HELENA — Gov. Steve Bullock proposed Monday that the state invest more than $300 million in infrastructure across Montana in a single bill, with about two-thirds of the money coming from money raised by issuing debt and one-third from cash.
Bullock’s comments came when he announced his proposed budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal years. Legislators next year will vote on Bullock’s budget proposals.
“Our businesses and workers require a reliable infrastructure that allows them to build their communities, keep their businesses operating and get their products to market,” Bullock said at a press conference. “We’ll fund these infrastructure projects using both cash on hand, as well as leveraging our strong fiscal management for low-interest bonds.”
He said the plan will provide money for improved water, sewer, and roads and includes $45 million for eastern Montana communities affected by oil and gas development.
A single bill that authorizing bonding for specific projects and cash spent on other projects needs approval from two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate, required to approve any state debt. Republicans again control both legislative chambers.
The incoming House speaker, Rep. Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, suggested Republicans are cool to bonding to fund projects, especially when Bullock is “sitting” on a projected budget surplus of more than $300 million going into the session.
“Republicans don’t like going into debt,” he said. “Bonding is just a tough sell for conservative Republican legislators.”
In 2013, Bullock drew extensive criticism from eastern Montana legislators for vetoing a bill that would have provided $35 million in cash for public-works funding for oil and gas communities. Bullock defended the veto then, saying the added spending would have brought his desired budget surplus below the $300 million mark he wanted.
Bullock’s new proposal calls for funding eastern Montana infrastructure with money from bonds. It will be a single bill, rather than six different bills as in 2013, said Bullock’s budget director, Dan Villa.
“It’s a statewide program,” Villa said. “We want to make sure all of Montana is in one bill, as opposed to the Legislature being able to pick some elements. We’re just very hopeful we can move with a statewide proposal rather than a hipshot approach.”
Knudsen noted that Republican wouldn’t approve a $100 million in bonding in 2012, and that “$300 million is a big ask for a Republican.”
Bullock proposed making these infrastructure investments:
- $165.9 million in the Long Range Building Program.
- $45 million in grants to eastern Montana communities affected by oil and gas development.
- $26.9 million in the Treasure State Endowment Program.
- $26.6 million in Renewable Resource loans.
- $31.2 million in the Quality Schools Facility Grant Program.
- $15 million for statewide broadband expenses.
- $13.8 million in the Renewable Resource Grants and Loans Program.
- $8 million in Reclamation Development Grant Program
- $3.3 million in regional water projects.
Among the building programs that Bullock proposed to be funded by bonds is $39.5 million for a new Montana Historical Society museum, to be known as the Montana Heritage Center.
Other university system building projects he proposed to be funded by bonds are $28 million to remodel Romney Hall at Montana State University in Bozeman, $10 million to renovate the Clapp Science Building at the University of Montana and $10 million to renovate the engineering facilities at Montana Tech in Butte and $2.7 million to renovate the library at MSU Billings.
Bullock also called for issuing $7 million in bonding for First Step mental health facilities in Fergus and Deer Lodge counties. This was the administration’s top-rated project.
Cary Hegreberg, executive vice president of Montana Contractors Association, applauded Bullock’s infrastructure proposal and said the group looks forward to working with him and the Legislature to fund it.
“At first blush, it sounds like a great proposal,” Hegreberg said. “The state is behind in funding infrastructure and I think there is a wide recognition in the state and in the Legislature that we need to step and fund infrastructure needs in the state.”