Lawmakers override governor’s vetoes of state hospital reforms

Montana House of Representatives 2023

Late Thursday night, the Montana Secretary of State announced that lawmakers scattered across Montana had officially overridden two high-profile vetoes from Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, confirming policies aimed at reforming the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs. 

The governor in May had rejected bipartisan bills seeking to improve patient care and oversight at the troubled adult psychiatric facility, calling one policy “legally insufficient” and the other a risk of causing “irresponsible, inappropriate, inhumane” outcomes. The two-thirds vote of each chamber to uphold the laws, Senate Bill 4 and House Bill 29, signals the closing of one political chapter in the interbranch disagreement and the beginning of a long road toward systemic changes. 

Asked Friday to comment on the overrides and the executive branch’s plans for implementing the new laws, deputy communications director Brooke Stroyke said the governor’s concerns with the policies are “well-documented” and that Gianforte “trusts [the state health department] to implement the legislation as approved by the legislature.”

Charlie Brereton, director of Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services, participates in a Health and Human Services Committee hearing in the Montana State Capitol on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

In a Friday email, health department spokesperson Jon Ebelt said the agency “won’t be providing comment at this time.” 

SB 4 and HB 29, would, respectively, require the health department to share patient abuse and neglect reports with the federally authorized watchdog group Disability Rights Montana and set the state on a path to ending the involuntary commitment of patients with Alzheimer’s, dementia and traumatic brain injuries. Each passed with near-unanimous bipartisan support.

But the policies were consistently opposed by the state health department, an arm of Gianforte’s executive branch. In an 11th-hour attempt to revise the bills shortly before lawmakers adjourned the session, the governor’s office said SB 4 risked compromising private patient information, a claim Disability Rights Montana and bill supporters denied. Regarding HB 29, the governor said the policy “either represents a deep misunderstanding of or a failure to acknowledge the fundamental concepts underpinning the need for involuntary commitments of individuals suffering from a serious mental illness.” Supporters countered that the bill takes necessary steps to place people with Alzheimer’s and dementia in clinically appropriate, community-based settings rather than the state hospital.

“It is federal law, good policy and the right thing to do to make sure people are cared for in the least restrictive, most appropriate setting,” HB 29’s sponsor, Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan said in a Friday statement. 

The governor’s veto of SB 4 was overridden by more than the required threshold in the House and Senate, with 72 representatives and 39 senators voting in support of the policy. HB 29 was upheld by a closer margin, with 67 representatives (the two-thirds threshold in that chamber) voting to override the veto, alongside 39 senators (four more than the requirement). 

Several more lawmakers opposed the policies in polling than when the bills were considered during the session. Roughly 30 Republicans and Democrats voted in alignment with the governor’s vetoes, shedding light on some of the tense political dynamics that have developed since lawmakers left Helena after sine die. 

As MTFP previously reported, the governor’s office had been leaning on lawmakers to oppose the override effort while strategically withholding approval of other bipartisan measures: an affordable childcare bill and a key part of the state budget to boost reimbursements for health care providers who take care of Medicaid patients. 

Aside from the veto overrides of SB 4 and HB 29, the governor’s office notched a partial win Thursday related to that pressure campaign. Another much-watched bill Gianforte opposed, House Bill 37, would have significantly changed the state’s process for responding to child welfare cases by requiring a judicial warrant for child removals except in certain emergencies — a measure the health department said risked tying caseworkers’ hands in urgent scenarios. Despite near unanimous support for HB 37 during the legislative session, lawmakers did not meet the two-thirds requirement to reverse Gianforte’s veto. The override failed by seven votes in the House.  

Carlson, the sponsor of HB 37 and among the bill’s most vocal champions, said she was “very disappointed” in the outcome of the override poll. She cited multiple hurdles the legislation faced throughout the legislative session, including a weeks-long delay in transmitting it to the governor’s desk even after it had passed both chambers. Conversations about requiring judicial warrants for non-emergency removals will continue throughout the interim before the next legislative session, she said.

“Parties involved in this process have notice now that this issue is not going away. Montana leads the nation in time it takes for a family to receive judicial review of removals. Between the constitutional implications and the best interest of the child and the family, this is simply not acceptable,” Carlson said. “We can do better.”

The failure of HB 37’s override was due to flips of support from some Republicans and Democrats. Other lawmakers, including Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, simply did not return their ballots in time to have them counted. Dissenting lawmakers who responded to MTFP’s inquiries on Friday said they were swayed by the governor’s reasoning against the bills as presented in his veto letters. 

Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman, the sponsor of the affordable childcare bill awaiting Gianforte’s signature, was among the legislators who voted to uphold the governor’s vetoes of HB 29 and HB 37, despite having supported both policies during the session. She attributed her decision to a reconsideration of the reforms the governor rejected.

“The vetoes caused me concern about the administration’s interest and ability to implement these policies,” Buckley said in a Friday statement. “I felt like we needed to come back to the drawing board over the interim and search for more workable policy solutions.”

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