The U.S. House of Representatives approved a sprawling $1.2 trillion infrastructure package late last week, setting the stage for a massive federal investment in Montana’s highways, bridges, water systems and broadband capabilities.
Montana’s stake in the bill includes completion of a pair of lingering tribal water rights settlements, with $300 million directed to the Blackfeet Tribe and $100 million directed to the Crow Tribe, as well as $100 million to rehabilitate the century-old St. Mary’s diversion dam in north-central Montana. The latter investment would cover about a third of the overall funding needed to repair and modernize irrigation infrastructure throughout the Milk River Project area.
“The passing of the infrastructure bill is a massive win for the St. Mary/Milk River Project,” Jennifer Patrick, project manager for the Milk River Joint Board of Control, told Montana Free Press Monday. “As written, it will provide up to $100 million for projects like the St. Mary Diversion Dam, which is in critical need of replacement. We have been working on funding for over 20 years, so honestly it’s exciting but also a huge relief to all of the communities that rely on this water.”
According to Sen. Jon Tester’s office, the infrastructure bill also includes roughly $2.8 billion for Montana highways, $225 million for bridge replacements and repairs, and $3.37 billion for a slate of wildfire risk reduction efforts in Montana and across the country. More than $42 billion will go toward establishing a national program to help state and local agencies work with internet service providers to extend broadband access to areas without adequate connectivity. The U.S. Senate approved the bill in August, and Tester’s office confirmed to MTFP Monday that the House did not implement any changes prior to its own vote.
Tester has been steadily pushing the spending plan for a good chunk of the year, spotlighting a lengthy list of Montana-specific needs addressed in the bill. Tester was one of 10 senators — five Democrats and five Republicans — who came together early this summer to craft a bipartisan agreement that Tester characterized at the time as a “once-in-a-century investment” in the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. The agreement ultimately culminated in the bill passed last week. However, its appearance in the House sparked a months-long standoff between centrist and progressive Democrats, with the latter refusing to support the measure unless a simultaneous vote was taken on a much larger social infrastructure package: the nearly $2 trillion Build Back Better plan, which includes sweeping investments in child care, health care and climate change.
The physical infrastructure bill passed the House with the support of 215 Democrats and 13 Republicans. Six progressive Democrats voted against the measure, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. In a statement issued Friday, Tester responded to the House’s vote saying he was “pleased” to see the measure clear Congress and head to President Joe Biden’s desk.
“This legislation will create good-paying Montana jobs, lower costs for working families, make it easier to do business in our state, and ensure we maintain our competitive edge over China — all without raising taxes on Montanans or adding to our national debt,” Tester said. “I am proud to have worked with Republicans and Democrats to get this done and grow Montana’s economy.”
How the infrastructure bill stands to impact the nation’s debt has been the primary source of partisan division this year. Democrats have insisted that existing funding mechanisms could adequately fund the measure, while Republicans in both the Senate and House have routinely criticized the bill — along with the Build Back Better plan — as a federal spending boondoggle. Those claims have come despite general support among those same Republicans for many of the proposed physical infrastructure improvements.
Montana’s Rep. Matt Rosendale was one of 200 House Republicans who voted against the infrastructure bill Friday. In an emailed statement, Rosendale spoke directly to the issue of Milk River rehabilitation, stating that such work is of the “utmost importance” and noting his co-sponsorship of legislation specific to that project’s needs.
“However,” Rosendale’s statement continued, “holding critical projects like Saint Mary’s hostage to justify mass funding on non-infrastructure items is unacceptable. Funding these projects at the detriment of running up our national debt and enabling our inflation crisis to persist is not something I could vote for in good conscience.”
Rosendale added that he also opposed the infrastructure bill because he said it “acts as a trojan horse” for the Build Back Better plan, which he said is “nothing but pork, including amnesty, gun control legislation, and weaponizes the IRS to spy on Montanans.”
“These bills are bad for Montana and will continue to strain our country’s economy,” Rosendale concluded.
Sen. Steve Daines also opposed the bill during the Senate’s vote in August, saying at the time that it would “add a quarter of a trillion dollars” to the nation’s debt and expressing disappointment that Senate Democrats had opposed an amendment Daines claimed would have reduced wildfire risk in Montana.
“From the beginning of this debate, I warned [that] the Democrats will use the massive ‘infrastructure’ spending proposal as a stepping stone to pass their larger, reckless tax and spending spree that will push the U.S. down the path of socialism,” Daines said Saturday in a statement responding to the House vote. “We saw that happen in the House last night. Both proposals will significantly increase the national debt and represent one of the largest expansions of the federal government in history.”
In a Wednesday appearance billed as the first in a series of events announcing policy priorities for next year’s legislative session, Gov. Greg Gianforte said he wants to raise the exemption threshold for Montana’s business equipment tax.
This fall, 20 school districts across the state are exploring a new approach to standardized testing. The Office of Public Instruction-led pilot, backed by $3 million in federal funding, seeks to replace Montana’s year-end exams with incremental tests throughout the school year.
Despite Montana’s unemployment rate of 2.8% as of August and an above-average labor force participation, Montana’s workforce can’t keep up with the sheer number of unfilled jobs. In Missoula, that means a battle to attract employees.