HELENA, Montana — Montana lawmakers are still awaiting a bill from Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte so the state can implement the recreational cannabis program voters overwhelmingly passed in November. Rank-and-file lawmakers left in the dark on the contours of the plan are now additionally frustrated that a representative of the multinational consulting firm and financial advisory company Deloitte — which employs over 300,000 people across the world and generated over $47 billion in revenue last year — has a seat at the table they were elected to sit at. Still, they know little about his involvement — and may never know the full extent of the efforts.
During a hearing of the Montana House Appropriations Committee this Tuesday, lawmakers grilled Brendan Beatty, director of the state Department of Revenue, over the role Deloitte has played in shaping the state’s recreational marijuana plan. Beatty’s response — insert one big shrug emoji here — highlights an issue plaguing any state with legalization in play: who gets a say in how a legalization program is designed? And, more importantly, what do they stand to gain?
We weren’t able to get those questions answered, because Beatty did not respond to a request for comment from The News Station.
Beyond exasperating lawmakers, Deloitte’s intrusion has angered industry insiders who are eager to get the program up and running with minimal complications.
While Beatty did not even name the employee, in the hearing he referenced the person’s previous work as a prosecutor in Oregon. That has political observers here pointing to Rob Patridge, who helped implement recreational marijuana in Oregon before he was hired by Deloitte. Partridge also did not respond to a request for comment from The News Station.
Montana is not Deloitte’s first foray into the cannabis industry. The firm played a significant role in the development of Canada’s legal cannabis market. For instance, in 2019 they acquired Cannabis Compliance Inc., a prominent consulting firm, and formed “alliances” with several data-tracking and quality-control companies.
Deloitte’s attempt to exert influence in Montana is part of a larger trend of cannabis companies hobnobbing with politicians. In 2019, for instance, newly-embattled Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo welcomed a cannabis exec to an off-the-books, $25,000 a head fundraiser as lawmakers were crafting a (later failed) legalization bill there. And during the 2020 election cycle, a group of former and current cannabis bigwigs launched a PAC called the TIllis Daines Majority Committee, which raised over $65,000 to support incumbent Republican US Sens.Steve Daines of Montana and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.
During the Montana House hearing, Beatty was only able to definitively answer one question from Republican state Reps. Brad Tschida (pronounced “cheetah”) and Fiona Nave: whether the Deloitte rep was working pro bono or as a consultant.
“There is no contract with Deloitte”Brendan Beatty
But a lawmaker who spoke to The News Station on background was less certain: they thought he had been “hired by the state to consult” on implementation of the state’s new marijuana program. They added that Partridge “may still” be operating pro bono. If he is working “for free,” however, his motives remain completely unclear.
Tschida also pressed Beatty on which lawmakers Partridge spoke to in his informal position. Beatty didn’t have an answer, but he did praise Partridge’s experience.
“I believe he is credible and has more experience than anyone in Montana has. Because we have none,” Beatty said.
Following the hearing, industry insiders and business owners expressed concern over Deloitte’s potential influence in implementation, as well as the possibility the firm’s involvement will over complicate the process.
“Deloitte is of course at the forefront of financial and business consulting, so if their involvement is going to help ensure an effective and efficient recreational process, then that is great,” Zach Block, the co-owner of Montana Canna in Kalispell, told The News Station.
“However, if we are simply adding another cook in the kitchen – to tie another bow in the Gordian knot of governmental oversight — then that is going to be a negative for the Montana cannabis businesses as well as the rec market customers,” he added.
This episode comes amidst heightening uncertainty among lawmakers as they craft the state budget: recreational cannabis remains a completely unknown factor in their plans, which also include cutting state income taxes (a move anticipated to primarily benefit wealthy Montanans). It’s estimated that legal pot will generate $52 million in annual revenue once it is fully operational; that money could go a long way to offsetting those tax cuts.
Gov. Gianforte has until March 25 to offer up his bill to implement the program, which will be introduced by GOP Rep. Mike Hopkins.
And the clock is ticking. The legislative session only runs through May 11 (a brief extension from the original end date of April 29 was granted today to allow time to manage COVID relief funds). Then the legislature won’t meet again until 2023.
During the hearing, GOP Rep. Tschida asked Beatty if Partridge was being considered for a further role once the program is implemented.
“At least at this point I’m considering no one,” Beatty said, “until we know what we need.”