HELENA — After months of chewing on Gov. Steve Bullock’s $440 million infrastructure proposal, Republicans in the Montana Legislature have unveiled a bill containing their counteroffer to the Democratic executive’s request for $160 million in bonded projects. GOP lawmakers propose that the state borrow just shy of half that figure to finance university buildings, local water systems, and bridges.
Included in the GOP bonding pitch, articulated in House Bill 652, is $25 million to partially fund Montana State University’s request for renovating the university’s Romney Hall. Using a combination of debt and cash, Republicans also want to put $27.2 million toward the Treasure State Endowment Program, which funds water, sewer, and bridge projects across the state. That proposed amount would fund 55 of the 65 projects in the governor’s proposal.
The measure omits $32 million for a new Montana Historical Society museum, though Republicans have said that project may be considered as part of a separate bill. The GOP bill also includes less money — $14 million versus the governor’s requested $44 million — for a new Delivering Local Assistance Grants Program designed to provide infrastructure funding for communities dealing with economic swings in oil, coal, or logging.
HB 652’s sponsor, Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, said he’s hopeful the project list can move through the remainder of the legislative process intact. It cleared the House Appropriations Committee on a 17-5 vote March 13. To take effect, it will need to survive debate on the House floor, pass through the Senate, and then win the governor’s approval.
“There’s been an immense amount of work putting this list together,” Hopkins said.
“I’m pleased from the perspective that bonding’s on the table,” Bullock said in a March 13 press briefing. “The recognition that we have an obligation to do some of the work on these buildings, both for the university system and others, I think it’s very, very encouraging.”
With conservative Republicans skeptical of paying for infrastructure projects with borrowed dollars instead of banked cash — and with bonding bills requiring a two-thirds majority to pass the Legislature — using debt to pay for infrastructure has been a political sticking point in recent legislative sessions.
Moderate Republicans in the so-called Solutions Caucus have worked this year to craft legislation that can give state government a more reliable framework for identifying worthy projects and shepherding them through future sessions. That framework is articulated in House Bill 553, sponsored by Rep. Eric Moore, R-Miles City, which includes among other provisions a state debt cap. HB 553 passed the House 100-0 in February and is currently awaiting a hearing in the Senate Finance and Claims Committee.
The GOP bonding bill is a companion measure, pairing the long-term policy framework with a list of specific projects for bonding approval in this year’s session. It’s essentially a Republican replacement for a governor-endorsed bonding bill, House Bill 14, which the House Appropriations Committee has tabled.
Five other bills — House bills 5, 6, 7, 10, and 11 — aim to authorize infrastructure projects with cash the state already has in the bank. Those measures have been subject to some changes as they work through the legislative process, but are generally seen by legislators as likely to pass without much difficulty. House Bill 8, which would fund regional water projects, also proposes bonding.