Now that both the full House and Senate have had their a chance to work on the state’s main budget bill, attention is returning to what legislative leaders have said is the priority this session—infrastructure.
Lawmakers have moved bills through the process that pay for public works projects in cash. The major bills that would rely on bonds have hit speed bumps in the House. They are also intertwined.
First a review of progress:
The Senate’s bonding bill - Senate Bill 367 - cruised out of that chamber last week and is scheduled for a hearing in the House Friday.
In the House, Representatives passed these infrastructure bills: HB 11, HB 5, HB 6, HB 7, and HB 9. All are scheduled for a hearing in Senate Finance and Claims on Thursday. What failed to emerge from the chamber that day was HB 8, which includes issuing coal severance tax bonds for public works projects, and the House’s version of bonding for capital projects, HB 645.
HB 645 failed on third and final reading last Friday 65-35, 2 shy of the 2/3 vote needed because of the bonding component. The next day, Representatives voted to reconsider that vote so HB 645 will face another 3rd and final vote Thursday.
“It’s always a tough hall. We’ve seen that in the last part of the last 2 sessions,” when it comes to bonding says Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville. He says it comes as no surprise the debate over infrastructure this session hasn’t been smooth sailing.
“There is some déjà vu there but that’s because it’s a big vote,” he says.
Some of that has to do with some member’s heartburn over indebting the state for public works projects instead of paying cash. That has been cited as one of the reasons why bonding has failed the past 2 Legislative sessions.
To explain why HB 8, which lawmakers traditionally approve, is tied to the other bonding bill, HB 645, Senate Finance and Claims Committee Chair Llew Jones, R-Conrad, says it boils down to the give and take of this process.
“This is a place of leverage. And so folks are using their leverage to encourage other folks to vote for certain things,” says Jones. “I imagine that HB 8, as last time, along with the other bonding bills will work their way through the process. I would not feel that HB 8’s current situation will remain its situation forever.”
“It always passes,” says House Appropriations Chair Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, of HB 8. “I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t pass.” Although she says it may take time.
It is about leverage, says Representative Jim Keane, D-Butte, the sponsor of House Bill 8. He says last session some Democrats think they made the mistake of passing HB 8 first only to see the bonding bill that session, SB 416, die on the final day of the session by 1 vote. So, this time Democrats are withholding votes, for now.
“Some members say we need to hold on to that (HB 8) to say we need these bigger projects passed too,” he says.
Among the large water system projects in HB 8 are projects important to rural Montana, including the Dry-Redwater Regional Water Authority, North Central Montana Regional Water Authority, and the Huntley Irrigation District.
Keane says some in his caucus want to “leverage” those projects for other capital projects that would benefit from bonding, the Southwest Montana Veterans Home, Montana State University’s Romney Hall, MSU Billings science building, and an expansion for dental hygiene At Great Falls College MSU, and additional public school facilities projects.
“We know it’s important,” says Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte. “We’ll get that (HB 8) done but for now we want to make some progress on the bonding bill.”
Will it work? House Appropriations Chair Nancy Ballance says she can’t speak for the entire Republican majority, but she can’t imagine House Bill 8 wouldn’t pass, “I think for some people it’s a bargaining chip for me it’s something that should just pass straight up.”
As for a general obligation bonding bill? Ballance says, “Until day 90, anything can happen.” A reference to the last scheduled day of the Legislative session, which is April 29, 2017.