Infrastructure tax bill ready for Senate debate

The Montana Senate is ready to consider an increase in the gas tax to pay for infrastructure projects. (Freddy Monares/UM Legislative News Service)

By Freddy Monares/UM Legislative News Service

HELENA – It’s the Senate’s turn to hear testimony on a bill that would increase the gas tax in the state to help pay for highway infrastructure projects.

House Bill 473 passed out of the House on a 54-46 vote in March.

The bill would increase both the gas tax and diesel fuel tax by about $0.08 per gallon and allocate part of the revenue to the Montana Highway Patrol and to match funds for projects paid for by local governments. The bill defines those projects to be the construction and maintenance of federal and state highways.

The House re-referred the bill to an appropriations committee before it was transmitted to the Senate. The committee passed it unamended on a 12-10 vote.

Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, is carrying the bill and said with the increase, each year, “every cent produces about $8 million. This would be roughly $60 million that it produces.”

The bill allocates roughly $35 million to the Department of Transportation to be used in a federal match program for construction projects. For every $1 the state pays, the program matches it with about $7 of federal money.

According to a report from Trip, a national transportation research group, based on current funding, Montana’s highway projects will be underfunded almost $900 million each year through 2021. Garner said his bill has the potential to unlock roughly $220 million in federal matching funds to close that gap.

In order to make sure that those projects get funded, Garner said HB 473 has a provision in it:

“To try to make sure that we post online every penny that’s collected, every penny that is spent and shows the projects that are being funded under it,” Garner said. “So people know it’s going to the road and bridge work that this bill is intended to have an impact on.”

During debate on the bill in the House, Rep. Jimmy Patelis, R-Billings, said while campaigning, blue-collar people in Billings never mentioned they wanted a tax increase. He asked what he should tell his constituents when he went back home.

“All they know, the highways don’t look too bad to them, the bridges don’t look too bad to them, and they could care less about federal matching funds – except an 8 percent gas tax,” Patelis said.

Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, agreed that a conversation with constituents needed to happen before passing a gas tax.

“I saw very, very few people actually talking to their constituents about the specific type of tax they would be looking to increase, and I saw even fewer of them talking about this tax specifically,” Hopkins said.

Darryl James, executive director for the Montana Infrastructure Coalition, supported the bill at its committee hearing and said the state has been trying to pay for bridge and highway construction projects primarily on a gas tax implemented in 1993.

“All the rest of the burden with keeping up with road and bridge performance has been on the local property taxpayer,” James said.

James said the tax collects some of the money to fund these projects from visitors to the state, rather than just from locals.

“This isn’t a do-we-or-do-we-not pay for these road and bridge improvements, it’s just the mechanism that we do it,” James said.

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.