A Capitol staff member monitors the door of the Senate Health and Human Services committee hearing on Friday, Jan. 27. Committees serve as work groups for legislators to discuss the details of a bill and hear from constituents, lobbyists and subject matter experts before it advances to their general legislative body assemblies for a vote. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

A version of this story was first published in Capitolized, a twice-weekly newsletter that keeps an eye on the representatives you voted for (or against) with expert reporting, analysis and insight from the editors and reporters of Montana Free Press. Want to see Capitolized in your inbox every Tuesday and Friday? Sign up here.

In theory, Montana legislators allocate funding to worthy infrastructure projects across the state using a deliberate sequence of applications, ranked scores and wonky appropriation bills that apportion funding while discouraging lawmakers from using pet projects as fodder for political horse trading.

As one of the session’s major infrastructure bills rolled through the Senate Finance and Claims Committee April 20, however, some of the committee’s 19 senators couldn’t resist larding the bill with pork. Amid a flurry of earmark amendment votes that ultimately spurred committee chair Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber, to abruptly end the meeting with the bill in limbo, lawmakers of both parties added millions of dollars for projects in their districts.

“I’m not sure if the purpose of [the] Senate Finance and Claims Committee is to come in and see what we can grab off for our hometowns, but it’s beginning to look that way,” a frustrated Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, said at one point in the discussion.

When House Bill 5 passed the House unanimously March 31, it contained $1.2 billion for projects, including $16 million for repairs at the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs, $5 million for a new grant program for homeless shelters, and $23.5 million to construct a building for Gallatin College, a two-year campus affiliated with Montana State University in Bozeman.

In their Thursday meeting, lawmakers on the committee tweaked the bill’s provisions before it heads to debate on the Senate floor. With the Legislature in late-session crunch mode, several lawmakers added language to bring home some district-specific bacon.

Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber
Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber Credit: Courtesy Montana Legislature

Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, brought an amendment to allocate $8 million for the Yellowstone Conservation Area, a reservoir and park project near Billings. Sen. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus, brought another to give the city of Columbus $1 million for water and sewer upgrades. Sen. Kenneth Bogner, R-Miles City, followed with $2 million for a train depot renovation in Miles City. Then Sen. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, brought a $10 million amendment to design and build a new mining museum in Butte.

“If this passes I’ll bring a $10 million conceptual amendment to start a project up in my county,” Cuffe, who chaired the budget subcommittee responsible for infrastructure programs, said about the Lynch amendment.

Esp also appeared unhappy about the direction his meeting was heading. 

“I just wish we were doing this on the floor of the Senate, where God and everybody else could see it,” he said. 

“We’re on video,” noted Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta. (An MTFP reporter was also in the room.)

All four additions passed — though Lynch agreed to reduce the mining museum allocation by $400,000 if the committee put that money into a grant program for facilities serving people with autism.

Committee members, who also cut a $15.5 million project at a Department of Corrections building on Helena’s walking mall, had more projects to offer. Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, proposed spending $2 million to help local governments pay for park improvements, saying that money would be spread across the state. That passed as well.

Then, at 6:40 p.m., Bogner, the Senate’s president pro tempore, made yet another proposal, urging the committee to add $3 million for a fire station in Miles City. Esp, the committee chair, called a recess and left the room. 

“Uh oh, somebody’s going to the woodshed,” Sen. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings, said moments later in a comment captured on video. 

 “I just wish we were doing this on the floor of the Senate, where God and everybody else could see it.”

Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber

When the committee returned shortly after 7 p.m., Esp announced the infrastructure debate was done for the day. Instead, he said, the finance committee would bump the discussion to the following day, even though that meant delaying a planned Senate floor debate on the state’s primary budget bill, House Bill 2.

The Senate finance committee eventually picked HB 5 back up as it worked through other bills Friday, advancing the billion-dollar-plus bill — with the amendments — on a 15-4 vote without further discussion.

House Appropriations Chair Llew Jones, who runs the House-side counterpart to the Senate finance committee, said in a press briefing April 21 that most of the line items in the House version of the infrastructure bill had been appropriately vetted. 

“I think they got a little late and a little excited and a little worked up. That happens,” he said about the finance committee meeting.

“When you just create a system that becomes a grab bag,” Jones added, “I would say your system is more linked to political influence than it is to good governance.”

The infrastructure bill, Jones said, will likely end up in a conference committee to reconcile the Senate’s amendments with the House-passed version of the bill, a process that could potentially strip out the new spending. He also said specific appropriations could be subject to line-item vetos by Gov. Greg Gianforte.

Lynch, for his part, noted that House Appropriations members had also adjusted the bill in their committee and defended the senators’ efforts to put their own spin on the bill.

“It was actually people doing their own projects, versus coming in and doing the bureaucracy,” Lynch said.

latest stories

Lost, and found

Missoula author Debra Magpie Earling carried the seeds of a story about Sacajewea for years. When she walked away from teaching at the University of Montana, she finally made the mental space to bring it to fruition. The result is this year’s “The Lost Journals of Sacajewea.” Earling talks about imagination and history with MTFP…

Pistachio brittle: The holiday candy to give as a gift 

Most of us have had peanut brittle, a classic holiday treat. But have you ever swapped out the peanuts for pistachios? It adds a fun flavor and provides a remarkable color contrast with the amber candy. If you have a parent, sibling or friend who’s notoriously hard to buy for, it might be time to…

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.