A state senator from Butte and a longtime backer of the Southwest Montana Veterans Home in Butte said Thursday that Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte disregarded veterans by nixing $6 million in state money to build a sixth cottage at the skilled-nursing facility.
Gianforte used line-item vetoes to strike that and another $17 million in funding for 11 other projects from an appropriations bill passed by the Montana Legislature. He said the federal government should pay the lion’s share of costs for a sixth cottage.
It took years for state and federal lawmakers to cobble funding to build the $20 million veterans home in Butte, which took in its first veteran in March 2021. The facility includes five cottages with separate bedrooms for 12 veterans each, but there have long been hopes a sixth cottage would be added. The $6 million would have paid for that.
“A more fiscally responsible approach is to allocate the state’s portion of the project and secure federal funds for the balance, as we have done in the past,” Gianforte said in a veto message.
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But Democratic state Sen. Ryan Lynch of Butte and Dave Williamson, chairman of the Southwest Montana Veterans Home Foundation, say the state could easily afford the $6 million cost now. They regard the veto as a slap at veterans.
It was Lynch who got the $6 million added to the appropriations bill and its final version passed the Senate 34-14 and the House 68-28, both with bipartisan backing.
Lynch said Gianforte has shown a “complete lack of concern” for seniors and nursing homes “as they have closed at a record pace across Montana under his administration.”
“With the start of the Memorial Day weekend upon us, the governor has made it perfectly clear that he doesn’t support veterans and their service to this country either,” Lynch told The Montana Standard on Thursday.
Williamson noted that federal tax dollars helped fund construction of the facility and said the U.S. Veterans Administration covers or helps cover costs for much of the care delivered there. But he said it is a state-owned facility and, “The state needs to own up to that.”
“I am extremely disappointed he did that (line-item veto) — not for myself but for the 100,000 veterans in the state of Montana, plus their spouses and their children,” said Williamson, who served in the Army for 35 years.
He said the overall bill included funding for more than $1 billion in projects and believes the veto was politically motivated. Among other factors, he said, Lynch is a Democrat and got the funding added and Gianforte and Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls are Republicans.
Although lawmakers can override Gianforte’s vetoes after the session by mail if two-thirds of both Republican-controlled chambers affirm measures by mail, Williamson says it’s a long shot and doubts it will happen.
Fitzpatrick sent the governor a letter May 18 raising objections to funding for more than a dozen projects in two bills, including the one in question, saying it was “unnecessary and wasteful spending.” Gianforte cited the letter and objections in his veto message.
As originally passed by the House, Fitzpatrick said, the bill would have spent $1 million in state funds on a sixth cottage if the federal government put up a $6 million match. But the match requirement was eliminated in a Senate committee and replaced with $6 million in state funding, he said.
“While I have supported funding for the Southwest Montana Veterans Home in the past, I believe the primary burden for the construction of the sixth cottage should be borne by the federal government,” Fitzpatrick said in his letter.
Gianforte said Fitzpatrick had provided “thoughtful recommendations to bring greater fiscal restraint and responsibility” to the bill. He said the federal government paid for 65% of previous construction costs for the veterans home and should cover costs here, too.
Williamson noted that it took years to secure federal money for the home in the first place due to funding formulas at the VA but said the state could easily cover all costs for a sixth cottage now.
The Legislature in 2021 steered $3.3 million toward construction of a covered walkway connecting cottages at the home and lawmakers allocated another $5.25 million this session to finish that project. That remains in the bill, Williamson said.
The $6 million for a sixth cottage should have remained too, he said.
“What is $6 million when you’re dealing with $1.12 billion (in overall spending)? That’s nothing,” Williamson said. “So when he’s saying he’s doing good by taxpayers by eliminating $23 million out of $1.1 billion in projects, that’s bogus.”
Lynch said he hopes veterans hold Gianforte accountable “for his mean-spirited and spiteful actions that fly in the face of common sense and decency.”
He issued a statement to the media later Thursday saying Gianforte had given “himself and his rich friends” nearly $1 billion in tax breaks this session and grown the state budget by almost $2 billion “and has the audacity to call that conservative.”
“Veterans should reach out to their local legislators and ask that they exercise their authority and override this terrible decision from the Governor,” Lynch said.