A Perfect Opportunity to ‘Build Montana’

I can’t remember a time when doing so was more needed, and the bonding climate more favorable, than now

By Bob Brown

As many as 2,000 temporary high-paying blue collar jobs will be created in Montana if the U.S. government approves the much publicized Keystone XL pipeline. More than twice as many similar private sector construction jobs, however, will result from state government approval of the “Build Montana” program proposed by Democratic Governor Steve Bullock and sponsored in the Legislature by Republican Rep. Jeff Welborn of Dillon.

The Montana proposal includes badly needed improvements in infrastructure in Montana’s end of the Bakken energy development, as well as 280 other needed and long delayed projects across our state. Our congressional delegation, representing both political parties, has wisely united behind Keystone, and our legislators need to unite in the same way behind our own program.

Build Montana proposes a blend of cash and bonding. Bonding for local and state constructions projects is as old as Montana. Construction of our state capitol building was bonded, and the bonds were purchased by legendary rags-to-riches hard rock miner Tommy Cruse.

Prominent among the Build Montana projects is extensive renovation of the Montana Historical Society facility in the shadow of the state capitol. The current antiquated museum facility was constructed in 1950. Once described as the “Smithsonian of the West,” it is packed with priceless historic and prehistoric Montana artifacts and art treasures. A great many of them have never been seen by the Montana public, which owns them because space constraints make display impossible. It serves more as Montana’s attic than our heritage center.

In addition, unlike most states with less bold and colorful histories, Montana’s museum has no place to accommodate student and citizen groups for lectures and public presentations. Sadly, plans to reconstruct and modernize our historical facility have been waiting for a decade.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of both the first meeting of the Montana Legislature in 1865, and the establishment of the Montana Historical Society, which was one of the first acts of that original legislative assembly. Now, with interest rates for bonding at near historic lows, our current legislators have a unique opportunity to act on behalf of future generations.

Unlike the national debt, the 20-year bonds proposed in Build Montana will be paid off in the lifetimes of most Montanans living now, at a cost to the state budget of about 1 percent. And, as with our capitol building, what this generation builds will be an investment to be enjoyed by future generations when the economic opportunity to build might not be so easy. In my 26 years of legislative service, providing and maintaining infrastructure through bonding was routine. I can’t remember a time when doing so was more needed, and the bonding climate more favorable, than now.

People are unified by common needs and a common history. This is true even in these divided times. Our elected leaders have the perfect opportunity to stand together and to renew the legacy passed on to us by continuing to “Build Montana.”

Bob Brown is the former Montana secretary of state.