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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

New Infrastructure Funding Approach Gets First Hearing At Montana Legislature

Montana Capitol, Helena, MT.
William Marcus
Montana Public Radio
Montana Capitol, Helena, MT.

Montana lawmakers got their first official look at the major infrastructure bill of the 2015 Legislature.

The Bullock Administration’s nearly $400 million Build Montana program was presented to a joint Appropriations Subcommittee today. 

In past sessions, the various infrastructure proposals were found in different bills, often because the funding sources were different. Some were bonded; others came from the interest on coal taxes through the Treasure State Endowment. This legislative session is different. All projects are rolled into one bill, House Bill 5, even though the funding sources continue to vary.

Cary Hegreberg is executive director of the Montana Contractors’ Association. He supports the entire bill and encourages lawmakers not to break projects away from House Bill 5 and stick them in separate bills.

"We think that will simply encourage a process that will result in trying to decide who gets the pork chops and who gets the bread crumbs."

Still, the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee wanted to know why the Bullock Administration chose to give lawmakers an omnibus infrastructure bill.

State Budget Director Dan Villa says Hegreberg summed it up. He says all across the state many communities have important, expensive projects that need the state’s help with funding.

"With this bill we ensure this east-west conversation ends. That this urban-rural conversation ends. That we are all in it together as one Montana."

In this bill there is funding to help Bakken affected communities pay for infrastructure needs. So Villa was asked why did the governor veto a bill to help with those infrastructure costs during the 2013 session.

"Because the governor will not sacrifice this state being the most financially prudent and financially responsible state in this nation for one-time only investments," Villa said. "You’ve heard from a bunch of private sector folks here today why spending the rainy day fund on long term assets at record low interest rates make no sense."

Villa says the governor has laid down a hard marker of having a $300 million dollar budget cushion in case of an emergency. He says the 2013 bill threatened that by using that cash for those Eastern Montana infrastructure projects.

Hegreberg of the Contractors’ Association says he knows some Republican lawmakers have reservations about issuing bonding to pay some of the costs for these projects. They worry about passing on debt to future generations. But he points out past generations made those investments, for example irrigation projects or schools.

"We are not doing our kids and grandkids any favors by not investing in our infrastructure today. We are passing on that obligation, we are kicking the can down the road in an unquantifiable way. Nor are we honoring or respecting the courage and commitment and foresight that our grandparents had when they invested in some of these infrastructure projects in the first place."

No one testified against this bill on the opening day.

Because so many projects are contained in the bill, the subcommittee will be taking testimony on broad sections before taking action on the bill.

See thehearing schedule on House Bill 5 before the joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Long-Range Planning.

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