By Martin Kidston
Two state legislative leaders offered insight to their parties’ platforms on Monday, leaving open room for compromise on a number of top priorities, including infrastructure and a potential bonding measure.
Rep. Brad Tschida, the Republican House majority whip, and Nate McConnell, the Democratic House minority leader, outlined their top priorities heading into the 2017 Legislature, which convenes in three weeks.
The two western Montana representatives also fielded questions from members of City Club Missoula.
“There’s going to be a tighter budget, so some of our investments are going to have to wait,” said McConnell. “But I think it’s very important that we don’t spend more than what we have, and we always set aside money for a rainy day.”
McConnell said the “rainy day fund” has already emerged as a top legislative priority, along with investing in infrastructure, including roads, bridges, water and wastewater.
Certain capital projects, including renovations to Romney Hall at Montana State University and a new Montana Heritage Center museum in Helena, also remain investments Democrats would like to make.
“It’s every bit as important as a road or bridge, and I think it’s worth investing in things like that,” McConnell said.
But while Tschida agreed that critical infrastructure warrants state investment, he disagreed with McConnell in that pet building projects should qualify for infrastructure funds. If they’re considered essential, he said, private funding could be sought.
“Sometimes we spread ourselves too thin, and our proposals become a mile wide and an inch deep,” Tschida said. “We need to apportion money to areas where it’s needed, but I think it’s most important that we focus money on those items most deserving and worthy of infrastructure.”
To Republicans, that list is likely limited to roads, bridges, water and wastewater. While the state once had a surplus ranging in the hundreds of millions of dollars, that money has since dwindled, leaving Tschida open to the possibility of bonding, so long as the projects are clearly identified.
“If we prioritize roads, bridges, water systems and sewer, and we come up with reasonable cost estimates for that, I’d consider bonding,” Tschida said. “We’re in a position now where we might need to take a look at bonding, provided that we bond the right kind of items.”
The Montana Infrastructure Coalition and a number of municipalities, including the city of Missoula, are lobbying for additional infrastructure spending. Among the options, they’re calling for a local option tax, a cap on the Coal Tax Trust Fund, and an increase to the fuel tax.
Tschida said he remains against a fuel tax increase, saying there are other places where the money could be found.
“I think there’s enough waste in our government, where we could probably find enough savings to compensate for that,” he said. “If we find through investigation we’re not able to generate a sufficient amount of savings in the state by looking at places where money is not being spent wisely, then I’d certainly consider it, though I’m opposed to it as a first line of defense.”
McConnell said the state should keep all options on the table when it comes to generating new or additional revenue. The state hasn’t raised its fuel tax of 27.75 cents per gallon since 1994, even though there are more cars on the road and they get more miles per gallon.
“It’s important to acknowledge that it has been 20 years since we touched the gas tax,” he said. “It’s important to acknowledge that we have more people traveling on our roads. In terms of what’s fair, I think it’s important for us to have that option available.”
Last week, state leaders confirmed that 30 statewide road projects had been delayed or canceled due to a budget deficit within the Montana Department of Transportation. That included the Russell Street project in Missoula, which has been 17 years in planning.
McConnell and Tschida both expressed frustration over the delay and have pledged to look into the funding woes that prompted MDT to postpone the bidding process.
“The monies were appropriated,” said Tschida. “The question I posed to the Legislative Division was, was the revenue insufficient to fund that? I don’t know if it had to do with revenues being insufficient or MDT simply saying they weren’t going to do that.”
He added, “It’s an example of stymied infrastructure that’s needed in the state of Montana. It’s important that in areas where deficiencies exist, that we fund those as fully as possible.”
Other Legislative Priorities
Aside from infrastructure, the two legislative leaders outlined other priorities. For McConnell, they include job growth and tax equality, including a bill that will enable local governments to waive 75 percent of a business’s tax liability.
That includes any business equipment taxes over the first five years of operation. Democrats are also looking at a proposal that would provide a $1,000 tax credit to manufacturing businesses that offer an apprenticeship program for workers.
For veterans, the credit would be valued at $2,000.
“It incentivizes our businesses to continue to encourage our workforce to be the most productive and efficient workforce in the country,” McConnell said. “I think it’s going to go a long way to do that.”
McConnell said Democrats would also push for pay equality and a bill to fund early childhood education. Democrats tried to pass an early ed measure in 2015 but came up short.
“We’ll have an opportunity again this session to fully fund early childhood education,” he said. “It’s a simple proposition. Every $1 you spend on early education – educating 4-year-olds – it results in a $7 return on investment down the road. You get people into a track of being productive citizens.”
However, Republicans may again resist the measure. Tschida said that while he supports early education, he questioned the value of spending money on such programs.
“Early ed is a good idea, but the studies used to identify the advantages of early ed were done mostly in the 1960s,” Tschida said. “I don’t know that it’s a wise expenditure of money to start someone out in early ed when the advantage is lost by the third grade.”
As the House majority whip, Tschida said he plans to prioritize bills. While everyone comes with good ideas, he said, it’s hard to separate one’s emotional attachment to his or her agenda from the good of the state.
He said his goals are limited to infrastructure and economic growth.
“It’s important we concentrate on economic development and wage growth,” he said.
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org