Lawmakers Seek to Re-set Negotiations Over Infrastructure

Meeting was part of effort to reach an agreement over a package of public works and building projects

By BOBBY CAINA CALVAN, Associated Press

HELENA – The debate over abortion and charter schools threatened to derail negotiations over an infrastructure bonding bill in Montana, as Republican conservatives sought concessions from Democrats for the votes needed to advance a bill that would authorize as much as $78 million for public works and capital projects.

But Democrats rejected those demands — particularly on limiting abortion rights — as pressure mounted on Gov. Steve Bullock and lawmakers to come up with a last-minute deal.

Bullock called legislative leaders into his office for an hour-long meeting on Tuesday as part of a last-ditch effort to reach an agreement.

“It’s in all of our hands to figure out that path,” Bullock told the group.

On Monday, a move to reconsider a $78 million bonding bill to pay for public works and capital building projects fell 10 votes shy of the 67 required to reopen debate.

It’s Bullock’s third attempt at an infrastructure bonding package. He vetoed a bill in 2013, and another attempt failed by a single vote to get to his desk during the past session.

It remained unclear if fiscal conservatives will be willing to let go of their philosophical opposition to paying for projects through bonding, which they see as putting the state into debt over building projects they say should wait for better budgetary times.

Reporters attended what was supposed to be closed-door negotiations between the governor and lawmakers to winnow the list of projects and how much bonding would be acceptable.

Discussions were frank and sometimes testy, particularly between Republican moderates and more fiscally conservative House members. They talked about removing big-ticket items from the package, such as a $25 million remodel of Romney Hall at Montana State University in Bozeman.

Republican Sen. Eric Moore, who sponsored a $98 million infrastructure package that stalled in a House committee, suggested doing a 10 percent across-the-board cut to each of the projects included in the bonding package.

To gain approval of the package, House Speaker Austin Knudsen, a Republican from Culbertson, asserted that Democrats might have to accept a Republican proposal that would ban late-term abortions or agree to establish a statewide charter school system.

“My tack was to put some Republican ideals out there, some things we want to see move — some things we think are worth an $80 million or $100 million bonding bill. And we’ve been resoundingly rejected,” Knudsen said during the meeting with the governor.

House Minority Leader Jenny Eck, a Democrat from Helena, said any legislation that scales back abortion rights would be unacceptable, and even some Republicans expressed misgivings about a charter school bill currently stalled in the Senate.

In the end, Knudsen agreed to re-set the Republican’s legislative wish list, but it’s unclear how much control the speaker might have over his party’s conservative wing.

Republicans had presented the governor with a list of 11 pieces of legislation, including the abortion and charter schools bills, as part of a push to reach a deal. While Democrats were unwilling to negotiate on abortion, a statewide charter school system did not appear to be completely off the table.

Bullock had agreed to allow four pieces of legislation to become law, including a bill that reduces the frequency for license plate renewals and a measure allowing tax deductions for donations to a public land access fund. Two other bills focused on workers compensation.

Republicans balked, however, saying the governor chose the most-low hanging fruit on their list.