Infrastructure Funding Debate Gets One More Day At The Montana Legislature

Apr 28, 2017
Originally published on April 27, 2017 4:47 pm

Montana senators have started the clock on the final day of the legislative session, forcing a 24-hour limit on the political chess match over funding long-term construction projects in the state like water treatment plants, a state veterans home, and schools.

"We’re going to turn the hourglass over and say you got one more day. Let’s get it done,” said Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso.

Sesso, along with his Democratic caucus, joined Republicans Thursday afternoon in setting a deadline to end this year's session Friday.

They say it’s time a final decision is made on the $80 million infrastructure bill in the House, and don’t want debate to drag out an extra day.

As lawmakers' impatience continues to rise over issue, multiple attempts to end the debate and close out the legislative session have been offered and failed in the House.

Thursday morning, the bill fell two votes short of the supermajority required to pass, but was revived and scheduled for another vote Friday.

Sidney Republican Scott Staffanson expressed his frustration over the drawn out infrastructure argument on the House floor:

"We got a deer here, we just gut shot it. And now we can bring it, watch it run over the hill and we’ll follow it. And then tomorrow we’ll knock it down again. And maybe we’ll follow it over the hill the next day and knock it down again. So I say lets hit it in the head and go home."

Conservative Republicans have criticized the infrastructure package as dangerous, because it puts the state into bond debt at a time when revenues are down.

Other Republicans are on board with using debt to pay for long-term infrastructure. But they object to the bill because they say it would fund non-essential projects like the renovation of Romney Hall at Montana State University.

Butte Democrat Jim Keane argued bonding is what allows the state to invest in the future:

"We’re serving in a building that was paid for by bonding. We’re the benefits of those who came before us. You would think the people here would want to do the same thing."

Since before the legislative session began, Democratic Governor Steve Bullock named infrastructure a top priority for his administration.

In a written statement, Bullock said he has, "worked across the aisle and met with the Republican-majority Legislature more than halfway."

But the governor and the Republican majority have not been able to strike a deal.

In negotiations, Republicans gave Bullock a list of 11 legislative priorities — including a charter school bill, and two anti-abortion bills — that, if signed by the governor, would make Republicans more inclined to vote for infrastructure bonding.

Bullock hasn’t yet acted on the abortion bills. A charter schools bill, modified to win Bullock’s support, failed Wednesday.

Republican leaders say Bullock hasn’t shown enough support enough for their party’s legislative goals, so they’re reluctant to give him the votes he wants to pass the infrastructure bonding bill.

Mike Hopkins, is a Republican from Missoula:

"And this idea that the governor thought that he was going to play out a session, get all these things that he wanted, thumbing his nose at the Republican majority; well, you got to see what the result of that was this afternoon. There's a significant number of people here that are okay with bonding, but I mean look, at some point the actual opinions of the people of Montana have to be respected.”

Some Republican lawmakers point out that the Legislature has already passed other infrastructure projects that don’t involve bonding, but use cash.

Democratic Senate Minority leader Jon Sesso said during a meeting with the press Thursday that he’s seen Governor Bullock work in good faith with Republicans over an infrastructure deal.

"I think the governor has done his share to try to get this thing over the finish line," Sesso said. "He’s opened his office, he’s met with, he’s asked for meetings, he’s in there plugging away to try and get enough votes.”

The infrastructure bonding bill up for a final vote Friday morning includes funding for a state veterans home, maintenance at 50 public schools, and natural resource development grants.

Sesso says this bonding bill is important to a lot of Montanans, but at some point, lawmakers just have to pull the plug and go home. And with the Senate’s vote to speed up their legislative clock, that will likely happen Friday.

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