Supporters of a bonding bill are working to turn 4 “no” votes to “yes” in order to advance Senate Bill 367 out of the House of Representatives. Bonding is the last major issue remaining before the 2017 Montana Legislature.
Representatives gave Senate Bill 367 a preliminary 63-to-37 vote last evening. However, the bill will need at least 67 votes on its 3rd and final reading to advance it back to the Senate because of changes to the bill. Passage is expected to expedite the conclusion of the 2017 Legislative session.
Before the hour-long floor debate, The House Appropriations Committee changed the bill. This includes, reducing Montana State University’s Romney Hall renovation project by $3 million. That money was divided to fund 2 new projects: a water intake project for Laurel and funding for water, road, and campground improvements for Makoshika State Park in Glendive.
“I’m a believer in these projects,” said Representative Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, who carried the bill on the floor after his own House Bill 645 failed in the House.
The House Appropriations also trimmed about $20 million from SB 367 to its current price tag of just over $80 million. Several state Senators lined the side and back of the House floor to listen to their colleagues debate the merits of this bill.
The measure still contains a mix of projects that help public schools across the state fix or replace boilers, leaking roofs, or fire systems; help with building projects on 3 Montana University System Campuses, and a loan to help the Southwest Montana Veterans Home break ground.
That irked Representative Adam Hertz, R-Missoula. He said the way Montana funds infrastructure doesn’t make any sense.
“You want my constituents to pay for things they use and that our community uses,” Hertz said. “And then you want them to pay for things in your communities because your communities refuse to pay for them.”
This is about helping all Montanans, regardless of where they live, countered Representative Jim Keane, D-Butte.
“For the citizens of Montana in rural areas who aren’t able to afford to bond at a high level. That’s what this bill is partially put into place for,” said Keane. “To help our rural neighbors.”
House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, said it doesn’t always work that way. He said when the oil boom was taking place and Eastern Montana was suffering, Governor Steve Bullock vetoed an infrastructure bill that would have helped his northeastern Montana district after the 2013 session.
He said Democrats and the governor this session denied the GOP bills that are a priority for his caucus and threatened projects that would have helped his constituents.
“I’ve had the funding for my regional water system threatened in House Bill 8 if I don’t support this bill,” Knudsen said. “I’ve had the oil and gas funding for my schools up in the Bakken country threatened if I don’t vote for this bill. You know what members, I’m a strong vote for this bill now then I was 5 days ago.”
Knudsen urged other Republicans to join him in voting no. He said this bill was laden with pork.
After the bill won preliminary approval, House Minority Leader Jenny Eck, D-Helena, was successful in her motion to bring House Bill 8 to the floor for debate. That bill would provide bonds and loans for mainly rural water and irrigation projects.
After the vote, Bullock issued this written statement, “I have worked across the aisle and met the Republican-majority Legislature more than halfway. Montanans want us to create good-paying jobs, build safer roads and bridges, and strengthen our economy. And they want it done this legislative session. It's time to get this bill across the finish line.”
To get to that finish line, SB 367 faces a third and final vote. Then it will return to the Senate for consideration because of the House’s changes.
If HB 8 advances from the House, the Senate will need to suspend its rules to accept the bill, where it will need to be heard in committee, and sent to the floor for debate.