Legislature adjourns without approving infrastructure bonding bills

House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, meets with leaders of both parties in the aisle Friday after a motion to adjourn “sine die,” for the session, failed. After multiple attempts to adjourn, the House voted 58-42 to end the session. (Freddy Monares/UM Legislative News Service)

By Freddy Monares/UM Legislative News Service

HELENA — The Legislature adjourned Friday after a short and chaotic day of failed attempts to pass a package of bills that would have used bonding to fund infrastructure projects.

Debate in the House was tense at times, as a Senate-set deadline neared for House Bill 8 and Senate Bill 367.

The bills would have allowed for bonding, or borrowing, and the use of local matching funds for roughly $123 million to help pay for projects like water systems, a veterans’ home in Butte and the controversial renovations of Romney Hall at MSU.

Republicans say they funded more than $1 billion in cash and federal matches for infrastructure this session. Speaker of the House Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, named it as one of his top three accomplishments.

“True critical infrastructure in the state of Montana — water projects, sewer, roads, bridges — those are the kind of infrastructure projects that Republicans can get behind, and we did,” Knudsen said.

Leadership from both parties, along with Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, had been in negotiations to get a bonding bill passed by the Legislature. Friday’s session was supposed to convene at 8 a.m., but the speaker, along with Republican House leaders, were held up negotiating with the governor.

Knudsen says the deal the governor proposed was not adequate for the Republicans.

“As I’ve said for the last couple of days, it was clear that their priorities were more important than our priorities, and that was reflected in the structure of this last-minute attempt at a deal,” Knudsen said.

Bullock said infrastructure has been one of the main focuses of the legislative session since day one and that he’s disappointed that some legislators put partisan politics over Montana jobs. Bullock said he expected Senate Bill 367 to pass Friday morning.

“But it wasn’t my expectation,” Bullock said. “I know that over the last 24 hours contractors, superintendents, mayors, county commissioners, chamber of commerce members were saying, ‘it is time to get this done.’”

Republicans and Democrats worked on a plan Thursday night that took bonding out of the mix, but that didn’t make it into the bill representatives voted on Friday, Bullock said. He said Republicans voting against bonding need to answer to the Montanans who he says would have been positively affected by the passage of the legislation.

“I think partisan politics for a small group of Republicans … once again beat out Montana jobs in our communities,” Bullock said.

Infrastructure has been a point of contention this session, and the method to fund it has been a hot topic. Some Republicans wouldn’t vote for bonding on principle, saying the state needs to live within its means, while Democrats say the time to borrow money is now when interest rates are low.

During Friday’s debate, both parties attempted multiple motions to move House Bill 8 up and down on the agenda, knowing that if Senate Bill 367 didn’t pass, Democrats would vote against the bill. House Bill 8 would have required a ¾ majority to pass and Senate Bill 367 would have needed ⅔ of the 100-member House, meaning both would need members of both parties to vote for it.

House Minority Leader Jenny Eck, D-Helena, said Thursday the two bills were part of a larger infrastructure package.

“It’s either all or nothing at this point,” Eck said. “We can move everything forward and make progress for the state of Montana or not, but we’re not going to have some winners and some losers – and, frankly, that’s what they’re attempting to do.”

Knudsen says he was disappointed that House Bill 8 was voted down. He said he’s never seen the bill used as political leverage.

“Certainly the threat has been there in the past, we saw that last session,” Knudsen said. “But in the end, everyone agreed that House Bill 8 is good policy.”

Friday was the 89th day of the 90-day session.

Freddy Monares is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.