Three Butte lawmakers are hopeful that funding for a long-sought retirement home for military veterans will finally win approval in the Legislature and say if it happens, construction could start in Butte this year.
But state Sen. Jon Sesso and Reps. Jim Keane and Ryan Lynch are realists, too. They were optimistic at this point in the 2015 legislative session, only to see the veterans’ home and other state projects crash amid flaring tempers and partisan wrangling that April.
“I was as confident last time in mid-March as I am this time,” said Sesso, the minority leader in the Senate.
But in a lengthy sit-down with The Montana Standard on Monday, the three Democrats said there are reasons to be hopeful this session, including new legislative approaches and a perception among more lawmakers that capital projects are affordable and beneficial.
Republicans have sizable majorities in both chambers as they did in 2015, but not enough of them joined Democrats in the House last session to get an infrastructure package across the finish line. During a key House tally in the end, it failed by one vote.
“I think there has been a change in the House people,” said Keane, a longtime lawmaker who is back in the House this year after previous tenures in both chambers.
“There are a number of them that recognize that we are being fiscally responsible in the Legislature by doing this and we are actually benefiting the whole state.”
Legislators from Butte, along with Democrats and Republicans from other counties in southwest Montana, have been discussing or pushing for the veterans’ home since 2009.
They secured $5 million in state funding several years ago and have been looking for another $10 million until federal money comes through. The project has been authorized by the U.S. Veterans Administration, but has ranked too low to get federal dollars.
The facility has been designed to go on a 10-acre parcel in Butte and local government has prepared the area for water and sewer connections.
Gov. Steve Bullock had funding for the home in a package that included about $66 million in cash and $227 million in bonding for projects around the state. They cleared a long-range planning committee and are now in House Appropriations, of which Keane and Lynch are both members.
The package is being separated into several measures now, and members of the House and Senate are negotiating ways to move forward.
Butte lawmakers would like to see a bonding bill that includes a handful of major projects, including the veterans’ home, renovation of Romney Hall at Montana State University in Bozeman, a building at MSU in Billings and $30 million in building improvements at schools around the state.
They also would like to make approval of numerous smaller bonding projects contingent on the larger bonding bill passing. The idea is to give more lawmakers a stake in the legislation.
Keane also wants to produce a map of Montana showing lawmakers where all projects — both cash and bonding — would be located and their funding amounts.
“Instead of looking for the one project in your area, you can see the whole state of Montana and see how the cash and bonding affects the whole state,” Keane said.
The map, Sesso said, will show “where every dollar is going in every town and every county.”
The bonding measures require approval by two-thirds of members in each chamber — meaning 34 votes in the Senate and 67 in the House.
Lynch said legislative leaders were “fractured” going into the final days of the 2015 session and that made it easy for some rank-and-file Republicans to balk at a final infrastructure bill, in part by saying it didn’t include money for schools.
“It was just an excuse to pull out of the air,” he said.
If they can get a package of bills out of the House by the end of March, the hope in the Senate — Sesso said — is to keep it intact as much as possible to enhance its chances in the end.
There will still be lawmakers who oppose bonding, saying the state can’t afford to borrow more money, Keane said. But he and Lynch and Sesso say the state can and should invest in the projects.
The state has never defaulted on bonds and the current payment schedule is going down, Keane said.
“It is important to show them that we can afford it at this time,” he said.
No matter any twists and turns, Lynch said, "We're all in on the veterans' home."