Legislative Showdown Looms Over Infrastructure Bonding Bill

Bill remains the most contentious matter left on the Capitol agenda

By Associated Press
The state capitol building in Helena. Beacon file photo

HELENA – A down-to-the-wire legislative showdown will begin playing out Monday as lawmakers plunge back into a debate over a bonding bill that would raise tens of millions of dollars to pay for a slate of building projects and other infrastructure programs.

Pressure is building on lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, as well as Gov. Steve Bullock, to put together a deal before the Legislature adjourns next week. Having already sent a $10.3 billion state budget to Bullock for consideration, the bonding bill remains the most contentious matter left on the Capitol agenda.

A $98 million Senate bonding bill is before the House Appropriations Committee, but the panel’s chairwoman said she has no plans to bring the proposal up for a vote. The more likely scenario is to resurrect a $78 million House version and make it more palatable to fiscal conservatives. That could mean scaling back projects to reduce the amount that would be financed by bonds. It would also likely involve negotiations on other policy matters unrelated to infrastructure, as Republicans and Democrats barter votes and bills to broker a last-minute deal.

“It’s always a huge lift,” said Republican Rep. Greg Hertz of Polson, the second-highest ranking member of the Republican-led House, who acknowledged the ongoing behind-the-scenes political bartering.

“Everything’s on the table. There are some policy bills we would like to see the governor sign,” Hertz said.

Although he declined to identify specific bills under negotiations, he said Republican leaders are exploring legislation dealing with social issues, tax policy and economic development.

“There are a number of them we’re discussing with the governor to see if he can support some of those. And if he does, he could possibly pick up a number of Republican legislators who might support bonding,” Hertz said.

It will take 67 votes in the 100-member chamber to pass a bonding bill and advance it to the 50-member Senate for concurrence, where it would also need a two-thirds majority to send it to the governor for consideration.

While the Legislature has already authorized about $1.1 billion this session in infrastructure spending, it remains uncertain whether lawmakers can muster the political will to approve a bonding measure.

One bill that advanced to the governor’s desk on Saturday, despite opposition from anti-tax legislators, was a proposal to raise the fuel tax for the first time in a quarter-century. The measure would gradually increase gas taxes by 6 cents a gallon over the next six years and raise about $31 million annually to help pay for road and bridge projects.

In recent days, the Legislature worked feverishly to clear their decks of other legislation in anticipation of another political battle over bonding, which fiscal conservatives oppose because of philosophical opposition to borrowing money to pay for projects.

“We need to get down to business now, and there’s no more time for people to make up their minds. There’s been discussions back and forth, and potential negotiations with the governor’s office,” said Democratic Rep. Jenny Eck of Helena, the House minority leader. “At this point, people just need to look at the bill and decide if it matters to them.”

She said some of the onus lies with the governor. “At the end of the day, he’s the guy who gets to decide what gets across the finish line and what doesn’t,” Eck said.

In 2013, Bullock vetoed an infrastructure bill that landed on his desk after the Legislature adjourned. Two years later, lawmakers failed by one vote to send him another bill.

“Montanans expect the Legislature to pass a major infrastructure bill to put people to work for our state, and Gov. Bullock shares those expectations,” said the governor’s spokeswoman, Ronja Abel. “He remains optimistic that Republicans and Democrats will work together to get a bill to his desk for signature.”