Republican legislators limit borrowed infrastructure funding to $80M

(UM Legislative News Service) Republican lawmakers have introduced a bill that trims borrowed funding for public works projects to $80 million. That’s half of what Governor Steve Bullock proposed.

Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, is sponsoring House Bill 652. He said Bullock’s suggested $160 million in borrowed funds just wasn’t feasible.

“We account for all the projects that the governor does, other than the museum. But we do it, I think, in a far more realistic way,” Hopkins said. “The other one (bill) is completely not so, and has proved to not be so session after session after session, or the entirety of the time the governor has been in office.”

The bill removes a $32 million request to build the Montana Heritage Center Museum. It also only allocates $14 million for local communities to fund specific infrastructure needs, instead of Bullock’s $44 million.

HB 652 does include $25 million for Romney Hall renovations at Montana State University, but asks the university to privately raise the extra $7 million needed to finish the project.

Last fall, Senate President Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, said projects like Romney Hall and the Montana Heritage Center Museum were roadblocks to passing an infrastructure package, which failed to pass the 2017 session by two votes. But Hopkins said it’s time to bring more classrooms into MSU.

“To be fair, it’s a big price tag compared to other things in the bill,” Hopkins said. “But the state makes an investment into higher education. I’d want my constituents’ tax dollars to go into core classes. With this, we get 1 million hours in math and reading classes per year. That’s our investment.”

Bullock didn’t say if he would support the bill, but said he’s glad the Legislature is working to fund projects with borrowed money, which has caused infrastructure bills to fail in past sessions. Bullock also said Montanans suffer when critical projects don’t get funded.

“I’m pleased from the perspective that bonding is on the table. This isn’t about ideology, it’s about a two-thirds vote,” Bullock said. “So, I’m glad that the Republicans are coming up with a bill that could break that logjam.”

Darryl James, executive director of the Montana Infrastructure Coalition, testified in support of HB 652 during the House Appropriations Committee hearing Wednesday. However, James warned the committee to not assume the bill is a comprehensive infrastructure package. He said there is a $2 billion deficit for Montana’s critical infrastructure needs.

“That’s basic road, bridge, water and sewer projects across the state,” James said. “This bill is just a small piece in the overall puzzle.”

The committee did not immediately take action on the bill.

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