Jonathon Ambarian

HELENA (KPAX) - The Montana Legislature will soon begin tackling proposals for more than $1 billion in construction and maintenance projects for state facilities as lawmakers continue to work through the budget process.

Montana has established a long-range building program, where state agencies submit requests for large-scale repair and development projects.

The governor’s office incorporates those requests into its proposed budget. Now, the Legislature will have its say on which projects should receive funding.

“We’re trying to make sure that those dollars stretch as far as possible for the people of Montana,” said Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula.

Hopkins chairs the budget subcommittee that focused on long-range planning. They went through the proposals project by project over the first weeks of the session.

Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration recommended just over $1 billion in capital development projects — renovations and repairs that cost more than $2.5 million and new facilities that cost more than $250,000.

They recommended another $90 million in major repairs — eligible projects below those thresholds.

Now, several bills that lay out the projects under consideration are moving forward for hearings in the full House Appropriations Committee.

They include House Bill 5, which would appropriate more than $800 million in government funding and authorize spending $200 million more that’s been raised from other sources.

Hopkins said HB 5 is substantially larger than in previous sessions and offers a historic opportunity to invest in state facilities.

“When you see House Bill 5, you will see a significantly increased version of those maintenance and repair projects – taking a real crack at getting out of the way a backlog on these different repair projects throughout the state of Montana,” he said.

The biggest projects in the bill include more than $200 million directed to the Montana Department of Corrections.

Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration has promised to make significant investments in correctional facilities, especially the Montana State Prison.

HB 5 includes $135 million to replace four “low-side” housing units at MSP — used for inmates who do not require the most strict supervision.

Leaders say the current units are outdated, inefficient and in bad condition.

“We want to make sure that, for our correctional staff, that they're able to work in a safe environment,” Hopkins said. “And we want to make sure for those individuals who are incarcerated in the state of Montana that they are able to serve out their sentence, whatever that may be, in a safe environment.”

HB 5 also includes $15.9 million for upgrades at the Montana State Hospital to bring it back into federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services requirements — a step leaders say is needed to get the facility recertified so it can again qualify for federal funding.

The bill also includes significant spending for repairs and redevelopment in the Montana University System, state agency offices and other facilities.

Hopkins noted the rest of the Legislature will still have an impact on what shape the final bill takes, but he’s optimistic that the state’s procedures have created a framework where people can find common ground on projects that need to move forward.

“We’re looking at infrastructure as infrastructure,” he said. “We’re looking to take care of the things that we currently have in the right way, while respecting the amount of money that we have to put forward toward these type of projects.”

There are several other bills coming up that deal with long-range projects.

For example, House Bill 10 authorizes more than $200 million in investments for state information technology upgrades. HB 5 and HB 10 are both scheduled for hearings in the Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.

Hopkins said the committee could take action on HB 5 within a week or so.

The Corrections projects in HB 5 are also included in House Bill 817, sponsored by Rep. John Fitzpatrick, R-Anaconda.

Fitzpatrick said that bill would add additional language intended to allow work on those projects to begin several months earlier.

If both bills pass, there is coordinating language to remove the duplication. HB 817 is also set to be heard Wednesday.

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