Bullock vetoes proposal to shift authority over Montana State Parks

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A winter view of the Flathead Lake on Wednesday, February 8, from West Shore State Park south of Lakeside. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

HELENA — A Democratic lawmaker’s proposal to remove most authority over Montana State Parks from the state wildlife department was rejected Thursday by Gov. Steve Bullock, but the bill may have enough support from the Legislature to override the veto.

While House Bill 324 was brought by a fellow Democrat, Rep. Bradley Hamlett of Cascade, the effort to substantially reduce the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ authority over the state’s 55-unit park system won broad Republican support in the House and Senate. It passed the two chambers by votes of 67-32 and 33-15, respectively.

In an interview Thursday, Hamlett said he would seek an override by the Legislature “if that’s possible.”

“I think that’s why they held onto it for so long, they wanted us to all go home,” he said. Bullock’s veto came on the last day he could act on the bill before it would have automatically passed into law.

He added, “Just because I’m a Democrat doesn’t mean that I’m not going to have opposition from the second floor” of the Capitol, where the governor’s office is located.

The measure would have kept the parks division within the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, but given authority to hire and fire the division director — along with jurisdiction over the park properties and final authority on budget decisions — to the Board of Parks and Recreation.

In his veto statement, Bullock said the proposal would be a “step backward” in making government more efficient.

“While I know the sponsor and proponents of HB 324 have the best interests of state parks at heart, the administrative structure the bill creates is not an effective way to manage our parks,” his statement read, “or to provide the results and accountability that are required to solve” the funding problems within the state park system.

Hamlett added that he felt that Democrats opposing the measure had inaccurately portrayed the bill as simply a response to the department’s abrupt firing last December of Chas Van Genderen, who had headed the state parks division.

While he has repeatedly expressed concerns with the unexplained dismissal, Hamlett has said his proposal was mainly a response to FWP’s handling of issues surrounding West Shore State Park that surfaced late in 2015.

The bill’s opponents have argued that the measure would fail to address the root of the department’s problems and would potentially give the parks and recreation board too much power over the park system.

The Legislature has eight days left in the session and has yet to finalize work on several major pieces of legislation, meaning little time is left for Hamlett to attempt a veto override.

Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com.

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