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Government & Politics

SW Montana Veterans Home Supporters Have A Backup In Case Bonding Bill Fails Again

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Jackie Yamanaka

The Senate Minority Leader added an amendment to one of the infrastructure bills working its way through the process that seeks to keep alive construction of a Southwest Montana Veterans Home.

“In the unlikely event the bonding bill does not make its way through this time and if a private donor does emerge to try to cover the federal share until the federal money gets in we wanted to make sure there’s authority in the law,” says Senator Jon Sesso, D-Butte. Although Sesso is clear, at this point, there are no donors waiting in the wings.

Last session, a bonding bill, that contained a Southwest Montana Veterans Home, failed on the final day.

That’s why the backup plan, say Senator Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, and Representatives Ryan Lynch and Jim Keane, both are Democrats from Butte. 

“It’s better to have a backup plan than not have a backup plan and get to the end of the session and not have any plan that we can actually build a veteran’s home this time,” says Keane

Backers of the project say time is running out for this regional facility because the family that donated the land had a provision that the home be built by 2019 or it reverts back to the family. Supporters say all of the funding is in place, minus the federal government's promised dollars.  The Veterans Administration has approved the project but as yet has not released the the money. That is why some lawmakers are seeking a "bridge" loan that would be repaid once the federal money comes through.

So, what is the status of the bonding bill?  The House’s version – HB 645 – is languishing in that chamber.  The Senate’s version – SB 367 – has passed the Senate waiting for action by the House Appropriations Committee, controlled by Republicans.

That led Democrats, flanked by veterans and construction workers, to hold a press conference to urge House Republicans to move on bonding.

Sesso rapped his knuckles on the lectern, “What’s that sound? That’s opportunity knocking.”

“I know the Democratic caucus has made a big deal and did a press conference and they’re trying to apply pressure,” says House Speaker Austin Knudsen. “And frankly it’s not helpful.”

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Credit Legislative Services
House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson

Knudsen says there have been talks, either in his office or the governor’s office, about bonding. He says the last pieces are on the table.

“There’s consensus on both sides that we’d like to move a bonding bill,” Knudsen says. “The problem is there are projects included on the Democrat’s priority list that they say they won’t vote for a bonding bill without and unfortunately some of those projects are projects that a lot of members of the Republican caucus say they won’t vote for a bonding bill if they’re in.”

Knudsen says the projects opposed by members of his caucus include renovation of Romney Hall at Montana State University and the bridge loan for the Southwest Montana Veterans Home.

Despite that, Representative Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, remains, “Hopeful and confident that bonding will go. I think there’s enough communities across the state that need it, that want it. There’s projects in there for rural; there’s projects in there for urban. In Southwest Montana we’re bipartisan in that, we’re all in for the vets home.” 

That maybe, but Knudsen says the reality is a bonding bill will need 67 votes to pass the House. There are 59 Republicans and 41 Democrats in the House, meaning neither caucus can pass it on its own. Still, Knudsen doesn’t think talks have reached a stalemate.

“I don’t feel like we’re locked up. I honestly feel like we really haven’t gotten down to brass tacks and had a really hard detailed negotiation yet. So, I’m looking forward to it,” says Knudsen.

Lawmakers are poised to take off for the Easter Holiday following Thursday's floor sessions and return Tuesday afternoon. Knudsen expects negotiation will pick up after the break.

The contingency for the Veterans Home was tucked into House Bill 5 Wednesday, one of the infrastructure bills, and approved by the Senate Finance and Claims Committee and the full Senate. It faces a final Senate vote Thursday.