By Matt Volz
HELENA (AP) — Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton attempted Wednesday to overrule Gov. Steve Bullock’s veto of a bill by saying the governor did not deliver it to his office in time, creating a potential clash over the two offices’ powers.
Stapleton, a Republican, said in a tweet that House Bill 132, which would change the definition of wild bison, has become law because the Democratic governor didn’t deliver the veto to him within 10 days of the bill’s transmittal to his office.
If Stapleton sticks to his interpretation and assigns the bill a chapter number to be codified into state law, the governor’s office would consider that an unconstitutional action and review its legal options, Bullock spokeswoman Marissa Perry said.
“The only person who seems to be confused that HB 132 was vetoed is Secretary Stapleton,” Perry said.
Stapleton is one of several candidates running for the Republican nomination for governor in next year’s election. Bullock, who can’t run again due to term limits, is seeking the Democratic nomination for president.
The disputed bill would redefine a wild bison or wild buffalo in a way that Bullock said in his veto letter would create confusion and uncertainty about whether Yellowstone National Park bison could be mistakenly considered domestic animals. The governor suggested changes to the bill that lawmakers rejected.
The Legislature transmitted the bill to the governor on April 25, and Bullock’s veto letter published on the Legislature’s website is dated April 29, after the session had adjourned. The state constitution says a bill becomes law if he does not sign or veto it within 10 days after it is delivered to the governor. Bullock’s veto letter came four days after transmittal.
“Gov. Bullock received the bill on April 25 and vetoed it on April 29, within the 10-day deadline he has to act on a bill,” Perry said.
But Stapleton makes his argument in two sections of state law. The first says the governor must return the vetoed bill to the secretary of state if the Legislature is not in session. The second says that a bill that has not been returned by the governor within 10 days after its delivery to the governor becomes law.
Stapleton said the governor’s office did not deliver the vetoed bill to his office until May 22, nearly a month after lawmakers transmitted it to the governor.
The secretary of state is responsible for assigning chapter numbers to bills that lawmakers pass and the governor does not veto, creating what is called session law. The session law then goes to the Legislature’s code commissioner to publish and codify into state law.
If the bison bill is assigned a chapter number, code commissioner Todd Everts said he may have to wait for direction from a court on whether to publish and codify it.
“This isn’t our dispute,” he said. “This is a dispute between two constitutional executive branch offices and likely a court would have to provide that interpretation.”
The current definition of a wild bison is one that “has not been reduced to captivity and has not been owned by a person.” The bill would change that definition to three criteria: A bison is wild if it has not been reduced to captivity, has never been subject to a per capita livestock fee and has never been owned by a person.
Wild bison such as those in Yellowstone are often captured, tested and quarantined, and they are descendants of animals that were once owned and in captivity. The change in the definition has the potential to threaten the animals’ conservation, the preservation of their genetics and bison hunts by the state and Native American tribes, Bullock said in his veto letter.