Madison County and the town of Sheridan have joined a coalition of counties and one other town in suing Gov. Brian Schweitzer over his line-item veto of state grant money for a variety of projects.
The lawsuit was filed last week in a Helena District Court. Along with Madison County and Sheridan, plaintiffs include Carbon, Fergus and Sweet Grass Counties and the town of Roundup.
The lawsuit stems from a line-item veto Schweitzer made in signing House Bill 351, which was an appropriations bill that contained nearly $14 million for 36 municipal and county infrastructure projects around the state.
Schweitzer’s line-item veto nixed funding for eight of the 36 projects, including two in Madison County – $750,000 for the Sheridan waste water treatment plant and nearly $700,000 to help replace the Blaine Springs Bridge south of Ennis.
For the majority of the vetoes, including those in Madison County, Schweitzer cited what some are calling pure political motives.
“I have used three tests to determine which of those projects receiving appropriations under the Treasure State Endowment Program (TSEP) to fund or to veto,” wrote Schweitzer in a letter to Secretary of State Linda McCullough in explaining his veto. “First, I vetoed projects located in legislative districts that did not receive the support of local legislators.”
Madison County is located in House District 71 and its representative Bob Wagner voted against the TSEP bill. Wagner’s vote against the bill wasn’t because he didn’t favor the two projects in his district, but because he disagreed with other changes the bill would make to the TSEP program, Wagner said in previous interviews.
The problem with Schweitzer’s veto is the precedent it could set for future governors and the way they choose to address TSEP projects, said Madison County Commissioner Dave Schulz. If Schweitzer’s veto were allowed to stand, it could mean that TSEP projects will be funded based on political favor with the governor, not actual need.
Both projects in Madison County ranked high on the Department of Commerce list of projects for funding under TSEP.
The lawsuit claims that Schweitzer violated his authority under the Montana Constitution because, while the governor can veto appropriations, HB 351 constituted one appropriation to TSEP and vetoing portions of that appropriation is unconstitutional.
Schweitzer has steadfastly maintained that he had the authority to make the vetoes and the state shouldn’t fund projects that don’t entertain support from local legislators.
The lawsuit also requests an injunction on any TSEP spending by the Department of Commerce. This is also a special concern for local officials, Schulz said. Part of the reason for filing the lawsuit is to get the funding replaced for the local projects.
“We’re very interested in getting an answer soon, partly because TSEP is planning to and already has focused on getting some of that money on the ground,” he said.
The town of Sheridan has committed $2,000 toward the lawsuit and Madison County has dedicated $5,000. These costs may be recovered if the counties win the lawsuit, but the main goal is to get the TSEP money back for the local projects, said Chris McConnell, Deputy Madison County Attorney.
“I would say this lawsuit is about having the funding in place for the two TSEP projects in Madison County,” McConnell said.
The first hearing in the case is set for Oct. 5 in Helena. The parties will present arguments on the merits of the plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction on the TSEP money.