Infrastructure bonding bills advance – but showdown looms - KXLH.com | Helena, Montana

Infrastructure bonding bills advance – but showdown looms

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Rep. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka Rep. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka

Two similar bills to issue state debt for a variety of building projects in Montana won endorsement at the Legislature Wednesday – but the votes appear to set up a political showdown over the final product.

The House and Senate each advanced separate bills to fund anywhere from $80 million to $98 million in additional school maintenance, state buildings and small water-and-sewer projects all across the state.

But both bills need a two-thirds majority to survive a final vote this week – and the House fell far short of that mark on its preliminary vote Wednesday.

If the House bill fails Thursday or Friday, only the $98 million Senate bill would remain, funded at a level well above what conservatives in the House have said they oppose.

For now, however, both bills remain technically in the mix, as the Legislature approaches its final month.

House Bill 645, in its original form, authorized $33.4 million in new state debt to finance the school, water and sewer projects, mostly in rural areas of the state.

House Democrats, and some Republicans, want the infrastructure package to include some additional, large urban projects.

GOP House leaders told fellow Republicans Wednesday to oppose any attempts to amend the bill, because more money might make it difficult to get the two-thirds vote.

“My concern is getting this bill passed,” said Rep. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka. “As we load more and more into this bonding bill, the chances of it passing gets less and less.”

Yet 12 Republicans joined all 41 Democrats to support an amendment on the floor, adding four big projects worth $45 million: Remodeling Romney Hall on the Montana State University campus in Bozeman, a veterans’ nursing home in Butte, a nursing-education addition at the Great Falls College campus, and a new technology education building at MSU-Billings.

“With this amendment, we can actually get a real infrastructure project on the ground and bring something home, and go home and tell people we are here working for them, and listening to their concerns,” said Rep. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, the sponsor of the amendment.

The House then endorsed the amended bill on a 56-44 vote, but it needs at least 67 votes to pass on a final vote, possibly scheduled for Thursday.

In the Senate, a similar bill that included the large projects won endorsement on a 38-12 vote Wednesday, with 20 Republicans joining all 18 Senate Democrats in support. It faces a final vote, also possibly Thursday, and would advance to the House if it maintains its two-thirds majority.

“I’ve voted against more bonding bills in my legislative career than I’ve voted for,” said Sen. Eric Moore, R-Miles City, the bill’s sponsor. “But I’ve been working on this for two years, and I am convinced that now is a reasonable, rational interest-rate environment with our current debt level.”

About Mike Dennison

MTN Chief Political Reporter Mike Dennison joined MTN News in August 2015 after a 23-year career as a newspaper reporter covering Montana politics and state government. While some may believe that politics are boring, Mike firmly believes that's not the case if you tell the story with pizzazz and let people know why the story is important.
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