Gov. Steve Bullock is sending one, massive $300 million Christmas tree of building projects to the 2015 Legislature, hoping lawmakers won’t chop it into pieces and throw some into the fireplace.
“This is an opportunity for us to be one Montana, for us to be east and west, to make very substantial investments in our infrastructure,” says Dan Villa, the governor’s budget director. “We hope the Legislature will join us in that effort.”
Yet majority Republican leaders for the 2015 Legislature are bridling, saying many GOP lawmakers will resist incurring millions of dollars in long-term debt to finance the package.
“We’re going to have to see how much bonding (debt) we’re talking about,” says incoming House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson. “I’ve seen bonding bills not nearly this big go down in flames.”
Bullock, a Democrat, isn’t holding back on the bonding proposal -- or the packaging of his $336 million infrastructure plan, which includes everything from new state buildings to sewer-and-water upgrades to school maintenance.
He’s rolling all but $15 million of the plan into a single bill, including $205 million of projects financed by bonds or state loans that need approval from a super-majority of the Legislature. The $131 million of projects financed by cash require approval by a simple majority.
In the past, building projects before the Legislature have been contained in multiple bills. Debt-financed projects, which need approval by two-thirds of each house of the Legislature, were in a separate bill.
By putting all projects in one bill, Bullock is taking an all-or-nothing approach, telling lawmakers they can’t just pick and choose which type of projects they want to fund.
If the bill doesn’t get the two-thirds or three-fourths majority to approve debt- and loan-financed projects, those projects are stripped from the measure and die.
But legislators have the power to introduce their own bills, and Republican lawmakers already are talking about breaking up the Bullock infrastructure plan into pieces and voting on them separately.
“I think pulling them apart, where you look at each of them individually, simplifies it and makes a lot of sense,” says Rep. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, who will chair the budget panel that takes the first look at building-project bills. “We’re definitely considering that.”
Bullock, however, has a hole card in this political poker game: His veto, which can kill any separate building-project bills passed by the Legislature.
Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, says he likes the idea of one, big infrastructure bill, because it makes lawmakers look at the infrastructure needs across the state as a comprehensive plan.
He says it also blunts the GOP argument against using debt financing, forcing lawmakers to vote on everything, regardless of how it’s financed. Interest rates are at historic lows and the state should take advantage, by using debt financing -- like any business does -- to pay for vital needs, Sesso says.
“We’ve got to get focused on the need to make sound investments and less focused on the instrument,” he says. “If you’re not willing to consider bonding, we are never going to be able to take advantage of the critical mass of dollars that we need to make a difference.
“Those legislators who are saying they don’t want to borrow (to finance infrastructure) are not really serious about investing in infrastructure.”
Knudsen says he doesn’t see why the state should be “running up the credit card” when it has a large cash surplus to pay for building projects.
Still, Knudsen says he’s optimistic that lawmakers can work out their differences and put together a good infrastructure plan.
“Everyone agrees something has to be done,” he says. “We’re going to fight over how much and how to pay for it, but by the end of the day, we’re going to get something figured out, and I think it’s going to be bipartisan.”