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House Adds Capital Building Projects To Its Bonding Bill Against Sponsor's Wishes

Montana State University

Lawmakers gave preliminary approval to two bills that issue bonds to pay for numerous public works and building projects. Changes to House Bill 645 now make the proposal closer to the Senate’s bonding bill.

HB 645 started with a price tag of $33 million dollars. Originally it was to pay for mostly rural public works and school building projects. 

Credit MSUB University Relations
A display case in MSU Billings' Science Hall

Rep. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, offered an amendment to add Romney Hall at MSU, the Southwest Montana Veterans Home, and money for buildings at MSU Billings and Great Falls College of Technology to the list of bonded projects.

“This is a tough call,” said Representative Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, the bill’s sponsor. He asked his colleagues to reject this and any other amendments.

“I think we need to pass it just as it is. This very basic project bill,” he said. Cuffe worried adding projects to HB 645 would doom the bill.

But the House approved the amendment 53-47. Leading Cuffe to say he would vote “no” on his own bill.

The Republican-controlled House voted 56-44 on the second reading. 

The other major capital building project before lawmakers is a new building for the Montana Historical Society to be called the Montana Heritage Center.  Because it has failed to win support in past legislative sessions as part of a bonding bill, it stands alone in House Bill 600 where funding comes from an increase in the bed tax. 

Representatives approved that measure, as well as a half-dozen other bills that are part of the overall infrastructure package.

The Senate, meanwhile, also gave preliminary approval Wednesday to Senate Bill 367, its nearly $100 million version of the bonding bill, which originally included money for the three campus buildings and the veterans home.

Senator Eric Moore, R-Miles City, is the bill’s sponsor. During debate on the Senate floor, Moore addressed directly the unease some members have with the state taking on more debt.

“Not an unreasonable argument. That’s why this is so hard to do,” Moore said. “But if that’s the way you feel, and I respect that opinion, let’s talk about other options.”

Moore said taking care of public works and state owned buildings is a reasonable use of debt.

Lawmakers have been struggling to pass a bonding bill for these types of building projects the past two sessions. In 2015, a similar bill passed the Senate but failed by one vote in the House on the final day.

“We have this infrastructure issue wrapped around our ankles and we need to get rid of it,” said Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville. He praised all of the projects in SB 367 because it takes care of the state’s buildings and helps local communities with their needs.

“So let’s untie our ankles from this issue. Let’s put a big vote on this. Let’s support this. And let’s work with the House with patience and diligence to get this accomplished this session,” said Thomas.

The Senate passed the bill on a preliminary 38-to-12 vote. Four more than the 34 needed on its third and final vote to be transmitted to the House. 

But if Wednesday’s House’s vote is any indication of the fate of this issue, supporters will need to change the minds of at least 11 Republican Representatives to pass the two-thirds vote hurdle needed to pass a bonding bill in the chamber.