The House Appropriations Committee voted Wednesday to table Gov. Steve Bullock’s Build Montana infrastructure program and instead passed out a series of Republican alternative bills.
As proposed, Bullock’s House Bill 5, by Rep. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, called for funding $391 million worth of infrastructure projects, across the state, using $212 million in bonding and the rest in cash.
The Republican-led panel voted to 13-7 to table the bill.
As the debate started, Rep. Pat Noonan, D-Ramsay, announced that Democrats may use the second of their “silver bullets” to bring the HB5 to the House floor for the debate.
Under House rules, Democrats and Republicans each were given six silver bullets to use to take a bill from a committee by a simple majority vote to bring it to the House floor for debate. It normally takes a difficult-to-obtain three-fifths majority, or 60 votes, to blast a bill out of committee onto the floor of 100-member House for debate.
House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, wrote House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, on March 16 to designate HB5 as one of its six potential “silver bullets.” He said if necessary, the Democratic minority “may choose to withdraw the bill from the House Appropriations Committee.”
Noonan told the committee: “A lot of us on this committee feel this is the best vehicle. It’s all of Montana, instead of dividing east-west. A lot of us feel this is the best vehicle to kick over to the Senate.”
Under HB5, Noonan said, “every community has something. It unites us all.”
Rep. Dave Hagstrom, R-Billings, said, “I don’t think HB5 made sense from the beginning. It was appropriate and wise to break it up into these various projects.”
Hagstrom said he believed Montanans were “set up” by the executive branch that all of their projects would be funded.
Rep. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, who chaired the joint subcommittee that dealt with infrastructure bills, said he thought panel members were doing the governor a favor by breaking up HB5 into the multiple infrastructure bills.
As proposed, Bullock’s HB5 would require three-fourths majority votes in both the House and Senate to pass because it includes some money from coal severance tax bonds.
The various Republican alternatives -- HB7, HB9, HB11, HB403 and several not heard Wednesday -- mirrored how infrastructure bills were handled in the past, instead of having them lumped in a single bill.
Cuffe said these GOP bills provided a level of transparency to show the source of funding for each set of projects.
“The dedicated funding for the various projects was a whole bunch shorter than the number of projects,” he said.
Bullock’s bill used the proceeds from issuing bonds to fund additional projects that weren’t able to be funded by the dedicated source of money.
Rep. Mitch Tropila, D-Great Falls, called Bullock’s HB5 “a great attempt to bring rural and urban together and not pick winners and losers.”
He added, “I don’t look at bonding as debt service. I look at it as an investment. Folks in Medicine Lake aren’t talking about cash or bonds. They’re talking about a new water tower.”
Rep. Donald Jones, R-Billings, said, HB5 “is an attempt to fund everything, no matter how much they’re needed.”
Appropriations Chair Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, said HB5 was “one more time, an all-or- nothing bill from the governor.”
Bullock made “a tour around the state making people believe their project will be funded.” Ballance said, calling HB5 “a bully attempt to push it through.”
After the meeting, Bullock’s budget director, Dan Villa, criticized the committee action.
“It has been a priority of the governor’s from the beginning of the session to have a significant infrastructure investment,” Villa said in an interview. “The only bill present today that accomplishes that is HB5. The Republicans’ alternatives had few if any proponents. It confused the communities as to whether or not their grant was funded or not funded. No one knew what was in what bill.”
Villa concluded by saying: “By shooting a silver bullet, we guarantee a conversation on the floor and we continue to move one bill forward.”
In his letter to Knudsen, Hunter concluded: “We look forward to having a fair and robust debate on the House floor on the merits of House Bill 5. Following that debate, a majority of our chamber can decided whether the bill shall become law.”