Gov. Bullock’s infrastructure bonding bill clears committee – but only first step

Posted at 4:24 PM, Feb 07, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-07 20:02:52-05

HELENA – Gov. Steve Bullock’s proposal for $160 million in bonding to finance infrastructure projects across Montana cleared its first committee Thursday – but Republicans made it clear it contents are likely to change later.

“At some point it becomes a discussion about … what is the proper level of bonding for state government?” said Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, who chairs the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Long-Range Planning. “(The bill) still has to be able to move through the Legislature and it still has to be able to be signed by the governor.”

The subcommittee voted 4-1 to advance House Bill 14, which contains the governor’s bonding proposal.

Its next step is the full House Appropriations Committee, which may act on the measure sometime next month.

Republicans, who control majorities at the Legislature, have indicated they plan to scale back HB14, removing some of its projects.

Sen. Cary Smith, R-Billings, the only committee member to vote “no” on the bill, voiced the concerns of many Republicans about the size and scope of the bill.

“We’ve lumped a lot of different types of projects in (HB14) that have sailed through in past sessions, with no problem at all … and lumped them with projects that we’ve just don’t seem to be able to get past — which puts a lot of good stuff at jeopardy,” he said.

His comments referred to scores of local water, wastewater and other projects that are now in HB14, financed by bonding, instead of contained in other bills funded by separate, easier-to-approve funding.

Those bills need approval from a simple majority of each house of the Legislature, while HB14 needs approval from at least two-thirds of each house, because it creates new state debt.

A conservative bloc of Republicans in the House has stopped passage of an infrastructure bonding bill in the past several sessions.

Bullock’s proposal includes $32 million to remodel Romney Hall on the Montana State University campus, $32 million for a new Montana Historical Society building and museum, $44 million to fund grants for eastern Montana local governments impacted by oil, gas and coal development, and $35 million for more than 60 local bridge, water and wastewater projects.

The subcommittee on Thursday also advanced House bills 5, 6 and 7, which contain about $150 million worth of building projects financed largely by state or federal cash accounts and funds raised privately.

Democrats already are preparing a separate bill to finance the $32 million Historical Society building, assuming that it won’t remain in HB14.