Republican lawmakers — ever mindful of Gov. Brian Schweitzer's veto power—are considering a plan to temporarily adjourn the legislative session after delivering the state budget bill to the governor's desk in an attempt to avoid a special session.
Last week, Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, and House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, requested a memo from the Legislature's legal staff examining possible veto scenarios. The memo outlines the procedural requirements with respect to House Bill 2, the spending bill, including the Legislature's legal and procedural options should the governor veto the budget while the Legislature is in session.
Here’s a link to the full memo from acting chief legislative council Todd Everts.
Milburn confirmed Wednesday that GOP lawmakers are considering the idea of putting HB2 on Schweitzer's desk early, and then taking a break from the session and resuming it after Schweitzer makes his move on the budget.
"We have certainly studied that option," Milburn said.
Schweitzer sent a clear message to the GOP-controlled Legislature last month when he unveiled a "veto" branding iron.
Schweitzer refuses to say which bills he plans to veto, but he has indicated that he wouldn't hesitate to use the "hot iron" on HB2 if the measure is not to his liking.
"We've mentioned to them that they're just going to make taxes go up for property owners, and make health care costs go up for people who are paying private health insurance. Those really aren't acceptable solutions," Schweitzer said in an interview Wednesday.
Once a bill gets to his desk, the governor has 10 days to decide whether to sign it into law, administer a line-item veto, use an amendatory veto or veto the bill in its entirety. If Schweitzer doesn't sign or veto the bill, it becomes law after 10 days.
If the governor vetoes a bill that arrives on his desk after the Legislature has adjourned for the session, lawmakers can attempt to override the veto by mail-in ballot. If they fail to override the veto, the bill dies.
However, the state Constitution requires that lawmakers pass a budget, so if Schweitzer vetoes HB2 after lawmakers go home for the summer and they are unable to muster enough mail-in votes to override it, the Legislature must return to the Capitol for a special session at a date of the governor's choosing.
That's the scenario GOP leaders want to avoid.
If they get the budget on the governor's desk with legislative days to spare, and then temporarily adjourn for the 10 days Schweitzer has to act on the bill, it will leave time for lawmakers to take up the measure without a special session.
"The idea of adjourning early to leave time was to eliminate the possibility of a special session," Milburn said. "I would say that was more of an option earlier on. A lot of this depends upon what the governor wants to do. Is he interested in using his veto brand on House Bill 2 and then get on with the issues, or sit down and discuss it early on?"
Milburn said he and Peterson briefly met with Schweitzer about the budget on Monday.
"I think that after speaking to him and with Senator Peterson and I, we're all willing to sit down early in the process and get the executive branch included in House Bill 2," Milburn said.
Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essman, R-Billings, was less candid about the GOP's strategy for heading off a budget veto.
Asked if Senate Republicans were exploring the possibility of adjourning early, Essman said, "We are trying to pass a responsible budget that tightens the belt of state government, just like people are trying to do in their own homes. We think we need to go through a fact-based budgeting process. We think every dollar in the state budget needs to be looked at."
When pressed, Essman refused to say whether Republicans are considering early adjournment.
"We think it's important to have a process that we put forth a balanced budget that's responsible for all of Montanans, and give the governor an opportunity to look at it and react to it," Essman said. "I would say the requested memo speaks for itself in terms of all options being examined."
Democratic lawmakers said they are distressed with the pace at which Republicans are pushing the budget and related spending bills through the legislative process.
"I think they're pushing these bills without having given thoughtful consideration," Senate Minority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula, said. "The speed with which they're trying to get done is undercutting the quality of the product that we're putting out here. That does disturb me."
The Senate is expected to take up the budget early next week, and pass it as early as Wednesday or Thursday. If the House then accepts the Senate's changes to HB2, the measure could arrive on the governor's desk by the end of the week.
"I would say that would be iffy," Milburn said. "The House may not accept the amendments the Senate puts on."