HELENA – Republicans are preparing to overhaul Gov. Steve Bullock’s $300 million-plus of infrastructure proposals – but they’re also working on a new framework to guide future spending on major building projects.
“After the last long-term bonding bill failed again (in 2017), I said `We gotta figure out a different way to do this,’” said Rep. Eric Moore, R-Miles City.
Issuing bonds to finance building projects needs approval from at least two-thirds of the Senate and House, because it creates new state debt. In the past several legislative sessions, a conservative bloc of Republicans in the House has stopped passage of an infrastructure bonding bill.
Moore said he’ll be sponsoring a bill to create a new fund for infrastructure, with a dedicated revenue stream and financial triggers and planning, guiding how the state invests in new buildings.
He told MTN News that while the fund wouldn’t apply until two years from now, its passage might pry loose a few more Republican votes for the 2019 session’s bonding bill for infrastructure.
“I still think it will help with the comfort level, even this session,” Moore said. “With House Bill 14, we can say, `Does this fit into the parameters?’”
HB14 is this session’s “bonding bill,” Gov. Bullock’s proposal to sell $160 million in bonds to finance multiple infrastructure projects across the state.
It includes $32 million to remodel Romney Hall on the Montana State University campus, $32 million for a new Montana Historical Society building and museum, $44 million to fund grants for eastern Montana local governments impacted by oil, gas and coal development, and $35 million for more than 60 local bridge, water and wastewater projects.
Additional infrastructure bills before the Legislature include:
• House Bill 5, which has $135 million of state cash and authority for many state and university-system new buildings and maintenance. Some of the money is just “authority” to spend and would be financed by privately raised funds or grants.
• House Bill 6, which contains about 40 grants for water, irrigation and dam projects in local communities.
• House Bill 7, with $5.8 million for several reclamation and water-restoration projects.
• House Bill 8, with $44 million in coal trust-funded loans, primarily for several large water projects in eastern Montana. That money includes $13 million for the Huntley Irrigation District.
• House Bill 11, which contains the Treasure State Endowment authorization for local water projects – although the money is in Bullock’s bonding bill.
A legislative panel is scheduled to vote Thursday on the first three bills and HB14.
Moore and Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, who chairs the panel, indicated to MTN News that majority Republicans will decide to remove some of the projects from HB14, the governor’s bonding bill.
“I work with the governor on a lot of things, and I’m not sure why he keeps bringing this big monster (of a bonding bill) every year, and we always break it up,” Moore said. “I don’t have any reason to think we’re not going to do the same this year.”
But Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, said Democrats are prepared to fight hard for the governor’s infrastructure plans.
“We’re willing to work hand-in-hand (with Republicans) in order to get the strategic plan done,” he said, referring to Moore’s bill on the new fund. “But they’ve got to be willing to work with us to get some of these major projects done that have been sitting and just getting more expensive every day. …
“We’re not leaving this session without a substantial investment in infrastructure.”
Nonetheless, Democrats have already conceded that the $32 million Historical Society building won’t remain in HB14.
Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, confirmed that she’ll be carrying a separate bill to authorize the Historical Society building, probably financed with lodging taxes.
Hopkins also said it’s likely that Republicans will vote to take some of the local water projects funded by HB14 and move them back into one of the other bills, which will have enough cash to finance some, but not all, of the projects.
The fate of funding for Romney Hall on the MSU campus remains to be seen.
MSU officials and Bullock have asked the Legislature at least two other times for the money to remodel Romney Hall, to create badly needed classroom space for Montana’s fastest-growing college, only to see it fail in the final days of the session.
Tracy Ellig, vice president of communications for MSU, told MTN News that he remains optimistic that this year will be different.
“The state has not passed a bonding bill since 2005, for major building vertical construction,” he said. “I think, over time, people have seen that’s an issue and it needs to be addressed.”
Story by Mike Dennison, MTN News