Funding to fix ailing public works projects cleared the first legislative hurdle in the joint appropriations subcommittee on Long Range Planning.
The panel voted to approve House Bills 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11 and 14 with only minor changes.
This package of 7 bills includes a mix of grants, loans, bonding, and the approval from legislators for the Montana University System to spend privately raised money for its projects.
The only bill that was briefly discussed was a proposal that has become controversial in recent sessions. House Bill 14 has been dubbed “the bonding bill.”
This session, it’s a nearly $300 million public works package backed by the Bullock Administration. The bill includes money for renovation of Romney Hall at Montana State University, The Montana Heritage Center, and a bridge loan to be able to start construction of the southwest Montana Veterans Home. All three projects have failed in past sessions over disputes over whether the state should pay for these projects and if the answer is “yes” whether to use cash or bonds.
“Mr. Chairman, I’m going to oppose House Bill 14,” said Senator Cary Smith, R-Billings. “It’s not because I’m opposed to any of the projects. It’s not because I’m opposed to bonding in there.”
Smith said he doesn’t like how the Bullock Administration constructed House Bill 14 to include, for example, the Quality Schools Program which previously had been separate and had support among lawmakers.
“By sweeping those funds and putting them in a bill that’s going to require the bonding it puts those projects in jeopardy,” Smith said. “And I kinda hate to see that happen. I think it causes more problems than it solves and that’s the reason I’m going to oppose this bill.”
The Republican from Billings was the only member of the subcommittee to speak against House Bill 14.
Senator Jon Sesso was the only subcommittee member speak in favor of the bill. He defended how the measure was crafted, “It points to the need for our state to make a conscientious and significant investment in infrastructure.”
The Democrat from Butte said in the past these public works bills failed because some lawmakers didn’t want to burden future generations with debt because bonds were issued to pay for projects.
“These are critical projects to our state and the citizens of our state and by lumping them together, and although there is some consternation in doing that, by lumping them together we keep the infrastructure package as a package, as a package we can be proud of.”
House Bill 14 passed on a 5-to-1 vote, with Smith the lone “no” vote. The bill now moves to the House Appropriations Committee.
After the votes, Governor Steve Bullock issued a written statement that said he was pleased the bill is one step closer to his desk.