An impassioned speech railing against the “gluttony” of last-minute “pork” packed into a major infrastructure bill, made by Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick on the Senate floor Thursday evening, failed to persuade his colleagues to strip out most of the projects that attracted vocal ire from him and the chamber’s fiscal leadership.
The debate stemmed from an evening meeting April 20 where Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Finance and Claims Committee passed a series of amendments adding more than $20 million in district-specific projects to the $1.2 billion House Bill 5, eventually spurring committee chair John Esp, R-Big Timber, to abruptly end the meeting in frustration.
Those line items, inserted in the spending bill with days left in the session, in effect short-circuited the Legislature’s standard process for infrastructure spending, which starts with agency-administered programs that solicit grant applications, rank projects and prepare funding lists included in the governor’s budget proposal, and then pass through multiple rounds of legislative review. Those efforts are intended to fairly divide limited dollars between different parts of the state and minimize the extent to which political horse-trading in the Legislature influences decisions about which projects get funded.
As HB 5 went before the full Senate for debate Thursday, Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, had prepared a series of amendments to strip out the finance committee’s line items. He urged his colleagues to vote for reverting the bill to its earlier form, calling the spending “inappropriate.”
“We take pride here in this Capitol that we are not Washington, D.C., that we follow the right process and we don’t lard up bills with unnecessary pork,” Fitzpatrick argued. “But that’s not what has happened down in Finance and Claims on House Bill 5. This thing has been larded up with a bunch of things that don’t belong in there.”
As one of the session’s major infrastructure bills rolled through the Senate Finance and Claims Committee April 20, some of the committee’s 19 senators couldn’t resist packing a bit of pork sausage. 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.
“This is really the session of gluttony,” he added, referring to spending made possible by the state’s $2.5 billion budget surplus. “Everybody is mad they’re not getting their spending and there’s this bitterness in the building because of it. And so it’s time that we stop. It’s time to take out the pork.”
Initially, it appeared senators might be chastened into following Fitzpatrick’s lead. Senators stripped $9.6 million in funding for a mining museum in Butte, an amendment that had been advanced in the finance committee by Butte Sen. Ryan Lynch, a senior Democrat.
Lynch voiced support for that removal. “I do agree — maybe this did go a little too far,” he acknowledged. The funding was removed on an overwhelming 46-3 vote.
As Fitzpatrick brought a second amendment, though, taking aim at another $5 million in state spending added at Lynch’s behest for a veterans’ home in Butte, the chamber began to balk. That amendment failed, 21-28.
The majority leader tried again, moving to strip funding for $1 million in water and sewer upgrades for the city of Columbus. That money had been inserted during the finance committee’s Thursday night session at the behest of Sen. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus.
“I don’t think the city of Columbus should be treated any differently than any of the other cities in the state of Montana,” Fitzpatrick argued. “The towns in my district, they apply to the local government and they do it that way. We don’t come into here, and I don’t go down into Senate Finance and Claims and I don’t ask for a million bucks for the city of Cascade.”
At that point, the majority leader conceded defeat, abandoning other amendments. Late-process line items that added $8 million for a reservoir and park project near Billings and $2 million for a train depot renovation in Miles City remain in the bill. That spending had been championed by Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, and Sen. Kenneth Bogner, R-Miles City, respectively.
Earlier in the debate, McGillvray had picked up his mic to defend Lynch’s museum proposal — and his own reservoir funding. Unlike the federal government, he noted, the state isn’t running a budget deficit.
“Last time I checked, it’s the prerogative of any representative or senator to add an amendment to any bill,” he said.
“I had some constituents come to me and the senator across the aisle had some constituents come to him,” McGillvray said.
As the debate concluded, Fitzpatrick said he’d vote in protest against the infrastructure bill, which funds a slew of projects ranging from a $5 million grant program for homeless shelters to a $23.5 million building for Gallatin College, a two-year campus affiliated with Montana State University in Bozeman.
So did Sen. Mike Cuffe, the bill’s sponsor, who expressed disappointment at how the floor amendment votes had gone.
“There was some real opportunity for some conservative Republicans to step up,” said Cuffe, R-Eureka. “The majority chose to vote the way they did.”
The bill ultimately passed the Senate 34-14.
Fitzpatrick also said on the floor that he expects Gov. Greg Gianforte to veto the disputed line items — unless they’re amended out in final negotiations as lawmakers try to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill.
“He’s going to make us look bad and we’re ultimately going to hurt our own reputation,” Fitzpatrick said. “At some level we need to start policing ourselves.”
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