HELENA (AP) — Six local governments have filed a lawsuit against Gov. Brian Schweitzer over his line-item vetoes of money for their local bridge and water projects, which the governor said were done either because lawmakers did not support the spending or a lack of need.
Carbon, Fergus, Madison and Sweet Grass counties, the city of Roundup and the town of Sheridan filed the lawsuit in District Court in Helena last week. They also named Commerce Director Dore Schwinden and the state of Montana, according to the Lee Newspapers of Montana.
The local governments questioned the constitutionality of Schweitzer's vetoes of their projects, which were to be funded with money from the Treasure State Endowment Program. The program is funded by interest earnings from coal-tax investments.
The vetoes were part of legislation that provided funding to local projects.
The local governments argued in the lawsuit that state law did not give the governor the authority to strike down specific projects because they contend that the approved projects were not items in an appropriations bill. The items in House Bill 351 were approved by the Legislature in priority order as a condition of how the money appropriated to the program was to be used.
Schweitzer said he vetoed a $750,000 wastewater project in Sheridan, a $700,000 bridge in Madison County, $275,000 for a bridge in Fergus County, and a $405,000 bridge in Carbon County because legislators for those areas did not support the bill for the endowment program.
Schweitzer said he rejected a $500,000 water project in Roundup because that city had access to other revenue sources, such as coal board funding, that were not available to other counties. The governor also said he vetoed about $155,000 for a bridge in Sweet Grass County because there was not enough need since the county identified an alternative route within close proximity.
The governor's office argued that the state constitution gives him the authority to veto items in spending bills.
"It is ironic that local governments are suing us to spend more money against the advice of their own local legislator," spokeswoman Sarah Elliott said, referring to the lawmakers that didn't originally vote for the program. "The governor remains committed to being fiscally prudent with taxpayers' money."
Early in the session, Schweitzer unsuccessfully sought to transfer the entire $22.5 million intended for TSEP grants to the state general fund to help balance the budget. It was rejected by the Legislature.
The Legislature appropriated $13.8 million for the grants, $1 million for emergency grants, $900,000 for preliminary infrastructure planning grants. The bill gave $3.9 million to the Department of Natural Resources for a regional water systems account and transferred about $2.5 million to the state general fund.