HELENA – A Senate committee on Wednesday tabled the bill that would have appropriated nearly $100 million in state cash for some new university system building projects and renovations, and a new Montana Historical Society building.
The Senate Finance and Claims Committee voted 17-3 to table House Bill 5, which called for spending $228 million from all sources on long-range building projects, including fisheries, dams and buildings. The total included $63 million in required matching funds for the university system buildings, including for a new Missoula College facility.
Despite appearances to the contrary, the building projects may not be dead. With the two-thirds majority in each house, no bills are dead in the Legislature until it adjourns.
Legislators are talking about reviving House Bill 14, the now-dead bill to authorize the issuance of bonds to fund the projects. That bill, by Rep. Galen Hollenbaugh, D-Helena, failed to obtain the needed two-thirds vote in the House on Friday and thus failed to meet the deadline that day to move to the Senate.
Breathing new life into the bonding bill comes with a major advantage, but also a substantial drawback.
The bonding money would not count against the fast-shrinking state general fund’s projected ending fund balance.
The state can’t afford SB5 as it is, Senate Finance and Claims Chairman Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek said.
“We’ve got a lot of checks, and we’re short of cash,” Ripley told reporters after the meeting.
The general feeling, Ripley said, is that if some of these building projects go forward, they will have to go be put in the bonding bill.
The Legislature has only 15 days remaining before its scheduled April 27 adjournment. Before adjourning, lawmakers are constitutionally required to bring the state general fund budget into balance with projected revenues.
However, a difficult-to-obtain two-thirds majority would be needed to revive HB14 and then again for the Senate to accept it. The same supermajority would be required to pass the bill at every stage in both houses.
A similar bonding bill by Hollenbaugh died in 2011 when it couldn’t muster the two-thirds majority during the final House vote.
If new life is breathed into HB14, some projects could be funded by bonds, while others could be paid for by cash in SB5.
The bonding bill enjoys the support of business groups such as the Montana Contractors’ Association and Chamber of Commerce as well as labor groups such as the Montana AFL-CIO and MEA-MFT.
It’s a top priority of Gov. Steve Bullock, who calls it the Jobs and Opportunity by Building Schools, or JOBS, bill. Some 2,400 construction workers would be hired to build the new facilities, which would educate and train future Montana workers.
Bullock’s budget director, Dan Villa, urged the committee Tuesday to use bonds rather than pay cash for the projects because of low-interest rates and the state’s “sterling” bond ratings.
Before the Senate Finance and Claims Committee tabled SB5, members had prepared a number of amendments to strip projects from the bill.
Two sets of amendments proposed dropping $29 million for building a new Missoula College facility. It’s the only building project that has drawn opposition, as some Missoula people are fighting its proposed location, which is now the site of the University of Montana Golf Course.
Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, had an amendment to eliminate $87 million of projects, leaving only $4.8 million.
Sen. Eric Moore, R-Miles City, had two separate amendments. One would have eliminated the $23 million Montana Historical Society building, while the other would have dropped the $29 million Missoula College project.
State Higher Education Commissioner Clayton Christian remained optimistic the projects would be approved.
“We are sensing that when this sessions ends, there will be a JOBS bill that will include construction projects for the Montana university system,” he said. “There are still plenty of days left in the session to get the JOBS bill passed.”