Stimulus Plan Causes Tension as it Cruises Through the State House

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A nearly-$1 billion stimulus spending plan split Republicans in the Montana House, and even sparked tension among some Democrats, but still cruised through a House vote Thursday.

Normally spending bills create warfare between the parties. But the measure that funnels federal stimulus money to dozens of different areas run by the state prompted differences among members of the same parties.

Conservative Republicans pleaded with GOP colleagues to oppose the bill as a waste of taxpayer money. And Democrats shut down proposed changes from their own side of the aisle.

In the end, the carefully coordinated compromise largely cruised through the House on a 63-33 vote with almost no changes from a committee plan. It now goes to the Senate.

The House Appropriations Committee, split 50-50 like the full House, is holding sway over spending bills and not allowing changes on the floor. In both cases, about 15 Republicans are joining 50 Democrats to push them through.

Rep. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, said the federal stimulus plan could mark “the end of society.” The assistant GOP floor leader said the deficit spending may provide a short-term boost — but only with unforeseen long-term consequences.

“I would appeal to all Republicans who can to vote no on this bill,” he said.

House Bill 645 spends about $880 million. The state has discretion with about a third of that, while the rest was sent by Congress to specific areas, such as $220 million for roads and bridges.

The House panel changed the governor’s proposal by moving around about $75 million of the discretionary money.

The biggest change came in a move to cancel $40 million to shore up the teachers’ pension system. Other moves to free up money included taking $3 million from a plan to issue new license plates, $3 million for hunting and fishing access, canceling $4 million from a technology program in the secretary of state’s office, and other reductions in administration initiatives.

The House committee version approved Thursday by the full chamber instead routes $23 million to local cities, towns and tribal governments for their own infrastructure projects. It also targets an extra $15 million more for K-12 schools; an extra $8 million, for a total of $18 million, to ensure a college tuition freeze; and several other smaller initiatives.

Rep. Brady Wiseman, D-Bozeman, tried several times on the floor Thursday to let Bozeman take $400,000 for demolition of the buildings ruined in a downtown gas explosion earlier this month. He said insurance money is not enough, but the House brushed aside each of his efforts in an effort to hold together the committee plan.

House Appropriations Chairman Jon Sesso, D-Butte, smoothed over the debate by pitching a few changes that let Bozeman, or towns like Miles City facing their own ruined downtown buildings, to divert other money they are getting toward building demolition.

Sesso lauded the bill as one of the best uses of the billions of dollars of other federal money that regularly flows through the state.

“It is going to come the closest to helping our people, to directly helping the people we represent,” Sesso said.

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