Senator Steve Fitzpatrick, who may or may not be a lobbyist working for Northwest Energy, is definitely a powerful force to be reckoned with in the Montana Senate. The highly respected senator from SD10, covering Cascade County, sponsored SB227, which would allow the state legislature to overturn the executive branch’s policies enforced by executive fiat that – often times – can disrupt legislative intent. However, executive policies do not constitutionally carry the weight of actual laws, and can ordinarily be overturned by a vote of the legislature. The problem for Montana legislators is that their power to check-and-balance executive decisions made by the governor can be vetoed, which will then require a 2/3 majority to overturn.
Or to put plainly, if the governor disagrees with the legislature overturning one of his fiat policies, it will require a super-majority of the legislature to overturn his veto (which any governor is sure to do). This effectively means that it requires a super-majority to check-and-balance executive power and not a simple majority.
Fitzpatrick, who we disagreed with earlier in the week for a terrible bill that benefits a monopolistic power company while harming ratepayers, has provided a fundamentally solid bill in SB227. Without the bill, Montana will continue to be held hostage by a single elected official and the 150 elected officials in the state legislature will remain powerless to help their constituents should they be at odds with the governor’s administrative decisions.
Unsurprisingly for those who know Governor Gianforte and his quite obvious penchant for personal power (that is neither an insult nor compliment), Gianforte vetoed the provision that was passed primarily by the legislature’s Republican majority.
And that veto was overturned yesterday by a record-breaking unanimous vote of Senate Republicans and Democrats. Just when you thought that Republicans and Democrats have nothing in common, Gianforte has shown himself capable of (inadvertedly) bringing the two parties together in a rare moment of unity.
Fitzpatrick’s SB227 will allow the governor’s administrative rules to be overturned with a simple majority. Gianforte clearly did not want to give up that power.
Gianforte told the press, “SB 227 is an unlawful violation of the separations of powers. It attempts to remove from the governor, the chief executive officer of the state with the final authority over the rulemaking activities of the executive branch, the power to approve or disapprove the legislature’s review of the administrative rules implemented by the executive branch.”
Of course, a student of the Constitution is aware that a separation of powers requires checks and balances between the three branches of government.
The founders of the American Republic specified in their writings that the design of the three branches of government did not imply that each branch is co-equal. Their intention was that the legislative branch, which includes the most rule-makers and those most closely elected by the People, would have the most authority.
As one resource explains, “As shown by its prime spot at the beginning of the Constitution, the framers initially intended the legislative branch—which they saw as closest to the people—to be the most powerful of the three branches of government.”
The founders believed that the legislative branch was to retain the most power because it was popularly elected directly by the People, unlike the president or justices in the executive or judicial branches. This centuries-long struggle for power between the branches reared its head in Montana on Friday, and it appears that the legislature will (rightfully) win.
The House will vote on overriding the governor’s veto next week.
Meanwhile, it is unknown for sure, but doubted, that a governor’s veto has ever been overridden in Montana by a 100% vote by either chamber in the legislature. It certainly is a stinging rebuke to the Republican governor to have every single Republican senator vote against him. Even Democrats, who at first opposed the bill, signed on to override the veto, newly convinced that the governor’s power should be checked by the People’s House.
Ultimately, it’s a good day for Montana. No longer will the governor – Republican or Democrat – be able to create procedural policies without the capacity of the legislature to override him. And that’s very, very good for the Montana people.
Governor Gianforte has repeatedly earned the ire of legislators – both Republican and Democrat – for his characteristicly poor communication with the legislative branch. Republicans, in particular, are unimpressed with Gianforte’s leadership philosophy which, thus far, has been to expect Republicans to do as they are told from the governor’s office.
Now, the legislature has flexed its own muscle. Surely Gianforte feels spurned today, and for good reason. It’s time that he work more closely – and respectfully – with the legislative branch.