GOP to introduce infrastructure bill as soon as Wednesday
By MATT VOLZ
Mar. 21, 2017
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Republican legislative leaders are breaking up Montana Gov. Steve Bullock's $157 million bonding bill for state infrastructure projects, with plans to unveil their own legislation as early as Wednesday.
GOP leaders were working up to the last minute to figure out just how far into debt lawmakers within their party would be willing to put the state to pay for public works and building projects.
Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, a Stevensville Republican, passed out a chart to his caucus showing what the state's financial obligations would be if $115 million worth of projects were funded through bonding. That $115 million is only a starting point, he said.
"You don't force anybody into this," Thomas said. "You're not going to tell anybody what to do, but you need to have a consensus."
House Republicans would likely balk at a $115 million bonding bill, which would require 67 of 100 House votes for it to pass.
"We've told the Senate that we don't think we have the votes to do that over here," Republican state Rep. Greg Hertz, of Polson, said. "We can't get to 67 with that big of a package."
House Republican leaders were still working within their caucus to determine their sweet spot for a bond bill. "We'll probably know that by Wednesday," Hertz said.
Bullock and the Republican-led Legislature are under pressure to pass an infrastructure package this session after failing to do so the previous two. In 2013, Bullock vetoed a package that arrived on his desk after the Legislature adjourned. In 2015, the legislation failed to get enough votes with Republican lawmakers concerned about state debt and some of the building projects it contained.
The governor's bill, carried by Democratic state Rep. Jim Keane, of Butte, would use bonds to fund numerous infrastructure projects that are normally paid for with cash from special revenue accounts. That cash would be moved into the state's general fund instead, to help close a budget shortfall.
Hertz said that proposal "was never going to happen."
The governor's bill also contains projects previously rejected by the Legislature, such as a $27 million Montana Historical Society museum, $25 million in renovations to Montana State University's Romney Hall and $11 million for a veterans' home in Butte.
Republican legislative leaders say their focus is on "essential infrastructure" — roads, bridges and water and sewer systems. Hertz said any bonding proposal would be a small percentage of the overall state funding for those infrastructure projects across the state.
The House Appropriations Committee began stripping the governor's bill on Monday, with plans to move the cash projects into other infrastructure legislation. That would segregate the projects funded by bonding, some of which will be included in the bill to be introduced this week.
Bullock said in a statement that he doesn't care who gets the credit, so long as an infrastructure bill passes. However, Bullock budget director Dan Villa told House Appropriations Committee members that the burden has shifted to them now that they decided to dismantle the governor's bill.
"We recommended a broad, sweeping infrastructure proposal," Villa said. "It has changed and it is in your hands."
House Minority Leader Jenny Eck, a Helena Democrat, is drafting legislation to pay for the Montana Historical Society museum by increasing the state's lodging tax it instead of using bonds. Eck said the Helena delegation is unlikely to vote for an infrastructure package if the historical society project doesn't pass in some form.
If the historical society project is paid for by a different funding source, nearly all of the other capital and school projects in the governor's bill could be paid for under the $115 million bond proposal that Thomas and the Senate Republicans are floating as a trial balloon.