Recently, I notified eight of my valued employees they would be laid off until further notice due to budget shortfalls at the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) and the department’s recent announcement that $127 million in construction projects would be delayed and possibly canceled in 2017. I have also spoken to other contractors across Montana who are laying off hundreds of employees that normally work throughout the winter maintaining equipment in preparation for the next season of work. These dedicated, hard-working construction professionals are the victims of the political posturing already infecting the Montana legislative process, weeks before the session even convenes.
The MDT and Gov. Steve Bullock’s budget office have known for several years the Highway Special Revenue Account cash balance was declining, and at some point, the state of Montana would be unable to match federal highway construction dollars, not to mention fully fund the Montana Highway Patrol. These are the two largest programs funded by the state’s highway account, which derives most of its revenue from the tax on gasoline and diesel fuel.
So, why didn’t Dan Villa, Bullock’s budget director, sound the alarm bells during the 2015 Legislature? Worse yet, why does the governor’s proposed budget for 2017-2018 simply punt the ball on first down?
If the governor’s proposed budget passes as is, 27 Highway Patrol troopers would be eliminated and hundreds of construction workers will lose their jobs over the next couple years. Economists widely agree that every $1 million spent on highway construction creates 28 direct, indirect and induced jobs. The direct jobs are those in engineering, administration and construction companies like mine. Indirect jobs are those created when I buy equipment, parts, materials and professional services. Induced jobs are the ancillary jobs created with that money circulating through the economy. So, the governor’s budget would translate into the loss of at least 3,556 jobs.
Curiously, the announcement of delaying/canceling millions in construction, with no proposed solutions, was made shortly after the election — an election in which “jobs” were a central theme.
Contractors and the thousands of Montanans we employ are asking, “Where’s the leadership?” As it now stands, Montana, for the first time in our lifetime, will be sending federal highway money back to Washington, D.C. for other states to spend on their highways.
To those of us impacted by the opening salvo to this upcoming legislative session, it is not a game. Real people’s lives are already being affected and the situation will grow worse every day the problem goes unresolved.
The traveling public is also being punished for this political gamesmanship. Nearly one-third of the bridges on our state highway system are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, as evidenced by the bridge on Interstate 90 at Butte that is under emergency repairs after failing earlier this fall. People are dying after running off the narrow rural highways with no shoulders while the legislators and the governor point fingers at each other about who should propose a 10-cent per gallon increase in fuel taxes. This would cost Montanans about $8 per month, if they travel 20,000 miles per year.
It’s time to rise above the petty “gotcha” politics we’ve seen in Helena for far too long. Do the right thing for the right reasons and the voters will reward you. Fixing the highway funding crisis – and fixing it fast – is the right thing to do to put us back to work!
Deb Poteet owns a construction firm in Missoula.