Montana House Again Rejects Infrastructure Bonding Bill

The move sets off another flurry of lobbying as both sides solidify their votes

By BOBBY CAINA CALVAN, Associated Press
The Montana State Capitol in Helena. Beacon file photo

HELENA — The Montana House rejected an $80 million infrastructure bonding bill Thursday, but the proposal will get yet another vote as supporters seek to close the legislative session by finally passing a measure that has failed the past two sessions.

The move sets off another flurry of lobbying as both sides solidify their votes. Supporters of the bonding bill fell two votes shy of the 67-vote supermajority required for passage.

The package would finance public works and capital building projects such as a long-awaited renovation of Montana State University’s Romney Hall.

Meanwhile, a growing number of House members have become increasingly restless to return home. However, two attempts to adjourn failed.

The Senate added pressure for the House to act by setting a Friday afternoon deadline to adjourn the legislative session. Senate President Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, and Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, said they want the House to reconvene Thursday afternoon to take final votes on the infrastructure bill and another measure that would fund regional water projects and send the legislation to them.

But House Speaker Austin Knudsen said his chamber stands adjourned until Friday morning.

The House has rejected similar infrastructure bonding bills three times this session, despite assertions that it would be a high priority.

“We got a deer here. We just gut-shot it,” said Republican Rep. Scott Staffanson of Sidney. “Then tomorrow we’ll knock it down again, and we’ll follow it over the hill the next day and knock it down again. …. I say let’s hit it on the head and go home.”

The legislative drama did not go according to the expected script. Members of the Senate arrived on the House floor to observe, some with expectations that a bonding bill would advance. There was also confusion throughout the Capitol about next moves. Some lawmakers had expected to adjourn Thursday.

Gov. Steve Bullock remained confident that he and other Democrats had picked up enough votes. On a preliminary vote on Wednesday, the measure advanced 63-57 — which meant supporters needed at least four more votes for final passage. They got those votes on Thursday morning, but the measure was doomed when two Republicans switched their votes from “yes” to “no.”

“I don’t get it. I thought good jobs have always been a Republican priority. These legislators are turning their backs on their communities and on Montana workers,” Bullock said.

Democratic Sen. Jen Gross of Billings circulated hand-written notes across the chamber to win support for the measure from her Billings delegation.

Republicans had sought the governor’s support on a package of bills to help muster votes for the bonding bill. But Knudsen said Thursday there had been an impasse in negotiations.

Some Republican supporters of the bill expressed frustration that the governor and Democrats couldn’t make more concessions.

“The governor thought he could get a bill while completely ignoring there’s a Republican majority,” said Republican Rep. Mike Hopkins of Missoula. “I think the people of Montana get the short end of the stick.”