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Bonding Bill Opens at Montana Legislature

Jackie Yamanaka

In principal, the main bill that funds road, water, and other infrastructure projects continues to have broad support.

“We do fully support the notion of increased funding at that local level for critical infrastructure, like roads, bridges, water and sewer and the use of bonding in supporting that infrastructure,” said Darryl James of the Montana Infrastructure Coalition.

He said House Bill 14 provides an “important shot in the arm for funding for critical infrastructure.”

The short title for this bill is the “Jobs in Montana Act” because the projects seeking funding would need people to build, repair, or otherwise do work on them.

This bill references numerous projects, including for the Montana Historical Society, the Southwest Montana Veterans Home, or Romney Hall at Montana State University, as well as projects for water and sewer systems or schools.

Where the bill runs into trouble is with the details.

“We certainly support all of the projects you see in Section 25 of the bill. There are 9 projects under the Quality Schools Grant Program and you knew there was a however coming,” said Bob Vogel of the Montana School Boards Association. The group is concerned about the fund transfers in the bill that affect schools.

“I come in support of 99.9% of this bill except for two lines,” said Jean Riley. She was among other opponents who wanted the controversial Avalanche Irrigation District Irrigation System Improvement Project near Helena removed.

Cary Hegreberg with the Montana Contractors Association said it’s a familiar refrain. He said even legislators say, “‘I support infrastructure, but.’ And it’s always the ‘but’ that gets to be the hang up and everybody has a little different view of what is infrastructure and how it should be funded.”

Hegreberg said he was thankful that the Montana Department of Transportation doesn’t have to come before the Legislature and have its projects ranked and funded individually by the Legislature.

“I can’t even imagine what a circus that would be,” he said. “Our organization and others don’t get into the process of prioritizing projects. That’s somebody else’s job. We think there’s a message in the fact that the projects that are funded in this bill are the same priorities as have come forward in the last 2 sessions.”

Hegreberg asked members of the Joint Subcommittee on Long-Range Building look at this bill for its merits, recognize that a lot of thought has gone into selecting projects, and fund infrastructure in Montana.

“We can’t always agree on every project. We can’t always agree on how to fund infrastructure in Montana, but we’ve got to move forward,” he said. “So this bill could be a very critical component of making that happen.”

House Bill 14 is often referred to as the "bonding bill" because it seeks Legislative approval so the state can pay for building projects by issuing general obligation bonds. Some Republicans lawmakers are reluctant to take on debt others don’t like the projects selected for funding.

In recent past legislative sessions, the bonding bill was one of the last bills to be acted upon. It failed and died during the 2015 session in the House by 1 vote after getting Senate approval.