Media Infrastructure spending for places such as Sidney continues to major issues for the Montana legislature (photo: Montana Public Media).
Montana Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s refusal to budge any further on his demands for an infrastructure spending plan — SB 416 — that relies heavily on $100 million in borrowing instead of cash led to an impasse with conservative House Republicans. Now, the Montana 2015 legislative session has ended without lawmakers passing a major infrastructure bill.
Montana’s largest newspaper, the Billings Gazette, was quick to side with the governor declaring that the “House delivers nothing to build up Montana,” as it became increasingly clear that there would be no agreement between the governor’s office and the 34 or so conservative Republican House members who continued to vote against taking on debt to pay for the projects.
“Just one more “aye” would have passed the bill. Just one more vote in favor of local infrastructure projects that would have prioritized the needs of oil boom communities in Eastern Montana,” stated a Gazette editorial yesterday. “Just one more vote would have allowed the city of Laurel to get some state help. One more vote would have assured that the local governments across the state could get matching state grants for public infrastructure.”
Taking on debt through bonding requires a 2/3 vote of both houses of the legislature, which, in the House, is 67 votes. The bill received 66 votes on its final 3rd reading.
The editorial goes on to declare that “thirty-three Republicans insisted that nothing was better than something they thought would please the Democratic governor.”
However, despite newspaper’s bashing of conservative Republicans for refusing more debt for the state, one year ago the Gazette’s editorial board was not so keen on the idea of debt.
In the wake of the governor announcing a plan for $45 million in bonding to fund grants for sewer and water projects in Eastern Montana oil communities affected by the Bakken oil boom, the Gazette took the governor to task for demanding that the state borrow money for projects, noting that such plans would be unlikely to receive a 2/3 vote in a heavily Republican legislature. The board also stated that using cash — as most conservatives prefer — “makes more sense.”
“The governor should consider how his bonding proposal would affect the rest of the state — in the unlikely event that it passed the Legislature. Then all Montana taxpayers would be paying off bonds for up to 20 years, paying principal and interest on borrowed money used to expand sewer and water services in Eastern Montana in 2015,” states the editorial board. “It makes more sense to avoid the cost of borrowing and use available cash to help address the urgent infrastructure needs of this relatively small area.”
The editorial ends by stating that Bullock “needs to reach out to Republican and Democratic lawmakers to craft a fiscally responsible grant proposal that actually can pass the Legislature.”
Montana’s largest daily newspaper has been particularly hard on Republicans during 2015 legislative session, endorsing major portions of the governor’s legislative program, including Obamacare Medicaid expansion, the DISCLOSE Act, the CSKT Water Compact, pre-kindergarten for 4 year olds, and the confirmation of the controversial liberal activist Jonathan Motl as the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices.
Republicans were even accused, at one point, by the Gazette of waging a “war on the poor” when they brought in state employees to testify about potential fraud and abuse within the state’s welfare systems.
For his part, Governor Bullock has been insistent on borrowing money for infrastructure in one large statewide package, rather than breaking the spending down into a number of smaller packages focused on specific areas of need, paid for mostly by cash as Republican legislators prefer. Supporters of bonding state that they can currently borrow money at low rates, while leaving the state’s $300 million ending fund balance intact.
After the 2013 legislative session, Bullock even vetoed a bill that passed the legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support that would have spent $35 million on infrastructure projects in the Bakken region of Eastern Montana, arguing that the state could not afford it.
In February, Bullock’s Budget Director Dan Villa threatened the governor’s veto on another widely supported infrastructure bill — HB 402 — that would have provided $55 million to Bakken communities and established ongoing funding from 1.75 percent of the state’s share of oil and gas tax revenue.
SB 416 was a $150 million statewide plan that relied on $50 million cash and $100 million borrowed. The governor had initially proposed a $400 million infrastructure plan — with cash and borrowing at the same ratios — but would eventually agree with a handful of Republicans on scaling that down to $150 million.
Despite the failure to agree on a large infrastructure passage, particularly to aid Eastern Montana, Republican leadership has noted that they already passed nearly $100 million in infrastructure funding during the 2015 session.
“It is important to keep in mind that Republicans passed funding for nearly $100 million in infrastructure and the majority of those bills are still sitting on the Governor’s desk,” stated House Republican leadership in a statement yesterday. “We look forward to the Governor signing HB 6, HB 7, HB 11, HB 180 and HB 403, and joining us in supporting necessary assistance for Montana.”
Media Trackers Montana is a conservative non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to promoting accountability in the media and government. Read more at mediatrackers.org/montana. Follow Media Trackers on Twitter @mediatrackersmt.