Marijuana, road maintenance and access to public lands. It’s an odd intersection of divergent political interests, yet they’ve been brought together in opposition to a questionable veto by Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte to a bipartisan bill that would have allocated more marijuana tax receipts to maintaining county roads.
On Monday, representatives of both the Montana Association of Counties (MACo) and the Montana Wildlife Federation collaborated to send a message opposing Gianforte’s veto, and demanding that the Secretary of State’s Office poll state legislators in an attempt to override the governor’s veto.
“It’s not that we need the fanciest roads in the world, we just need to make them passable,” explained Petroleum County Commissioner Craig Iverson on Monday. “Right now … it’s rough and it’s knocking stuff off of vehicles.”
Road maintenance in rural Montana is not simply a matter of convenience. Ambulance services, fire response and the commercial health of remote rural areas relies heavily upon roads that are maintained and passable year-round. In recent years, these same roads have been beaten apart by increased traffic from recreationists bringing ever larger and heavier combinations of trucks, trailers and boats across these fragile county roads.
“When you are there in October and November you see trucks from all over the state … driving up and down the DY Trail, Two Calf Road, Knox Ridge Road — all those routes are really heavily, heavily used,” said Jeff Lukas, spokesperson for the Montana Wildlife Federation. “You can see from one ridge to the next the damage and how it continually degrades during the hunting season.”
Lukas estimates three to four times the regular season traffic occurs during hunting season, when access to back country hunting and fishing sites is at a premium.
During the dry season the impacts are less consequential, but when the roads are wet, heavily loaded vehicles exact a disproportionate toll on remote gravel roads.
“It’s very common now going down to the Crooked Creek boat ramp,” Iverson said of the convoy of recreational vehicles crossing Petroleum County. “They bring it all down in one trip instead of having one pickup pulling a camper and one pickup pulling a boat. They just hook it all up together. We think that causes damage on the hills when they start slipping. It’s very hard to control that.”
Fergus County Road and Bridge Maintenance Supervisor John Anderson recalled a situation earlier this year when a motorist on Knox Ridge Road in northern Fergus County was left stranded after two Sheriff’s Office vehicles got stuck in the mud.
“There are safety issues involved with all these roads,” Anderson said.
Farther east, Petroleum County maintains somewhere around 550 miles of county road. With its annual road maintenance budget of around $330,000, that amounts to roughly $660 per person. At best, most roads go two to three years between regular maintenance.
A majority of Petroleum County’s road maintenance funding comes from federal and state resources, primarily federal Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) and state gas tax allocations. However, with a road repair crew of just two people, Petroleum County is hard pressed to meet the demand. Iverson said just having enough money to hire one more full-time employee would go a long way toward mitigating the county’s road maintenance concerns
“Property taxes don’t come anywhere close to providing enough money to maintain these roads,” Iverson said. “Any money would be a tremendous help.”
In Montana, maintaining rural gravel roads has long been the responsibility of county governments. The cost to grade, gravel and repair hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles of these often remote roads adds up to millions of dollars annually — testing the financial capacity of sparsely populated rural counties with low taxable values. They also provide the most direct access to millions of acres of public lands.
Both MACo and a coalition of Montana wildland conservation organizations have filed separate lawsuits challenging Gianforte’s veto, alleging the governor violated the state’s constitution when he waited until after the state Senate session had ended before submitting his veto of SB 442. The lawsuits also name Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen as a defendant, alleging Jacobson has failed to call for a poll of state legislators to potentially overturn the governor’s veto.
“The Legislature’s constitutional check on the executive branch is critical to Montana’s legislative process,” said Roman Zylawy, MACo president and Mineral County commissioner. “The intent of our Constitution is clear. The Legislature must be given fair opportunity to override a veto.”
SB 442 was sponsored by state Republican stalwart Mike Lang (SD 17), who had been working for months to find an acceptable county road funding supplement. In its final version, SB 442 would have allocated 20% of the tax revenues generated by the sale of marijuana in Montana to the counties for road maintenance. That would have amounted to around a $10.4 million annual supplement across the budgets of Montana’s 56 counties.
Lang’s proposal garnered broad bipartisan support during the 2023 legislative session. Of the 150 state legislators, both House and Senate, Republican and Democrat, 130 voted to approve Lang’s proposal. However, it was opposed by Gianforte, who indicated during legislative debate that his preference was to spend the funds on public safety/law enforcement across Montana.
On May 2, the last day of the Montana Senate’s deliberations, Gianforte’s veto of SB 442 was not delivered to the state Senate leadership before the session had been dismissed, thus depriving legislators of the opportunity to veto the governor’s veto.
“Contrary to the wishes of 130 legislators and countless Montanans, the governor’s veto takes tens of millions of dollars away from wildlife, roads, rural communities, and veterans” said Frank Szollosi, executive director for Montana Wildlife Federation. “Our Constitution provides that the Legislature gets a chance to override a veto. The executive branch cannot stand in the way.”
In his letter of explanation of his veto, Gianforte expressed his concern for the state assuming additional responsibility for county incurred expenses.
“Adopting the approach of Senate Bill 442 creates a slippery slope, an incentive for local jurisdictions to reduce their services while keeping taxes higher on their citizens,” the governor’s letter states. “Instead of cutting citizens’ taxes proportionately, they can reallocate those dollars to capricious, unnecessary projects, resulting in the net increase of Montanan’s tax burden.”
Iverson responded that the governor’s warning of potential “capricious, unnecessary projects” is out of touch with the reality of county budgets.
“There’s no fluff anywhere, no capricious projects at all,” Iverson said. “We struggle with the amount of money that we’re given trying to get across 550 miles of roads and do a good job. We enjoy that the recreationalists can come out to Petroleum County and do what they do, but it’s sure hard on the locals to maintain a road that we would like to have and use as well.”
MACo’s court filing asks that the governor be required to return Senate Bill 442 along with his reasons for the veto to the Secretary of State’s Office, and that the secretary of state be required to poll the legislature to determine whether a 2/3 majority exists to overturn the governor’s veto.