HELENA – The House on Thursday endorsed a multimillion-dollar public works and building bill whose passage is key to the Legislature’s adjournment, which could come Friday.
With a deal on the major budget bill struck late Wednesday night and apparently headed for passage, House approval of the last surviving major infrastructure bill – which contains at least $150 million in projects for all corners of the state – remains one of the final keys to wrapping up the 2015 Legislature.
Senate Bill 416 won endorsement after a spirited debate, with critics labeling it a “pork-barrel bill” and supporters saying it provides vital infrastructure for the state.
“Take a deep breath,” said Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman. “Take a smell, and it smells like a pig farm. It’s a pork-barrel bill. We have projects from all over the state. They’re not the most important projects.”
Wittich urged colleagues to kill it, but the House voted 70-30 to pass it. The bill faces a final vote on Friday and needs a two-thirds majority or 67 votes in the House. If it passes, the bill will head to the Senate to approve the House changes.
The bill relies on a combination of cash, bond proceeds and borrowing authority. (See sidebar for details on what’s in the revised version of SB416.)
“We all know we are at a point where we need to do something,” said Rep. Pat Noonan, D-Ramsay. “We can agree that making an investment in the infrastructure of Montana is important.”
When the session started, leaders from both parties agreed on the need to fund infrastructure, particularly for the areas in eastern Montana feeling the impacts of oil and gas developments. But a number of the infrastructure proposals have been killed along the way, including Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s HB5, which put all public works and capital construction projects into a single bill.
A bipartisan group of senators came up with SB416 in late March in an effort to pass some major public-works bill this session. The measure was revised considerably by the House Appropriations Committee.
In a rare floor speech, House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, asked lawmakers to support the bill.
“Here we are,” he said. “We’re getting close to the home stretch.”
Knudsen said the amended bill was “a negotiated solution.” Leaders of the two chambers and the two parties have been negotiating with the Bullock administration to come up with acceptable compromises on the key remaining issues.
“Is it perfect?” he asked. “No. I know there’s a large portion of my caucus that has problems with bonding.”
In the past two legislative sessions, House Republicans have blocked any major attempts at bonding, saying they preferred to pay cash for infrastructure and not indebt the state.
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The bill tries to pay as much in cash for infrastructure as it can, Knudsen said, and is great for eastern Montana where he’s from.
House Majority Whip Greg Hertz, R-Polson, said it was not easy to go against Knudsen, but he opposed the bill. Instead of funding much-needed physical improvements, such as new roofs and boilers for Montana’s K-12 schools, he said the bill helps pay for university buildings such as the renovation of Romney Hall at Montana State University, and would help fund the Montana Historical Society’s new Montana Heritage Center in Helena.
“I’m not willing to make that tradeoff,” Hertz said.
Wittich questioned why the state needed to bond instead of spending cash. He blamed Bullock for insisting arbitrarily that the state needed to keep a $300 million budget surplus as of mid-2017.
Wittich said the state already faces billions of dollars of debt, which will only increase under the Medicaid expansion bill passed earlier that is now law.
Noonan argued that the longer the House refuses to issue bonds, the price tag for the public works projects will only get bigger, he said.
“We have collateral damage to mitigate in eastern Montana,” he said.
Rep. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, told legislators he intended to vote for the revised SB416, even if he didn’t like everything in the bill.
“Sometimes you need to take some bad with some good,” Essmann said.
He said school repairs weren’t included in the bill at the insistence of the Senate.
Rep. Randy Brodehl, R-Kalispell, said he was voting against the bill.
“Most of the projects on that list are not emergencies,” he said, adding, “Much of the focus in this bill has been urban buildings … buildings that don’t generate revenue. They continue to grow our obligation for maintenance.”
In his closing, Rep. Ryan Osmundson, R-Buffalo, asked representatives to vote for the SB416.
“It is a bonding bill,” Osmundson said. “There is no doubt. It is also for local infrastructure. It is also for capital projects. It is for oil and gas projects.”