HELENA – Even though several legislators asked their colleagues to kill a gas tax increase, the House approved amendments on Friday to raise the gas tax by 4.5 cents a gallon to pay for road improvements.

The bill has been one of the most contentious this session, but enough Republicans advanced the bill after the tax increase was adjusted from 8 cents a gallon to 4.5 cents by the Senate.

After one more vote, the bill will head to the governor’s desk. The tax increase on gasoline will cap at 6.5 cents a gallon in 2023. The diesel tax increase will start at 1.5 cents in 2018 and cap at 2 cents in 2023.

Montana’s gas tax has stayed at 27 cents a gallon for 24 years, which has delayed projects to repair dangerous roads and bridges.

The state uses a highway fund account to pay for highway construction and maintenance. For every $1 the state contributes from the highway fund, the state receives $7 in federal money. But the account has been overdrawn.

In 2015, the tax generated $294.2 million, but agencies spent $307.5 million. In December 2016, the Department of Transportation said it would delay 30 projects and Highway Patrol said it would lay off 27 troopers. A $10 million dollar federal refund was used to restart projects.

The sponsor, Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, said Montana is third in the nation for highway fatalities. He said if the bill passes, 100 projects across all 56 counties in the state will be funded to get Montanans working and make roads safer.

“It’s time for us to use this, along with the other good measures, to do something and not tell the good people of Montana we came and talked about it again,” he said.

Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, said she didn’t want to send home an 8-cent increase to the gas tax. She said after working with the sponsor and others involved to negotiate a lower tax, she could support the measure.

“It’s not a question of whether I vote for a gas tax, it’s whether I vote for something that makes it better for my people back home,” she said. “I believe it’s better for the people of Montana.”

Most Democrats supported the amendments, saying the investment to improve highways would prevent accidents and fatalities. Rep. Bradley Hamlett, D-Cascade, said a 19-year-old woman in his community recently lost her life after hitting a pothole and losing control of her vehicle.

“If there would have been better funding, that road would have gotten fixed two or three years ago,” he said. “I’m willing to do it because I’m going to be driving on better and safer roads.”

Although the amendments passed 61-39, several Republicans stood in strong opposition to any increase in the gas tax, saying it would harm vulnerable Montanans and bail out inefficient agencies.

Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Darby, said overspending and prioritization problems led to insufficient funds.

“Instead of addressing those problems and inefficiencies in our government, our solution is to harness our citizens, the very people who sent us here to fight for them,” she said. “I pray that we can find a different solution than this.”

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