An $80 million bonding bill to pay for big projects like the renovation of Romney Hall on the Montana State University campus in Bozeman and a new dental clinic lab at Great Falls College cleared a key committee vote Friday on its way to the full Senate for debate.
Earlier in the week, however, legislators also set up a contingency plan in case the bill fails or Romney Hall is stripped from it, in an effort to get that project done after years of debate.
Rep. Mike Hopkins, who is carrying House Bill 652, said it funds both so-called horizontal projects like local water and sewer repairs and new infrastructure construction, as well as vertical projects like Romney Hall. This is the GOP version of a bonding bill brought forward after Gov. Steve Bullock's proposal was voted down earlier in the session.
Hopkins' bill cleared the House on a 68-30 vote last month. It needs a two-thirds majority vote to pass because it result in the state taking on debt. The Senate Finance and Claims Committee passed it on a 13-6 vote Friday.
The Romney project has been a contentious proposal for several legislative sessions. Disagreements over it have contributed to the failure of past bonding bills. But this year lawmakers have a backup plan to get the project done.
On Wednesday, the Senate Finance and Claims Committee voted to amend a long-range building projects bill to include Romney Hall and pay $25 million in cash for the project if it is stripped from House Bill 652 or if that bill dies.
“It’s time to get Romney Hall taken care of, so it doesn’t hurt to double it up the way we have,” said Sen. Mike Cuffe, a Republican from Eureka.
Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, a Butte Democrat, said he worried that plan could cause people to pull their support for the bonding bill.
"I am very reluctant to disincentive anybody in the deliberations we make on that bill to vote for it," Sesso said.
The bonding bill also includes $10.75 million each in grants for local infrastructure projects and local school projects in areas affected by natural resource development.
One of the projects included in Bullock's bonding proposal but removed from the GOP bill was a plan to build a new state history museum for $32 million.
A separate bill to do that project and pay for it with a 1% increase to the state accommodations tax was voted down by the House Taxation committee Thursday. There was an effort to revive the bill Friday that ultimately failed, though a legislator could try to "blast" the bill onto the House floor for consideration. That would take a 58-majority vote.
Two other pieces of the infrastructure package appear to be falling into place. That includes the IDEA Act, which stands for Infrastructure Development and Economic Accountability, from Rep. Eric Moore, a Miles City Republican.
It would create a framework for how the state can take on debt for bonding projects and passed the Senate on a 50-0 vote this week. It's now back in the House, which will consider amendments added in the Senate.
The Senate Finance and Claims committee endorsed the third part of the package, a bill from Rep. Llew Jones, a Republican from Conrad, that says the state can access money set aside for infrastructure in tight financial times to help balance the budget. It would also make other changes to when and how the governor can tap that money. It also sets up a study to look at revenue during the interim.