Gov. Steve Bullock rolled into Butte Wednesday to discuss a $200 million infrastructure initiative with a group of veterans.
Bullock announced the initiative April 27 at Medicine Crow Middle School in Billings.
The initiative, if it passes the 2017 Legislature, would include money for roads, public schools, universities and impacted communities. But the main purpose of the initiative in Butte would be for veterans. Bullock presented his plan at the Korean War Memorial at Stodden Park. About 50 veterans stood in the grass to listen to Bullock's speech. The initiative includes a $10 million loan from the state to build a veteran's home to serve veterans in southwest Montana.
That veterans' home is much-needed, local veterans say. Mary Creech, who served in Vietnam, compared the need for a veterans' home in southwest Montana to how important air is for all of us to breathe.
"We are going to have more veterans," Creech said. "More are coming from the Sandbox (military jargon for Iraq and Afghanistan). They'll need long-term care for several decades."
The 60-bed facility was proposed six years ago. Long-time Pepsi bottler Don Harrington pledged a 10-acre parcel of land south of Three Bears on Blacktail Loop before he died for the project. But the lot, now held under a trust, has a 10-year sunset window.
Veterans in southwest Montana are anxious to see the facility get built but at least one veteran, Mark Gollinger, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, expressed some doubt after listening to Bullock's speech.
"It's great to hear but we've heard a lot of talk and promises, and many of us are skeptical," Gollinger said. "We're afraid politics will overrule the right thing to do."
The facility is expected to cost $15 million to build. The state has already pledged $5 million. According to state Sen. Jon Sesso, D-Butte, the federal government has put Montana on a waiting list of states expected to receive federal dollars to build a new veterans' home, but that anticipated $10 million has not become available. Sesso said there's no way to know when the federal funds will become available so the state decided to loan the additional $10 million necessary to get the facility built sooner rather than later.
The fact that the federal money is anticipated means the state’s loan to build a veteran’s home in Butte is guaranteed to be paid back once the federal money comes through.
The facility would be similar to an assisted living residential care facility and would create about 100 jobs in Butte, according to Sesso.
Bullock's initiative is similar to SB 416, a bill that went before the 2015 Legislature but did not pass. The Senate passed it overwhelmingly, but the House of Representatives defeated it by a single vote before adjourning. Republicans in the Legislature cited specific issues - namely $18 million set aside for Montana State University-Bozeman's Romney Hall and $25 million for a new Montana Historical Society museum in Helena - which they called pork barrel projects as reasons why they would not vote for the measure.
Bullock's political opponent in the 2016 gubernatorial race, Greg Gianforte, R-Bozeman, held a press conference in Helena Wednesday to criticize Bullock's initiative and said if he is elected, he would use either available cash or bonds to get infrastructure projects on their feet. Republicans have criticized Bullock in the past for his infrastructure plan, saying it relied too heavily on bonds.
In an emailed statement to the Standard, a spokesperson for Gianforte called Bullock's infrastructure plan a failure.
"The governor's campaign stunt in Butte today was just rubbing more salt in the wounds. He's had four years to deliver on infrastructure and has failed to get the job done," said Ron Catlett, spokesperson for Gianforte's gubernatorial campaign.
After speaking in Butte, Bullock moved on to Dillon for a groundbreaking ceremony for the expansion of the University of Montana Center for Horsemanship.