Last summer a 12-year-old girl jumped into a canal that's part of the Huntley Project Irrigation District with three of her friends and tried to swim through a tunnel.
After her body was found several days later, it became a priority of the Bureau of Reclamation, which established the project in 1907, to eliminate the appeal the tunnel held for children on a hot summer day.
The bureau granted $1 million to the district, but that money may be in jeopardy after the Montana Legislature failed to pass a bill that would have provided $13.5 million to get rid of the tunnel running through a sandstone bluff.
“This was really the lifeline to get this done,” said Scott Aspenlieder, manager and engineer for the district.
Huntley was one of several rural water projects that didn’t get funded by the Legislature, which adjourned Friday. House Bill 8, which contained the projects and has passed in every legislative session for at least two decades, fell 23 votes shy as all 41 Democrats in the House, including the bill sponsor, joined against it, along with four Republicans.
That’s because House Democrat leadership said repeatedly the water projects, which benefit mostly rural and Eastern Montana, wouldn’t be funded if an $80.3 million bonding bill to pay for road, school, water and other infrastructure projects in communities around the state didn’t also pass. The bonding bill was Senate Bill 367, carried by Sen. Eric Moore, R-Miles City.
That bonding bill fell three votes shy Friday; 23 Republicans and every Democrat in the House voted for it. To enter into bonded debt, more than two-thirds, or 67, votes in the House were needed.
House Bill 8 faced an even higher hurdle because it would have tapped coal trust funds, needing at least three-quarters, or 75, votes to pass. It died on a 52-45 vote.
Those whose communities stood to be repaired or improved by either bill repeatedly used one word when they tried to sum up what they see as the lack of success by lawmakers who spent the last four months in Helena — frustration.
Depending on who you ask, fingers could be pointed at Democrats, Republicans, the governor or back at voters themselves, who have for the last six years paired a Republican-majority Legislature with a Democratic governor.
Aspenlieder, along with Speaker of the House Austin Knudsen, a Republican from Culbertson, countered Democrats by arguing water projects have nothing to do with bonding and that the linkage is a political game.
“It should be passed on its own merits,” Aspenlieder said. “They’ve said unless you give us a bonding bill, we’re not going to give you House Bill 8. I think the frustration here from our end lies with the governor’s office and Minority Leader (Jenny) Eck and the Democrats in the House.”
Knudsen used the word “hostage” to describe the bill. “At the end of the day, House Bill 8 is good policy. It’s good for everybody in Montana. This was used as a stick.”
After the vote Friday, Eck said tying the fate of the bills together was necessary to keep the state from “picking winners and losers,” since the water projects are in rural areas while the failed bonding bill also included things like a veterans’ home in Butte and major improvements to Romney Hall on the Montana State University in Bozeman.
“By not passing these bills we let students down, we let workers down, we let veterans down,” Eck said. “It was a very thoughtful package.”
Bonding projects left waiting, again
Bob Pavlovich has spent the last decade of his life trying to get a veterans home for people like him built in Butte.
“If we didn’t get it this time, we’re never going to get it, at least in my lifetime,” said the 80-year-old vet who was stationed in Hawaii and worked at an atomic bomb test site in South Pacific in the late 1940s. “I’ll be dead by then. We needed it. We needed it real bad.”
Pavlovich has seen the last three Legislative sessions adjourn without a bonding bill; in 2013 Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed a package in the name of balancing the state budget; 2015 saw a similar showdown to this year, with a bill failing on the last day of the session by one vote.
About seven years ago a six-county working group decided Butte made the most sense for the state’s third veterans’ home and secured some land. Montana has the most veterans per capita, making up about 10 percent of the state’s population. If a home were built, most estimate it’d be filled right away.
The project already has some money, but the U.S. Veterans Administration has been slow to kick in its portion of the funding. What Pavlovich and many others want is a bridge loan so they can start construction while the federal government works down its list and reaches Butte.
Without funding this year, though, the whole projects gets a bit less likely because the terms of the deal under which the land for the home was donated expire before the next Legislature.
“It’s just too bad,” Pavlovich said. “I can’t understand why you’re picking on veterans. We need the money.”
Mike Lawson uses that word again — frustrating — to describe the Legislature's actions. He’s a Butte resident and United Veterans Council command as well as commandant with the Southwest Montana Marine Corps League Detachment.
“Frustration is a nice, polite word for what we’re feeling. We’re tired of being a political football.”
Lawson said there are people on waiting lists to get into other homes in Columbia Falls and Glendive, but even if there was room, those places are far from Butte and that makes staying in touch with family difficult.
“They’re not respecting veterans. The problem, I guess, is we’re part of the infrastructure bill and the Legislature is against infrastructure,” Lawson said. “So we’re the ones that are losing.”
Huntley’s $13.5 million would have gone to eliminate the canal, which besides being a dangerous lure for children, is at risk of a collapse that would cut off water to about 800 irrigators over 360,000 acres, as well as large operations like a malt barley facility in Huntley Project and Western Sugar’s beet factory in Billings.
“It could be in two months, it could be in 10 years,” Aspenlieder said. “It’s really hard to say. Every year they’ve got to go in there and clear more material out that’s collapsing from the ceiling. It’s really anyone’s guess as to how long it’s going to last.”
Bureau-affiliated irrigation districts can’t just go get a loan from the local bank, Aspenlieder said. They have to borrow money from either the state or the federal government, but the state offers an easier process and better rates.
Who to blame?
After the votes Friday, both parties worked to place the blame on each other.
Knudsen said almost everyone agrees the water projects bill, which borrows against money in the coal trust fund and is paid back with interest, is good policy. He pointed to the last legislative session in 2015, when even though a bonding bill failed by a closer margin, a bipartisan vote still funded the water projects.
The speaker said negotiations broke down with Bullock, a Democrat, over the last weeks of this session.
“The resistance on their part, the absolute resistance, to anything Republicans wanted, that’s not negotiation,” he said.
He's previously presented the governor with a list of bills to not veto as part of a bargain, but the governor did not initially agree to bills Knudsen wanted most, including ones that would have severely limited access to abortion. That line of negotiation – trading bills for bonding – fell apart by Thursday evening.
Bullock said Democrats and Republicans came up with a last-minute plan that would have called for no bonding and paid for the Butte veterans home and Romney Hall, the university system’s top infrastructure priority, through a lease-to-own setup that did not require bonding. Money would have come from a long-range building account. It also sent $7 million on local school repairs with cash that was set aside in the budget to pay for debt service if bonding had passed.
“It’s incomprehensible Republicans walked out of the session without a general infrastructure bill,” Bullock said. On Friday the governor said he was told by text message his final offer wasn’t acceptable.
Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, worked through the night to come up with the compromise pitched Friday.
“It was a grand plan to get the speaker what he wanted. He said early in the week he didn't want these projects (veterans home, Romney Hall and other university buildings) bonding.”
Sesso said the speaker refused to even let the bills come to the floor, where Eck said there would be enough vote to pass.
“All he would have to do is give his body a chance to consider the alternative, but within the hour he and his leadership team concluded it was not the thing to do. The leadership of the caucus didn’t want to do it. Certainly the Democrats and a lot of the Republicans were in. I don’t know how we could have done this any better. Maybe sometimes we need to get grim to understand how we move forward as Montana.”
But over the last weeks of the session, several members of the majority party heavily emphasized other bills passed – such as a gas tax that helps leverage a $7-to-$1 federal match for highway projects and sends money to cities and counties for local projects. They also cited other cash projects that pass routinely each session, amount to $200 million in infrastructure, or up to $1 billion if federal matches are included.
Some Republicans before the vote Friday said they weren’t comfortable with the funding mechanism Bullock set up in the lease-to-own approach and they, like many who have projects that will go another two years not funded, were tired that a deal came so late and only after they felt the requests weren’t being heard.
Others questioned why a different approach wasn't taken earlier when it was obvious from the start of the session passing a bonding bill wouldn't be an easy lift. Even Moore, whose bill it was, said he only thought it had a 50/50 chance of passing.
"I'm not delusional," Moore said last week. "And I'm not Mr. Bonding. We came up with what we thought was a good try to get this done, but I understand not everyone finds bonding appealing."
Rep. Jim Keane, who carried House Bill 8, on Friday afternoon said he had no patience for Republicans trying to put the blame on Democrats.
“We did everything and they still said no to this deal. In my mind this is Republican spin to try to get the press to say it’s the Democrats’ fault for not passing bonding. Both of these projects could have passed but now we’re supposed to create winners and losers.”
In the 2015 session, the Legislature also failed to pass an infrastructure bill that relied on bonding, but the water projects were still funded.
“What has changed between last year and this year is we all win or we don’t win,” Keane said. “We’re not going to send you home with a big win and the rest of us don’t have anything.”
Keane was referring to the difference between water projects, which are generally in rural areas, versus the bonding bill, which had projects in large urban areas as well as smaller projects. “Why should we have one area of Montana winning but then all the other urban areas losing?”
Sesso said voting down House Bill 8 was necessary to send a strong message.
“This time you’re not going to take us for a ride. This time we were extremely clear with them.”
Rep. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, had his own infrastructure bill killed earlier in the session. At first, it would have bonded at about $33 million, a limit Knudsen said was more comfortable to him and other Republicans. But Cuffe’s bill was amended to add in Romeny Hall and the Butte veterans’ home, bumping the cost up to $78 million.
Near the end of the week as it started to look more and more likely bonding wouldn’t pass, Cuffe was one of the few who didn’t point fingers at one party specifically.
“At some point I think it’s the voters,” he said. “For years now they’ve made this choice to send Republicans a majority in the House, but it put a Democrat in the governor’s office. At some point we have to look at see how that works out, and does it set up a situation where you’re always going to have to fight.”