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Gov. Steve Bullock stands on the steps of the Montana State Capitol.

Gov. Steve Bullock stands on the steps of the Montana State Capitol.

Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed a bill to open up information about state legal settlements Friday, but issued an accompanying executive order implementing some of the bill’s objectives.

House Bill 532, carried by Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, sought to require the state Department of Administration to disclose on a public website information about monetary settlements involving the state. The bill would also have forbidden nondisclosure agreements for state settlements — except for claims involving minors — and required records related to state settlements to be retained for 20 years instead of the current five.

Mercer’s bill also called for state agencies to file quarterly reports – monthly, prior to an amendment — of all initial demands for damages, civil and administrative complaints, the entity where the complaint originated and requests for settlement negotiation.

Alongside his veto, Bullock issued an executive order that says employee settlements are public information and that a portion of transparency.mt.gov, the state’s transparency portal, must be used to publish the date and dollar amounts of settlements along with the state agency where the original complaint was made, for at least three years.

The agency in question must submit the required information to the Department of Administration within 30 days of settlement. It must then be published online within 60 days. The order affects all settlements after June 1.

In the Friday veto letter, Bullock characterized his action as “an unfortunate casualty of the decision by Republican leaders in the legislature to hold bills from my desk until the legislative session adjourns.”

“I would have liked to return HB 532 with amendments and ultimately to sign it into law. In principle, I agree with many of the aims of the bill's sponsor,” Bullock noted. “I do not believe that the State of Montana should enter into confidential settlements, unless there is a compelling personal privacy interest.”

Bullock went on to write that Mercer’s bill superseded its goals of transparency, possibly requiring state employees to disclose information courts deem confidential.

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Mercer’s bill passed the House for the first time on a largely party-line 59-40 vote April 1 and met a similarly polarized reception in the Senate, where it passed its third reading vote 29-21 two weeks later. The House concurred with Senate amendments 58-39 on April 23 to send the bill to Bullock’s office.

The Associated Press reported in February that employees of Montana's executive branch agencies took in an average of about $650,000 in settlements each year between 2013 and 2017. That figure fell under $200,000 in 2018.

As originally drafted, Mercer’s bill required that “a description of the conduct that formed the basis of the claimant's allegations and settlement demand” be published on the website along with date, agency and dollar amount. The Joint Select Committee for Settlement Accountability removed that provision in March.

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