Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad

HELENA – Some key lawmakers are saying they support calling the Montana Legislature back into special session, as soon as next month, to pass a pair of infrastructure-funding bills.

The possible package of bills would finance three major new state buildings, in Bozeman, Butte and Helena, maintenance projects at rural schools across the state and several large rural water projects in eastern Montana.

Bills to finance the projects failed on the final day of the 2017 Legislature’s regular session, on April 28.

“We’ve been talking to the governor for the last several weeks, and, actually, since the end of the session,” Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, said Tuesday night in Helena. “I think we need to get back to Helena to get it done.”

Story continues below

Cook and several other lawmakers spoke Tuesday as part of a panel at a Helena meeting of the Montana Infrastructure Coalition, a group of business leaders, labor leaders, building contractors and local officials. The panel included Cook and GOP Sens. Llew Jones of Conrad, Duane Ankney of Colstrip and Ed Buttrey of Great Falls, as well as Rep. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, and Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell.

Either Gov. Steve Bullock or a majority of Montana’s 150 legislators can call the Legislature back into special session, for a specific purpose.

Bullock, a Democrat, supported the infrastructure proposals and said he was greatly disappointed when they failed.

On Wednesday, he confirmed that he’s had discussions with lawmakers about a possible special session – but said he wouldn’t support one unless he was confident the votes existed to pass the infrastructure bills.

“I’ve said to the Republicans who’ve come and asked (about a special session), `Show me the vote,’” Bullock told MTN News. “If that’s the case, then I’ll look at it carefully. If not, though, then we shouldn’t be spending taxpayer dollars just to bring people back, if they’re still going to be stuck in those same old ways.”

Republicans control both houses of the Legislature. However, in the past several sessions, a coalition of moderate Republicans and minority Democrats sometimes has banded together to pass key legislation.

Cook, a leader of the moderates, said the package of bills being discussed includes the infrastructure measures and, possibly, another bill that would roll back or erase environmental regulations that Republicans would like to get rid of.

“I think now the governor is willing to go the extra step, and make the deal so that there are Republican victories and some Democrat victories there,” he told the Infrastructure Coalition.

If a bloc of Republicans and minority Democrats wants to call the special session and pass any legislation, they’d likely have to do it without the support of top Republican leaders in the House and Senate.

House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, and Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, told MTN News that a special session isn’t needed right now.

They both said if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act later this year – “Obamacare” – the Legislature may have to hold a special session to react, and that any infrastructure issues could be addressed then.

“Since there is no immediate need on water projects and building projects, I hope we would wait for combined special session to deal with these issues at once later this year,” Thomas said.

Cook, however, said it’s critical to pass House Bill 8, which provides some state funding for some long-standing, large rural water projects in eastern Montana.

Federal matching funds for the projects come through the U.S. Department of the Interior, and former Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke is now secretary of the Interior, Cook said.

“In my mind, it is negligent on the part of the Montana Legislature to waste two years of Secretary Zinke’s tenure, just flat-out negligent,” he said.

The Legislature isn’t scheduled to reconvene in regular session until 2019. HB8 failed on the final day of the 2017 Legislature.

Cook said the package of bills before a special session likely would include HB8, which would also have the funding for school maintenance, and another bill to finance construction of a new state veterans’ nursing home in Butte, remodeling of Romney Hall on the Montana State University campus in Bozeman, and construction of a new museum for the Montana Historical Society in Helena.