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County banking on gasoline tax increase, infrastructure bill

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

With just 10 days left in the 2017 session, backers of a statewide infrastructure bill are urging members of the Montana Legislature to set aside partisan politics and pass a measure aimed at fixing the state’s roads, bridges and schools.

Missoula County also remains hopeful that the Legislature will pass an increase in the statewide gasoline tax, though any progress on that front will only replace lost funding due to federal cuts to Secure Rural Schools.

“The loss in SRS funding to the county means we’re not going to see a recovery of that loss,” said Anne Hughes, the county’s communications director. “But we still really need that (gas tax) funding. We’re incredibly supportive of the bill.”

The Montana Infrastructure Coalition on Tuesday continued to track a number of measures, just as Gov. Steve Bullock urged legislators to pass an infrastructure bill before the session winds to a close.

Bullock said he doesn’t care who gets credit for a long-anticipated infrastructure bill, only that it passes the 2017 session. Bullock said the needs are mounting and funding is long overdue.

“Montanans are counting on this Legislature to do the right thing and work together to strengthen our state,” Bullock said on Tuesday. “In the final days of the session, I expect each legislator to put the needs of their constituents ahead of divisive party politics and invest in Montana communities, Montana workers and Montana students.”

Both the city of Missoula and Missoula County have lobbied throughout the session for a number of bills that remain alive, including an infrastructure bill and an increase to the statewide gasoline tax.

Both measures also enjoy the support of the Montana Infrastructure Coalition, which created a long list of priorities going into the session, each aimed at directing more revenue toward the state’s infrastructure needs.

Darryl James, executive director of the coalition, believes legislators are close to crafting an infrastructure bill that’s palatable to fiscal conservatives. That will likely rest between a heftier bill introduced by Sen. Eric Moore, R-Miles City, and a lesser bill carried by Rep. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka.

“There was a significant gap between the two, but the fact that they’re within around $20 million of each other now is a good sign,” said James. “It’s going to be a matter of what’s included and what’s not.”

The current debate marks the third session in a row that the Legislature has taken up an infrastructure bill. While it failed the last two sessions, James believes the dialogue has shifted this time around, and most realize the session can’t end without passage of a meaningful bill.

“Most folks are realizing we can’t kick the can down the road any longer,” said James. “The discussion has been bonding and not wanting to pass on debt to future generations. But not doing anything passes on an unfunded liability and decaying infrastructure.”

A push to increase the state’s gasoline tax for the first time since 1993 remains alive as well. Sponsored by Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, the measure would boost the gas and diesel fuel tax several cents on the dollar.

Exactly how much remains a moving target, though the range currently stands from around $0.04 cents to $0.08 cents a gallon.

“It’s going to come out in a different shape and form than we envisioned, but the main tenets are still intact,” James said. “We’ll be able to fully leverage the highway dollars that are available to the state, and we’ll be able to provide a significant increase to city and county government for road and bridge projects.”

Hughes said the county is counting on an increase to the gasoline tax to help cover revenue lost by federal cuts to Secure Rural Schools. That federal program provides funding to counties and schools located near national forests.

Recent cuts to the program has left Missoula County with a loss of around $406,000.

“The gas tax helps chip away at that,” Hughes said.

As it stands, Hughes said, Missoula County Public Works is looking to cut its dust abatement program this spring, citing drastic budget cuts due to SRS funding. Cutting the dust abatement program would enable the county to direct funding to other needs.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com