HELENA — Lawmakers and Gov. Brian Schweitzer signaled Monday that they would prefer to settle a lawsuit in which the governor alleges a companion bill to the 2009 Legislature's big spending measure unconstitutionally dealt with multiple subject matters.
The Legislative Council said they will seek a meeting with the governor in hopes of avoiding costly litigation. The council, made up of leaders from both parties, appointed one Democrat and one Republican to seek a meeting with the governor in hopes of avoiding a court battle.
At the same time, the lawmakers told staffers to continue preparing their legal case.
The governor sued the Legislature earlier this month, saying House Bill 676 wrongly made a number of changes in the law — and made it more difficult for him to line-item veto spending or offer amendments to the package.
He said he didn't veto the measure because doing so would have forced him to call the Legislature back into session, and filed the lawsuit now to make sure lawmakers meeting in January know such a maneuver is not acceptable.
Schweitzer said Monday he would be sending the lawmakers a settlement offer. It would require lawmakers to acknowledge HB676 would likely be found unconstitutional by the courts, and have them agree not to use such a mechanism again.
The Montana constitution only allows the general appropriations bill, usually called House Bill 2, to include multiple subjects. The rest must only affect one area at a time, in part to avoid huge bills that cross several areas.
Lawmakers said the new method of dealing with a package of spending bills was necessary to implement the unusual federal stimulus spending plan — a notion Schweitzer disputes. The governor said lawmakers routinely spend huge sums of federal money without something like HB676.
"For me, the most important matter is to resolve the constitutionality of this matter," Schweitzer said.
Sen. Carol Williams, D-Missoula, said on a conference call that fellow lawmakers and citizens have been telling her they dislike governor's lawsuit.
"Almost to a person, everyone is wondering why one branch of government is going to get into suing another branch of government," Williams said.
Williams, who will work with Billings Republican Rep. Dennis Himmelberger on meeting with the governor, said they want to find out what it would take to get the governor to drop the lawsuit.
The lawmakers decided they will have to hire an outside attorney to defend against the case instead of asking the attorney general to do so. The state's top lawyer falls within the executive branch — the governor — that is suing the legislative branch of state government.
Sen. Bob Story, R-Park City, said every session there are probably bills that violate a strict reading of the constitution's "single subject" requirement. He was skeptical that lawmakers would be able to offer Schweitzer a deal in negotiations, since legislative leadership could be completely different after fall elections — and those leaders may not stand by any handshake deal this group comes up with.
"I don't know that the governor gets any leverage out of negotiating with the Legislature in this deal," Story said.
Schweitzer said in an interview that part of his settlement offer will require new legislative leadership chosen after the fall elections to sign off on the letter. At the same time, he wants to keep the lawsuit in limbo through so he can revive it if the 2011 Legislature tries it again.
"Our point is that we are going to trust they are not going to write unconstitutional language in some bill, but just to be on the safe side the lawsuit will still be in the court — but with no action in the meantime," Schweitzer said