Gov. Greg Gianforte’s veto pen hasn’t run dry yet, and $23 million in proposed infrastructure projects this week fell victim to the executive’s check on legislative spending. The mark-downs have rankled some lawmakers who object to his characterization of their projects as pork-barrel spending.
The Republican governor on Tuesday issued line-item vetoes for several projects approved by the Legislature in House Bill 5, the main infrastructure spending bill that funds most state-owned buildings and capital development projects in Montana’s two-year budget. The list included $3.8 million in spending proposed by the Department of Military Affairs that Gianforte said will not go forward, along with an additional cottage proposed for the Southwestern Montana Veterans Home in Butte, for $6 million.
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But Gianforte also took aim at several projects tacked onto the bill during a Senate Finance and Claims Committee meeting in April, in which lawmakers added a flurry of line items that would direct funds to their districts or hometowns.
As the meeting stretched into the evening, Sen. John Esp, the Republican chairman of the budget committee, at one point lamented, “I just wish we were doing this out on the floor of the Senate, where God and everybody could see it.”
“Unfortunately, projects were added into House Bill 5 at the last minute without being properly vetted, discussed and debated,” Gianforte wrote in his veto letter, dated May 23. “ ... While the federal appropriations process in Washington, D.C., is notorious for larding up appropriations with pork, Montana is different.”
His language echoed that of Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, who accused colleagues of “gluttony” when he urged them to subsequently reject many of those projects on the Senate floor. His efforts succeeded only in removing a $9.6 million appropriation for Butte’s World Museum of Mining.
After the bill cleared the Legislature, Fitzpatrick sent a follow-up letter to the governor requesting the removal of some of the remaining projects, which he characterized as “unnecessary and wasteful spending.”
Sen. Tom McGillvray, a Billings Republican, disagreed. Among the line-item vetoes was an $8 million appropriation McGillvray successfully added for the Yellowstone Conservation Area on the west side of Billings. It would give a boost to the $150 million project, for which the bulk of funding has been raised through city ratepayers.
“People came from Billings and testified on that amendment,” McGillvray said in an interview Friday. “There was no under-the-table secret. This was out in the open.”
He reiterated his argument from the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, that the request is a pittance compared to the degree to which Billings contributes to the state’s tax base. And the project is one that’s critical for ensuring a reliable supply of city drinking water and averting a potential breach of the "Big Ditch" irrigation canal that runs through the city, Billings City Administrator Chris Kukulski said in an interview Friday.
“One of our greatest risks that we have in town for resiliency, and the governor specifically came to Billings and highlighted the issue, is the Billings Bench Water Association ditch,” he said. “It’s 125 years old and it’s in serious, serious need of maintenance. Billings’ biggest flood in history came from this ditch’s failure back in the '30s.”
Last year, when historic rainfall upstream pushed the Yellowstone River in Billings to a new high water mark, the city’s water treatment plant had to be taken offline. That left a city of more than 100,000 people with less than two days’ supply of drinking water. The reservoirs and secondary water treatment plant that would be built as part of the proposed project would extend that emergency supply to 40 days, Kukulski said.
Gianforte also struck more than $6 million in other projects he characterized as “last-minute” additions:
- $2 million for local park improvements
- $1 million for sewer system upgrades in Columbus
- $1 million for the Chippewa Cree Cultural Ceremony Building
- $1 million for the Chippewa Cree Language Immersion School
- $250,000 for Missoula’s Riverfront Trail
One item that didn’t get removed, however, was a $2 million appropriation for the Miles City Train Depot. It was added by Sen. Kenneth Bogner of Miles City, at the same time as the World Museum of Mining, Yellowstone Conservation Area and Columbus sewer system projects were being tacked onto the bill. Bogner is the No. 3 Republican in the Senate.
“When I initially heard about this project, I thought the project should be removed,” Fitzpatrick wrote in his letter to the governor. “However, it is my understanding the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has been actively engaged in the project prior to the session. Thus, I believe it would be appropriate to keep this project in House Bill 5.”
Sen. Ryan Lynch, a Butte Democrat who was able to amend a pair of substantial additions into the bill — for the Butte veterans’ home and mining museum — rejected the governor's argument that spending was "snuck" into the bill.
“The characterization that it was this ‘late night,’ secret meeting, it was actually the legislative process,” Lynch said.
The senator who carried HB 5, however, had objected at the time to many of the Senate budget committee’s amendments. Mike Cuffe, a Eureka Republican, was the vice chair of the budget subcommittee on infrastructure, which spent the first half of the session vetting applications and holding hearings for projects that ended up in HB 5 and other infrastructure legislation. Cuffe maintained that adding projects subsequently wasn’t fair to other applicants who had lined up to pitch their proposals to the subcommittee.
Because House Bill 5 passed both chambers with two-thirds votes, the Secretary of State’s office will automatically poll lawmakers on whether they want to override each of the governor’s line-item vetoes. Legislators have 30 days to vote.
McGillvray said he’s lobbying his colleagues to keep the $8 million for the Yellowstone Conservation Area in the bill.
“I’m disappointed, but we’ll try to override,” McGillvray said. “That’s all we can do.”