House Endorses $150 Million Infrastructure Bill

Representatives voted 70-30 to approve an amended Senate Bill 416

By LISA BAUMANN, Associated Press

HELENA — The House endorsed a bill Thursday that would result in about $150 million for infrastructure projects around the state and allow for the construction of a veterans home in Butte.

Representatives voted 70-30 to approve an amended Senate Bill 416. A two-thirds majority is needed to advance the bill because it involves bonding. Thirty Republicans, many of whom spoke against bonding, voted to defeat the bill while 29 Republicans joined all 41 Democrats to endorse it.

The measure was worked on by a bipartisan group and introduced by Republican Sen. John Brenden of Scobey nearly a month ago as the governor’s proposal and others appeared unlikely to gain traction.

If it passes third reading, the measure will go to the Senate for consideration.

Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, opposed the bonding portion of the bill and referred to the measure as pork barrel spending.

“It kind of smells like a pig farm,” he said on the House floor. “We didn’t prioritize the things that are most important.”

During a Democratic caucus meeting Thursday, House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter of Helena said the latest version of the bill came from about a week of negotiations, which took place out of public view, as lawmakers worked out compromises on both the main state budget and infrastructure bills.

“It’s a smaller beast than House Bill 5 was,” Hunter said referring to Gov. Steve Bullock’s nearly $400 million infrastructure proposal. “It’s still a bill that serves a lot of needs across the state of Montana.”

The measure would provide $90 million with $30 million each in cash, bonding and local borrowing authority for cities and counties. About two-thirds of the money would go to water, sewer and roads projects with up to $40 million designated for communities in eastern Montana affected by the oil boom. The remaining third would pay for building projects, including $7.6 million for state institutions in Warm Springs and Lewistown and over $18 million for Montana State University’s Romney Hall with authority for MSU to raise an additional $4.6 million.

If the state achieves a certain revenue level, an additional $60 million would be allotted for projects, including $25 million for the Montana Heritage Center with authority to raise $5 million more.

A third and higher state revenue trigger would mean additional funding for renovating a science building at the University of Montana in Missoula and a library renovation at MSU Billings, among other listed projects. But Republican Rep. Ryan Osmundson of Buffalo, who brought the overall bill amendment, said meeting that trigger would be unlikely.

The measure would also allow the state to bond $10 million for the construction of a veterans home in Butte, which is slated to be paid back with federal funds.

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