HELENA — Everything from replacing flooring in the Capitol to acquiring land for bighorn sheep habitat and providing $45 million for projects in Bakken-affected towns would become reality under a $400 million infrastructure plan proposed by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
Bullock’s “Build Montana” legislation was introduced by Republican Rep. Jeff Welborn on Tuesday in the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Long-Range Planning.
It was taken up again Wednesday and will consume plenty of time in the weeks ahead as lawmakers sift through the project list and funding mechanisms.
“This is a big boggling bill,” Republican Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Cuffe said, adding that in the past infrastructure projects have come before them in several bills.
State budget director Dan Villa said last session lawmakers voted to use bonding for some projects while other projects were ignored.
“With this bill we ensure this east-west conversation ends. That this urban-rural conversation ends. That we are all in it together as one Montana,” he said.
Under House Bill 5, about two thirds of the $391.2 million in projects would be funded through bonding with the rest paid for in cash.
Republican lawmakers have also pushed for infrastructure investment, giving hope that a bill will pass this session. If it passes, it would be a win for Bullock in a Republican-controlled legislature.
“Montana is lucky to have statesmen like Jeff Welborn who are eager to get something done on behalf of all Montanans and who will work across the aisle to do it,” Bullock said previously.
Doubtful Republican lawmakers, however, have questioned the amount of spending and the use of bonding which would put the state in debt.
Republican Senate President Debby Barrett has said she wants to cut excess spending out of the bill and use more cash that the state currently has on hand.
But Villa said cash could be more expensive than bonds because keeping cash in investments would generate more money than the state would have to pay in bond interest, Villa said.
Rich Bruner with First Interstate Bank in Helena said he wouldn’t recommend the state depleting its bank account for these projects.
“In my 32 years of banking I can honestly say I’ve never told someone to deplete their funds for long-term capital improvements,” he told lawmakers.
In November Montana received a cumulative grade of C-minus on the state’s infrastructure from the state chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The bill if passed would support 4,293 jobs, create $561 million in economic output, and increase wages by $200 million, according to the Montana Department of Commerce.
The bill will be one of the most defining policy discussions to be decided this session, Welborn said.