The word "infrastructure" is about as popular in Helena right now as "health care" is in Washington.
Everybody's getting testy. Governor Steve Bullock has a sign prominently posted outside his office counting the days since the start of the session. On Friday, the sign read "81."
Bullock had called on the Legislature to get the little matter of infrastructure dealt with early this session so it wouldn't get caught up in the horse-trading as time grew short.
On infrastructure, this legislative session is so far looking as petty, short-sighted, and discouraging as the last. For two years, Montana has had to live with the fact that because a minority of the Republican majority refused to support the infrastructure compromise their party's leadership had negotiated with Bullock and their Democratic colleagues, vital projects went unfunded. Afterward, this was rationalized two ways: One, the governor had "failed to negotiate beyond the compromise." Two, because the conservative wing of the GOP felt they had lost on everything else in the session, this represented the one win they could take home—so they took home precisely nothing, calling it a victory.
We realize it's an archaic term in today's political reality, but "compromise" means each side gives something in order to produce a good result for all.
Caught in this ridiculous political crossfire last session were many critical local infrastructure projects as well as three equally important building projects. The fact that some legislators didn't want to support a veterans home for southwest Montana, a renovation of Romney Hall at Montana State University in Bozeman, and a new Montana Historical Society museum in Helena because they were in urban areas is beneath contempt.
As those same three projects are similarly held hostage this year, let's look at some facts behind the bloviating:
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The veterans facility is desperately needed. Montana is at or near the top of the list of states ranked by the number of veterans per capita. Nearly 10 percent of Montanans are veterans. The current veterans homes elsewhere in the state are at capacity and are far distant from southwest Montana. There's not a politician in Montana who does not give lip service to supporting veterans — but this issue has separated empty talk from action.
Also, the state money for the veterans home would take the form of a temporary bridge loan to enable construction to proceed. The federal government will ultimately pay the state back, making the Legislature's failure to act even more tragic and contemptible.
The Romney Hall renovation is sorely needed on a campus that is growing by leaps and bounds. Montana State, like our entire university system, pays back the taxpayers' investment over and over, providing the education that enables our children to prosper and the talent that drives our state's economy and improves the lives of all Montanans.
And the way the Legislature has treated the state's historical heritage over the years is nothing short of scandalous. Montana has a proud history and a rich culture that deserve to be revered and celebrated. It has been more than 67 years since the Legislature funded the Historical Society's first and current home. The last five Legislatures have rejected a renovation and expansion of this, one of the state's greatest treasures. As a result, the state's cultural artifacts are endangered. The survival of both fine art and important historical archives is threatened. The current building has long outlived its ability to both conserve and correctly exhibit this material. A recent proposal to sell off some of these items in order to fund a building in which they could have been preserved is mind-boggling in its short-sightedness.
Montana's colorful history is not only a point of pride for its residents, it's a major driver for tourism and economic development. How this cannot be understood by a majority of our legislators is a mystery, but perhaps it would help to point out that we are competing for both tourism and economic development with other Western states who apparently understand this far better.
Kid Russell didn't refuse to paint "Bronc to Breakfast" in 1908 because he wanted to make a political point. Montana State University's professors didn't refuse to teach our children over the last 124 years because they wanted to take sides in an ideological snit.
Most importantly, our veterans didn't refuse to serve in 1942 and 1950 and 1969 and 1990 and 2001 because they decided to indulge in petty partisanship. And they don't deserve to be mistreated today because of a heedless tantrum thrown by legislators who evade accountability for what their irresponsibility and lack of leadership are doing to the state they were elected to serve.
Our southwest Montana delegation understands — and is doing all it can. We hope the rest of the 65th Legislature can get its act together, and fast.