Governor’s Infrastructure Bill Advances, But Changes Likely

Mike Cuffe, the chairman of the subcommittee, says he has doubts the full House will pass the bill as is

By MATT VOLZ, Associated Press

HELENA — A budget panel advanced Gov. Steve Bullock’s infrastructure legislation Thursday without making any major changes, though the head of the subcommittee said he doubts the Montana House will keep it intact.

Bullock’s $292 million public works package is a centerpiece of his two-year budget proposal. The Democratic governor aims to push it through the Legislature after two sessions in which conflict with Republican majority leaders prevented a major infrastructure package from passing.

Republican legislative leaders also say infrastructure is a top priority this session, but they are interested in funding “essential infrastructure” that focuses mainly on roads, bridges and water and wastewater systems, and not necessarily the capital building projects included in the governor’s plan. GOP lawmakers also have taken issue previously with using bonds to pay for some of the projects.

Rep. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, the chairman of the long-range planning budget subcommittee, said he doubts the bill that advanced Thursday will be the one the House ultimately passes. Lawmakers who aren’t on his panel are already proposing changes, he said.

“We heard heartfelt presentations and if my pockets were deep enough, I’d throw it all on the table for everybody,” Cuffe said. “My personal goal is to make sure we come out with a good infrastructure package that is going to be acceptable to a strong majority.”

Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, urged the House to pass the whole package and send it to the Senate “unscathed.” After the hearing, he said if the package is broken up into different bills, Republican majority lawmakers should still approve them all.

“We shouldn’t be picking winners and losers when we have the opportunity to make them all winters,” Sesso said. Republicans, he added, “have the majority to do things the way they want to do it, but if the results are the same, then I sure can live with the process that they choose.”

The most contentious part of the governor’s package is a $157 million bonding bill that includes projects that Republican lawmakers have rejected in the past. They include a renovation of Montana State University’s Romney Hall, a new Montana Historical Society museum and construction of a veteran’s home in Butte.

The budget panel spent two weeks listening to impassioned testimony from advocates of those projects and others in the measure. Some of those advocates expressed cautious optimism that their projects survived the first round.

“We hope that the Legislature continues to see value in the project and the value it’s going to bring to thousands of students,” said Montana State University spokesman Tracy Ellig. “It feels difficult to predict what the final infrastructure vehicle will ultimately look like.”

Bruce Whittenberg, the director of the Montana Historical Society, said he was encouraged by the budget panel’s work.

“This is the first step, but to get to the finish line, you’ve got to get to the starting line,” he said. “So we’re pleased.”

The biggest change to the package of bills approved Thursday was the elimination of a $125,000 grant and a $6 million loan requested by an irrigation district in Broadwater and Lewis and Clark counties. The panel also added grants for projects in Flaxville and Winifred and reduced the interest rate on a loan to the Huntley Irrigation District.

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