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A slate of routine infrastructure funding bills that would authorize a combined $1.7 billion in state spending advanced with near-universal support following debate on the House floor Wednesday, with both Republicans and Democrats throwing their votes behind measures that would fund, among other things, state building upgrades, information technology systems, university campus construction and water and sewer projects in small towns scattered across the state.

The debate on the bills, which drew minor amendment pushes and only scattered no votes, represented a marked contrast to last week’s floor debate on House Bill 2, the state’s main budget bill. That piece of the state’s two-year budget, which totals $14.3 billion, was voted forward on party lines with Republican support and vocal opposition from Democrats.

Rep. Mike Hopkins, a Missoula Republican who chairs the House’s infrastructure-focused budget subcommittee, credited the relative lack of political drama over infrastructure to the Legislature’s efforts to build a deliberate framework for allocating major construction dollars.

“We have certainly spent several sessions renovating the way the state of Montana does infrastructure,” Hopkins said at a press conference following the floor debate, specifically referencing a 2019 measure that made debt-funded projects more palatable to conservative Republicans by limiting how much money the state could borrow at any one time.

Gov. Greg Gianforte said at a separate press appearance Wednesday that this year’s round of state infrastructure spending is intended to focus in large part on using the budget surplus to catch the state up in places where it hasn’t been spending enough on upkeep for its buildings.

“We have a lot of pent up maintenance that’s been deferred, and that was our priority going into this session,” Gianforte said.

The infrastructure bills, largely based on proposals presented to the Legislature by the governor, are considered each session as complements to HB 2. The bills advanced Wednesday must still pass final floor votes in the House in the coming days before advancing to the Senate and then, ultimately, the governor’s desk.

The package doesn’t include proposals under consideration by the Legislature that would direct large portions of the state’s $2.5 billion budget surplus toward infrastructure spending independently from the state’s pre-existing programs.

For example, a measure advanced with the backing of the governor, House Bill 825, would put $200 million into a housing infrastructure fund, using most of the money to provide loans for water and sewer projects necessary to support new home construction. Another, Rep. John Fitzpatrick’s House Bill 355, would allocate $267 million to counties for local infrastructure projects. Those and other one-off spending bills are moving through the Legislature separately from the routine budget bills and face an April 4 deadline for clearing the House.

The package’s primary spending bill is House Bill 5, which implements the state’s Long-Range Building Program. In its current form, it authorizes $1.2 billion in projects for state-owned facilities this two-year budget cycle, according to information provided by the Legislative Fiscal Division. Most notably, the list includes upgrades at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, at the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs and on Montana University System campuses across the state.

The Montana Department of Corrections, which runs the state prison system, is slated to receive about $219 million in funding for its facilities, including $156 million directed to the state prison to replace inmate housing units.

Additionally, the state hospital, under the auspices of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, would receive $16 million to fund roof repair and other building upgrades necessary for it to regain the federal certification it lost last year. Additional funding for the state’s broader mental health system is being considered through several bills, including the $300 million House Bill 872.

The long-range building bill also allocates nearly $200 million in state dollars to the Montana University System for construction projects on campuses throughout the state. It includes, for example, $500,000 for repairing the roof of the University of Montana’s Mansfield Library and $23.5 million to build a home for Gallatin College, a two-year campus affiliated with Montana State University.

The bill also provides legal authorization for university construction funded by private donors. For example, it gives Montana State University permission to spend $92 million of donor money on Montana State University College of Nursing facilities and $50 million donated by the governor’s family foundation to build a “Gianforte Hall” that will house MSU-Bozeman’s computer science program.

Additionally, HB 5 includes $50 million to renovate buildings in the state Capitol complex in Helena to better accommodate a partially remote state workforce and $28.7 million for improvements to the Capitol building itself. The Montana Department of Administration has said the upgrades will let the state consolidate its workers into less space, saving money on leased office space in the years to come. 

In addition to HB 5, the package includes five other infrastructure bills:

  • House Bill 6, which authorizes grants for water, sewer and irrigation system projects through a program administered by the Department of Natural Resource & Conservation. It includes $8.9 million for grants to more than 70 projects, most under the jurisdiction of irrigation districts, conservation districts or small towns. It also includes $7.4 million in flexible grant money and $26 million for the Milk River Joint Control Board to aid with repair efforts on north-central Montana’s St. Mary Canal.
  • House Bill 7, which authorizes grants for mine cleanup and conservation projects. It authorizes $5.7 million in spending, including 10 specific projects.
  • House Bill 8, which authorizes state loans to help local governments finance water projects. It authorizes $129 million in bonding authority, including $66 million for the St. Mary’s project.
  • House Bill 10, which authorizes funding for state information technology projects, efforts that lawmakers describe as digital analogues to public buildings. It includes $246 million in funding, $80 million of that from federal dollars.
  • House Bill 11, which authorizes grants through the Montana Coal Endowment program. That program uses some of the interest earned on the state’s coal trust to fund grants to help local governments with bridge, drinking water and sewer projects. The bill includes $30 million for 52 specific projects as well as $11 million in other funding. 

The House also voted Wednesday to advance House Bill 9, which would award $559,000 in arts grants, and House Bill 12, which would award $11 million in historic preservation grants.

All those bills passed their initial vote unanimously Wednesday except HB 10 and HB 12, which were supported by 96 of 100 and 97 of 100 lawmakers, respectively.

Alex Sakariassen contributed reporting.

Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.