Legislature passes comprehensive infrastructure funding after decade of failures
(UM Legislative News Service) On a cold, January afternoon last year, Wendy Gerky got a call that someone could see water rising in her downtown Havre quilt shop. She thought it was joke.
By the time Gerky got to her store, Bearly Square Quilting, the water was knee deep.
“Imagine it,” she said. “It’s like a swimming pool.”
The flooding came from a fire suppression pipe that ran underneath the building. After the break was found, the city had to shut off water to the block until it could be repaired. The quilt shop had to move to a temporary location.
David Peterson, director of public works in Havre, said the pipes running beneath the town were constructed as far back as the 1920s. While he said there isn’t concern over the quality of drinking water, the aged infrastructure has resulted in a number of broken pipes, and subsequent repairs, each year.
The debate over how the state should pay for maintaining and repairing infrastructure like Havre’s water system has dominated at least the last five legislative sessions in Helena. But comprehensive infrastructure legislation has failed to pass each time.
The 2019 Legislature has finally broken that streak, passing an $80 million funding package last week to pay for infrastructure projects. House Bill 652, carried by Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, will include a mix of cash and borrowed money
Municipal governments will have to vie for grant money, but it’s an exciting prospect for city officials like Peterson.
“If you don’t have infrastructure, you don’t have an economy,” Peterson said.
The quilt shop certainly felt the economic impacts of failing infrastructure.
Gerky’s business lost sewing machines, fabric, books and cabinets to water damage. The store was originally located on Havre’s main street in the middle of town — prime location for tourism traffic.
When she had to move to a temporary location for eight months, somewhat off the beaten trail, her sales dropped. Although she didn’t provide an exact number, she said the difference in sales was dramatic. At a yearly quilting event in 2017, Gerky sold 90 quilting kits. In 2018, she sold five.
But more than economic challenges, Gerky said, the experience was physically and emotionally exhausting.
“It was such a devastating year for me. Like my husband says: ‘You’re not the same since the flood,’ ” Gerky said.
The Debt Debate
Republicans and Democrats generally agree that Montana needs updated roads and water systems, but lawmakers have struggled in the last decade to compromise on how to pay for these projects, and how many should be funded.
Two projects in particular have caused rifts between parties. Montana State University has been asking for a renovation of Romney Hall and the Montana Historical Society wants a new building to house museum artifacts.
Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, said she would like to see MSU and the Historical Society find creative ways to find money for their projects, instead of asking for money from the state.
“We can find other ways to fund things without coming to the trough. The trough is the taxpayers,” Brown said.
Brown said her goal is to save the state money, and to avoid debt and borrowing money for public works projects through bonding.
MSU and the Historical Society have raised private funds through donations, but still need more. HB 652 does include funding for Romney Hall, so that project will move forward. The fate of the Historical Society’s request will be decided soon in a separate bill, Senate Bill 338, which would use bed tax money for construction costs.
In years past, lawmakers have also objected to proposed bonding bills when they felt money was unfairly distributed between urban and rural areas. This session, lawmakers found a way to address both concerns.
Constructing an Infrastructure Budget
Rep. Eric Moore, R-Miles City, carried House Bill 553, which aims to implement a framework for how the Legislature borrows money for infrastructure. The bill passed 95-4 in a final Senate vote.
Although the bill, also called the IDEA act, won’t fall into place until 2021, HB 553 made passing a bonding bill more palatable in 2019. Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, said he thinks bonding would have failed this session without it.
Essentially, HB 553 lays out guidelines for where funding goes and how much should be bonded, and is based on how much revenue the state brings in.
Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock has been asking the Legislature to borrow money for infrastructure since he took office. He said he’s pleased to see a bonding package finally reach his desk.
House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, said it took a “perfect storm” for lawmakers to pass bonding this session.
“You have a large group of legislators who agree it’s time to break ground on these projects,” Schreiner said.
Both bills passed with bipartisan support.
Lawmakers also passed a bill to flow cash into public works last week. Rep. Jim Keane, D-Butte, carried House Bill 5, which will allocate $165 million of state money for infrastructure over the next two years. The House voted 61-33 to send it to the governor’s desk.
HB 5 includes money for projects through the Department of Corrections, Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the Montana University System.
Keane said it’s important to remember that the state makes a lot of money off of taxes on natural resources, like coal, to pay for these projects.
“I don’t think people realize how important those resources are, and what they do for the state of Montana,” Keane said.
Whether the money comes from bonding or the state’s general fund, towns like Havre will get a chance to make their infrastructure shiny and new. And, bonding does mean that taxpayers, through the state, will take on debt for these projects.
Peterson said it comes down to perspective. People pay hundreds of dollars for cell phones and cable, so paying for clean and reliable water should be a no-brainer, he said.
“I know what I’d choose in a heartbeat.”
Shaylee Ragar is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Newspaper Association, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. Shaylee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.