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Judge: Stapleton can’t undo Bullock’s veto of bison-definition bill

Posted at 10:50 AM, Jun 08, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-08 12:25:08-04

HELENA — In a dispute over a vetoed bill that redefines “wild bison” in Montana, a state judge Wednesday said Secretary of State Corey Stapleton has no authority to override Gov. Steve Bullock’s veto of the measure and blocked Stapleton from declaring the bill as law.

District Judge Mike McMahon of Helena issued an injunction blocking Stapleton’s action last week when Stapleton said the bill is now law because the governor failed to return the bill to his office within 10 days.

McMahon said the 10-day limit is “not applicable” to a bill that’s been vetoed and that Stapleton has “no constitutional or statutory support” to “unilaterally override Governor Bullock’s veto.”

And while McMahon didn’t immediately rule on whether Stapleton should be ordered to notify lawmakers of the veto — which he hasn’t yet done — McMahon made it clear Wednesday he’s likely to side with the governor on that question as well.

“When I look at whether the governor has legitimate cause of action, I tend to agree with the governor’s argument,” he said.

McMahon said he’d rule on the latter question after examining written arguments from both sides.

McMahon’s ruling Wednesday came after a hearing in District Court in Helena, five days after Bullock’s office sued Stapleton.

The secretary of state announced last week on Twitter that Bullock had failed to “return” the bill to Stapleton’s office within 10 days, as required by law, and therefore it had become law, despite Bullock’s April 29 veto.

Bullock said that 10-day requirement applies only to bills that haven’t been vetoed, and that he had vetoed House Bill 132 within the proper time frame and notified the House, as required.

State law that requires the governor to deliver the bill to the secretary of state’s office after a veto has no time limit, the governor’s lawyer, Jim Molloy, told the court Wednesday. When it was discovered late last month that the vetoed bill hadn’t been formally returned to Stapleton’s office, the governor’s staff did so on May 22, he said.

“The secretary of state has now somehow decided that he has authority to usurp the governor’s authority under the constitution to veto a bill, and the Legislature’s authority to attempt to override that veto,” Molloy told the judge. “He is trying to abrogate the constitution by misinterpreting and inserting into (law) a clause that doesn’t exist.”

HB132, sponsored by Rep. Kenneth Holmlund, R-Miles City, added language to the current definition of wild bison from an animal “not reduced to captivity and not owned by a person” to “never been owned by a person” and “never subject” to a per-capita livestock fee.

It passed the House and Senate on largely party-line votes, with Republicans in favor, and hit Bullock’s desk on April 25. Four days later, he vetoed it, essentially killing it, because the Legislature was no longer in session and could not vote to override the veto.

Bullock, a Democrat, said the definition in HB132 could reclassify some wild bison as domestic and thus jeopardize state and tribal treaty hunting for bison.

The definition also is linked to an ongoing debate over the American Prairie Reserve’s bison herd in central Montana.

Opponents of the bill have said it would prevent the group from establishing a wild bison preserve in the future.

Story by Mike Dennison, MTN News