take it or leave it" standoff between the Legislature and governor. Sure, he can outright veto the horrific medical marijuana bill, but that will leave the existing law on the books, which both the governor and many legislators feel needs fixing. The last remaining medical marijuana bill was slapped together late in the session and many feel it will prove unworkable—which opponents say is the goal, since its sponsor wants to cut the number of medical marijuana cardholders from nearly 30,000 to a mere 2,000.
Likewise, if the state pay plan hits his desk, Schweitzer will be left with a grim choice: take whatever the Republicans give him or face a potential strike by state employees, who have already had their salaries frozen for going on three years. But passage of the pay plan isn't even assured, as the House voted the measure down 60-40 last week.
The bonding measure, meanwhile, requires a two-thirds vote of both the Senate and House because it creates state debt. But the governor and the Republicans have major differences of opinion about future revenues, and the measure will likely have a very high threshold for the amount of additional revenue the state must generate before the bonds can be issued.
Rumors are the governor intends to issue amendatory vetoes after the Legislature adjourns. But that would likely violate both the state constitution and law. Schweitzer could call the legislature back into a special session, however, and has threatened to do so in June—and "not turn on the air conditioning." The regular session of the 2011 Legislature may be in its death throes, but stay tuned: the Battle of the Brands may not be over quite yet.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.