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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Supporters Pack Hearing On Gov's Infrastructure Plan

Montana Capitol.
Eric Whitney

Supporters for infrastructure projects across Montana packed the House Appropriations Committee Monday afternoon to speak in favor of the governor's funding plan. The hearing was a stark contrast to last week's hearings on the GOP's alternate infrastructure bills.

The GOP proposals for infrastructure is found in House Bills 6, 7, 8, 11, 15, and 403. These bills were heard last week. There were few proponents; all were opposed by the Bullock Administration.

Monday, the governor's House Bill 5 was the subject of a nearly 4-hour long hearing.

It's is a $380 million infrastructure and capital improvements bill that pays for projects through a mix of cash and bonds to fund numerous projects.

Because the GOP proposal relies on "cash" the result is fewer projects would be funded.

So those Quality School Facilities Grant Program projects that didn't getting money under the GOP's House Bill 15 spoke in favor of the governor's House Bill 5.

Among them: Robert Dobell, the Superintendent in Three Forks. He says the school's electrical system is 1950's vintage.

"We don't have light switches in our classrooms. We have breaker boxes. and that's how they turn on and off the lights in the classroom. It is a fire hazard," Dobell said.

Dobell adds parts for the breaker are obsolete. He says the electrical system can't accommodate any additional electrical devices, like computers. The Three Forks School district is seeking nearly $122,000 to help upgrade its electrical system.

And the Rosebud Public Schools sometimes has to be shut down because of failing infrastructure, says the superintendent Matt Kleinsasser.

He says his newest building is 45 years old.

"We have children in these buildings, and for us to provide a quality education we have to provide quality infrastructure. When we have to close school down because our sewer backs up or our water doesn't work it takes away from the children of our community, not only in our community but in other communities too."

These were just two of numerous projects that wouldn't get funding under the Republican's proposed infrastructure alternative.

And one project that's seeking funding, regardless of the vehicle, is for the water intake in Laurel. Representative Kelly McCarthy is a member of the House Appropriations Committee. During the hearing on House Bill 5 he says efforts to get matching funds failed last session, despite this project having a disaster declaration by FEMA as a result of the widespread flooding in 2011.

"Since then we've kinda been doing band aid fixes but the band aid fixes aren't working," McCarthy said. "Within the last couple of weeks the city of Laurel, a couple of times, one day it was a Wednesday there wasn't enough water for the 7,500 residents who rely on that, nor was there water to the CHS oil refinery in town which is one of the largest economic drivers in Yellowstone County. And the very next day we had a fiberglass catch fire. Luckily the water system had recovered but imagine if we had no water to fight a fire."

FEMA is paying 75 percent of the cost of repairing the water intake. The state and local governments are required to cover the remainder. Yellowstone County has committed to paying its share. McCarthy is seeking an amendment to House Bill 5 of nearly $3 million as the state's share.

Still, the future is uncertain for House Bill 5. There's been talk of turning that bill into just a bonding bill.

Representative Jeff Welborn is the sponsor of House Bill 5. He says while this bill gives several of his Republican colleagues heartburn, he says past generations did make investments in the schools and irrigation systems that Montanans are still using today.

"We're not going to do our kids and grandkids any favors by not investing in infrastructure today," Wellborn said. "We're passing on that obligation and we're kicking that proverbial can down the road in an unquantifiable way. Nor are we honoring or respecting the courage, commitment and foresight our grandparents had when they invested in these same infrastructure projects."

No one testified against House Bill 5.

The House Appropriations Committee has not taken executive action yet on these seven infrastructure bills.

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