HELENA - Whether with a symbolic branding iron before a crowd or an actual pen in hand, Gov. Brian Schweitzer already has vetoed 21 bills outright this legislative session - more than any Montana governor since at least 1973.
He's already topped his own record of 20 outright vetoes issued in 2007.
The Democratic governor also has issued 16 amendatory vetoes through Friday, with more looming as the session winds down. In these, Schweitzer suggests changes that he wants the Legislature to make to bills. Lawmakers can ignore them at their peril, knowing that an outright veto may loom if they don't accept his proposed changes.
To date, Schweitzer has 37 combined outright and amendatory vetoes, fast closing in on his own record of 46 in 2009.
Since at least 1973, Gov. Stan Stephens holds the record number of combined vetoes at 71-19 outright vetoes and 52 amendatory ones made, Missoulian State Bureau research shows. Stephens, a Republican, faced a Democratic Senate and House in 1991, the mirror image opposite of Schweitzer's current situation with a GOP-controlled Legislature.
Schweitzer's veto efforts drew statewide and national attention last week. Before a cheering crowd in front of the Capitol on Wednesday, Schweitzer brandished different-sized red-hot branding irons that said "VETO" and applied them to pieces of paper affixed to wooden planks symbolizing different bills he intended to veto. The paper would catch fire as he seared the word "VETO" into each plank.
Afterward, he went inside and formally vetoed the bills he had symbolically rejected, along with others.
"The bills I vetoed were unconstitutional or in direct contrast with the will of the people, by initiative, for God's sake," Schweitzer said. "I'm for more jobs, more freedom and more wealth creation in Montana. If they're sending us bills that infringe on any of those, I can't support them."
Republicans ignored his earlier warning that he would veto those bills he deemed frivolous or that don't create jobs, Schweitzer said.
This governor hasn't been shy about wielding his veto brand. Since taking office in 2005, Schweitzer has vetoed 60 bills outright and made 85 amendatory vetoes.
Schweitzer said he's proud to never have had an outright veto overridden. That record probably will stand in his final legislative session. There are enough Democrats in the Senate to stop the two-thirds majority needed overturn a veto, although not in the House.
An executive's ability to veto a bill passed by the legislative branch is an important part of the separation of powers, or checks and balances, in the U.S. and Montana constitutions.
Besides outright and amendatory vetoes, Montana governors can make line-item vetoes to take money out of appropriations bills. A governor also may let a bill become law without a signature. Only outright and amendatory vetoes are included in this story.
Longtime legislative observer Jim Lopach, a University of Montana political scientist, attributed the number of vetoes issued by Schweitzer to what he calls the three orders of separation - function, partisanship and ideological differences.
"Separation of powers is to create tensions, to create frictions," Lopach said. "It's to prevent things from happening. It's to counter efficiency. On top of that place partisanship, especially this session when both houses are of the opposite party of the governor's party. The third layer is ideological. The Republican Party legislators, like those in the U.S. House, really came in with what they said was a real mandate to change things."
Add to that a governor with Schweitzer's personality and flair for the theatrical, Lopach said.
"I just think that a high veto rate is not all that surprising, given those three orders of separation," he said.
Schweitzer has never tipped his hand about which bills he intends to veto before they reach his desk.
During the session, Schweitzer has 10 days to decide whether to sign a bill into law, veto it or issue an amendatory veto.
In an interview last week, Schweitzer explained what happens next.
First, his policy advisers study the bill and call directors and sometimes other people in departments to discuss it. The governor's staff will review how the administration testified on the bill at hearings. Aides will analyze the policy involved and make a recommendation. His staff may seek other people's advice.
Major bills are no surprise because his staff and directors follow them throughout the process. They have met earlier to decide whether to testify on them at hearings and what position to take.
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Then the bill goes to his lawyers who will scrutinize every word and every paragraph, looking for intended and unintended consequences, Schweitzer said.
In the end, it's the governor who must decide the fate of a bill.
"That's the lonely part of this job," Schweitzer said.
Often the recommendations coming to him on bills aren't unanimous.
"Then I just have to make a decision," he said. "Did you ever read the book, ‘Blink'? Who knows the unlimited number of things that go into a decision of a manager? That's what I am, a manager. I'm listening to as much information as I can get. I gather as much information as I can find overtly."
He was referring to the book "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell. It's about "how we think without thinking, about choices that seem to be made in an instant - in the blink of an eye - that actually aren't as simple as they seem," the book jacket says.
So how does Schweitzer ultimately decide? He said he draws on a lifetime of knowledge, experience and instincts.
"Is it something my grandfather told me when I was 6 years old?" he said. "Is it something that my third-grade teacher explained to me? Is it something that I learned in university? Is it a lesson I learned from a Bedouin in the Saudi desert? Is it something that I learned in buying or selling a ranch? Is it something I learned I planting a crop that failed? All of these come together in making a decision."
Top Republican legislators respect the checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches, but are unhappy about the vetoes. They also were irritated by Schweitzer's veto-branding theatrics.
House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, said they sent Schweitzer jobs-creating bills and believe the vetoes went against Montanans' will.
"We're hoping that he's doing this not for political purposes or not for entertainment purposes, that it's something that he truly believes in," Milburn said. "But the show, whatever it was, we were figuring it was more for entertainment value."
Agreeing was Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, who's watched the Legislature for three decades.
"I must confess it does bother me that he's making a spectacle of it," he said. "It's one thing to veto bills, and I have great respect for the governor's authority and all the three branches of government. I think there should be mutual respect for all three branches of government. I've tried not to make a mockery of any other branch of government."
Leaders of the Democratic minorities in the Senate and House appreciate having Schweitzer as a backup to stop the bills they couldn't.
Senate Minority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula, said she's been involved with the Legislature in various respects since the 1960s when her husband Pat served as a state lawmaker before serving in U.S. Congress.
"I don't think there's more need for executive help than this time," she said. "We feel lucky to have him in the driver's seat now."
One reason, Williams said, was the enormous number of new legislators, many of whom didn't listen to the advice of the legislative staff about the constitutionality of their ideas and how the bills coordinated with current law. The result, she said, is not so much partisanship but legislation that is "technically bad," as Republicans resisted efforts to fix the bills.
House Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, attributed the number of vetoes "to the body's inability to craft legislation, instead of just passing it."
"The best bills that we have been able to pass over the years (in the past) have been bipartisan," Sesso said. "They took ideas from both sides to put together a bill or pass a bill that is balanced."
This year, however, Republicans resisted Democratic suggestions to improve their bills, Sesso said.
As for Schweitzer vetoing GOP bills, Sesso said, "My feeling is you reap what you sow."