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It was like a sucker punch to the stomach.

That's how Associated Students of the University of Montana President Ashleen Williams described the feeling upon learning that lawmakers played politics with a bill that would've funded a new UM College of Technology building. The same body that had previously supported the measure killed it.

"Being political for the sake of being political makes you less human," said Williams, who had made securing funding for a new COT building one of her top priorities this year. "I feel pretty defeated. It makes me consider making a bid for state Senate."

The bonding bill included nearly $100 million worth of bonds over 20 years to pay for infrastructure projects from Billings to Havre to Missoula, mostly on college campuses. Topping the list of projects was $29 million to build a new UM COT, so that students no longer have to take classes in mobile trailers, and $23 million for a Montana Historical Society museum.

The legislation was dubbed a "jobs bill" and had the backing of industry, labor unions and higher education officials. At the last public hearing, the line of proponents wrapped around the room, said Jenifer Gursky, ASUM's lobbyist and its newly elected president. Only one citizen opposed the measure.

The bill initially passed the Republican-controlled House. The Senate also gave the measure a green light, but tagged on an amendment. So, back to the House the bonding bill went.

For the state to issue bonds, both the House and Senate must approve the bill by a two-thirds majority.

Although the measure had enough support in the House at one time, it died for good Thursday seven votes short. Attempts to revive the bill failed.

"I'm disappointed in the process," Gursky said, "... how the same body can come back with a more conservative amendment and it fails. That says there were backroom deals going on and that's a shame."

Lawmakers had changed their minds. It boiled down to debt, said UM lobbyist Bill Johnston.

"No matter how much we talked to them about investment in education and job creation and that it's a great time to borrow (money) and how this would keep people in business, that didn't carry as much weight as the debt," he said.

UM outlined its priories at the beginning of the session. They were three simple objectives: support the pay plan to provide raises to university workers; Gov. Brian Schweitzer's proposed budget for higher education; and a bonding bill to fund the UM COT.

The pay plan failed. The bonding bill failed. Higher education was funded in the next biennium at roughly $13.8 million under the current biennial funding level.

Still, Johnston is optimistic.

"It could've been worse," he said. "We didn't reach our goals, but we could've gotten lower funding, so we're thankful for what we got and will start pressing for our needs next session."

This was, Johnston said, one of the most difficult legislative sessions he's experienced since he began lobbying for UM in 2001.

When the bonding bill started out, it included projects totaling about $50 million to $70 million, Johnston said. Projects were added to entice lawmakers from each corner of the state to vote for the bill. It was the only way to secure a two-thirds majority, Johnston said.

"If you just ran with the COT, would you get two-thirds across the state? I don't think we could," he said.

Yet, in the end, some lawmakers switched their votes because they said the debt was too high. It's hard to know right now exactly what went wrong, Johnston said, but the COT remains a priority as it has for the last three legislative sessions.

No one questioned the critical need for a new COT building, he said.

"Every opportunity we have, we'll ask the COT to be considered. They need a facility that's adequate and that's not there now," Johnston said.

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.com.

 

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