HELENA – Republican leadership and the governor are going back to the drawing board for compromise on a bill that would use bonding to pay for some infrastructure projects.
A group of about a dozen lawmakers, mostly Republicans, met with Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock early Tuesday morning to discuss what it would take to pass an infrastructure package, though they came to no deal.
The governor had previously picked several Republican-favored bills from a list presented by that party's leadership as part of a negotiation to get an infrastructure bonding bill passed this session.
The Legislature has not passed an infrastructure bonding bill for several sessions. In 2015, a package failed by one vote. And the session before, Bullock vetoed the infrastructure bill, saying it was necessary to balance the state budget.
Some Republicans in the House and Senate are opposed to the idea of bonding to pay for statewide infrastructure projects, though among others there is a gradient of comfort depending on the amount of money being bonded. There are two bills in play, one that calls for $78 million and carried by Rep. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, and another carried by Sen. Eric Moore, R-Miles City, that has $98 million.
Cuffe’s bill had less bonding at first, but was amended to add in projects that have caused friction, including a veterans' home in Butte and upgrades to Romney Hall on the Montana State University campus. Moore’s bill includes those projects, plus additional money for school projects.
It’s estimated about 10-15 Republicans in the House and another 10 in the Senate won’t support any sort of bonding.
Democrats have tried to sell bonding as a good deal in a year when the state budget is tight, with House Minority Leader Jenny Eck repeatedly pointing out several school districts are asking voters this spring to bond more for school projects – Bozeman at $125 million for a new high school and $63 million in Helena for three new elementary schools.
House Speaker Austin Knudsen of Culbertson said Republicans understand that, but it’s not a point that gains any traction. “I don’t think we have a Republican caucus full of morons.”
Bullock also said Montana has a low debt level compared to other states.
But many Republicans, who hold a majority in the Legislature, argue the state should not enter into any debt to pay for projects, while others have concerns about the state transferring cash set aside for these types of projects into the state’s general fund to help balance the budget and replacing that money with bonding.
The package of bills Bullock agreed to let become law in exchange for an infrastructure package included two bills to change workers compensation rules, another to allow for 10-year license plates, a land access bill, a non-genetically modified seed bill and a bill to pay for regional water projects.
But Knudsen said in the occasionally tense meeting Tuesday morning that those bills weren’t enough.
He asked for the governor to sign one of the two bills that would either outright ban or severely limit access to abortion, as well as allow a charter school bill that, though it’s carried by a Democrat, is unpopular within the party. A third bill Knudsen floated was one exempting wells on family-transferred land from regulation.
Those bills were on the original list provided to Bullock to pick from.
Sen. Jon Sesso criticized the bills Knudsen selected. “I don’t understand what the linkage is between social policy and job creation and economic development. To interject that division into the infrastructure debate is misplaced.”
Through the meeting, Knudsen repeatedly said he’s not “the dictator” of his caucus and that he asks members to vote their conscience.
Bullock and Knudsen at times clashed during the meeting, and it was clear there also wasn’t complete consensus among Republicans at the table about which bills should be prioritized.
Moore said he didn’t care which infrastructure bill passed or if it had his name on it, while some in attendance said that Cuffe had “pride in authorship” and wanted the final package.
More also suggested a “global haircut” on the amount of bonding in either of the bills, saying that reducing the total amount bonded by cutting the budgets for each project by something like 10 percent might make the bill more appealing.
Sen Llew Jones, R-Conrad, said removing more-controversial projects like Romney Hall might gain some Republican votes, but lose other Republicans votes, including possibly his in the Senate, and many Democrats.
The meeting was among Republican Reps. Jeff Essmann, Rob Cook, Frank Garner, Mike Hopkins, Speaker Pro Tem Greg Hertz and Knudsen. Democratic Representatives included Casey Schreiner and Minority Leader Eck.
On the Senate side, Republicans Moore and Jones were there. Sesso was the lone Senate Democrat. Also there was Dan Villa, the governor’s budget director, and his deputy chief of staff Ali Bovingdon, plus two members of the communications staff.
A mid-morning fire alarm that cleared the building caused more flurry in an already busy morning. After people were let back into the Capitol, Republicans wouldn’t say when they planned to meet again to develop a new list to present to Bullock, though some said they expected it to happen between House floor sessions in the early afternoon. It was also unclear if or when legislators would meet with the governor again.
Before a 2 p.m. House floor session, Knudsen said he didn't think things progressed any further than where negotiations were left in the morning meeting.
Some lawmakers said that it would be easier to hash out a deal without media present. The morning meeting was not announced publicly, and reporters found out about it by sitting outside the governor’s office.
It also wasn’t clear if the Speaker of the House was initially invited, saying when he entered “I must have missed the memo about the 8 o’clock meeting in the governor’s office.”
Another attendee said he found out about the meeting after getting a text message from a phone number he didn’t know.