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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Lawmakers Begin Debate On Infrastructure Bills

Rep. Nancy Ballance (R) HD87
Montana Legislature

One of the biggest disagreements at the state capitol this year is how Montana should fund roads, bridges and other infrastructure. Governor Steve Bullock’s “Build Montana” proposal is one big bill that would fund lots of different projects. It would pull funding from several different sources, including the state coal tax trust fund. Legislative Legal Services says, that means his bill would need to win votes from 75% of lawmakers. 

The House Appropriations Committee has begun examining funding for the various infrastructure projects proposed this legislative session.

But the Republican-controlled panel did not start with the Bullock Administration’s "Build Montana" proposal. Instead, they started on several individual bills broken down by the nature of the project.

The so-called "elephant in the room" at the start of the hearing was why the committee was holding hearings on bills for projects that are already contained in the Governor’s proposal known as House Bill 5.

"House Bill 5 was overwhelming," said Rep. Mike Cuffe, who chairs the panel that held detailed hearings on  the bill.

"We spent days and weeks learning about infrastructure projects all over the state and the good citizens who brought them to us. Finally I decided to take the proposals included in HB 5 but to repackage them in the more traditional bills. I wanted to make things easier to comprehend and manage."

To be clear, House Bill 5 remains intact. But the GOP has carved out projects and put them into House Bills 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 15, and 403. Essentially how they used to be heard.

The hearing started in the morning with House Bill 6 which basically covers projects that fall into the Renewable Resource Grant category, water, wastewater, irrigation and dam projects.

But the bulk of the just over three-hour hearing on House Bill 6 danced around the question of why there are now 7 bills, despite the request of House Appropriations Chair Nancy Ballance.

"And just to remind everybody we’re not here to talk about why this was done we’re here to talk about how this was done," Balance told the committee.

But nearly two-hours into the hearing, the question of “why” began to emerge.

Budget Director Dan Villa says the governor wants to use bonds to ensure projects are fully funded. He says that may not be the case under these separate bills.

But Appropriations Chair Nancy Ballance remains concerned House Bill 5, as it now stands, would need to pass both Republican-controlled chambers with a super majority vote. Because House Bill 5 uses coal  tax trust fund money, it must be passed with a super majority vote.
"What I want to make sure," Ballance said, "is we don’t have just one all or nothing 75 pecent vote package going to the floor with no viable options. And what I am seeing is the current bills that we are discussing in the next couple of days are some options so that we keep these traditional funding packages alive."

A number of Republicans have already said they are reluctant to pay for projects with bonds, preferring instead to use cash on hand, even if that includes by drawing down the ending fund balance. The Bullock Administration says it wants $300 million left in the reserve. Some Republicans questions that figure.

Villa and other Democrats on the Appropriations Committee asked Ballance if House Bill 5 would get a hearing and Ballance scheduled it for Monday afternoon.

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