The Montana State Capitol building in Helena

The Montana State Capitol building in Helena.

Thom Bridge,thom.bridge@helenair.com

HELENA — A House infrastructure bill failed passage Friday by two votes, nixed by fiscal conservatives who objected to $78 million in bonding contained in a measure that would unclog a backup of long-awaited bridge, sewer and water projects across the state.

The surprising margin gave supporters hope that a long-elusive deal could be hashed out.

"It's so close. I have to believe there's a way forward," said Democratic Rep. Jenny Eck of Helena, the House minority leader.

Nevertheless, the defeat put pressure on the Legislature and Gov. Steve Bullock to draft a consensus plan palatable to fiscal conservatives who find bonds hard to swallow and to Democrats who insist on keeping several big-ticket projects in the package.

With the House measure falling 65-35 — two votes short of the two-thirds needed — lawmakers could choose to work with a Senate version that barely advanced to the House earlier this week.

But the Senate version proposes $98 million in bonding, which would almost certainly be a deal-killer for some House Republicans who already balked at the more modest version in their chamber's own proposal.

Eck said supporters might consider resurrecting the failed bill if they can squeeze at least two more votes from the Republican caucus.

After garnering a 56-44 just two days prior, the package picked up nine Republican supporters.

Rep. Jeremy Trebas, a freshman Republican from Great Falls, switched sides to vote in favor of the measure on Friday after opposing it during the earlier vote.

"I wanted to give us more time to negotiate," said Trebas, who said he would support reconsideration of the bill if Democrats were willing to make further concessions.

While no one disagrees that many of the state's roads and bridges are in disrepair and sewer and water systems overburdened and antiquated, there has been strong disagreement about which projects to greenlight and how to pay for them. Fiscal conservatives have favored limiting the projects to traditional public works projects and paying for the package using only cash. As it stands, the leadership of the Republican-controlled House is proposing a $213 million package of cash-paid projects.

Bullock and his fellow Democrats, as well as some Republicans, are pushing to partly finance a bigger package by issuing bonds — including big-ticket building projects and renovations that fiscal conservatives say aren't a priority in tough budget times.

Democratic leaders say they have moved the ball far enough by making major concessions on the bonding issue. Democrats had initially sought a package that relied on about $150 million in bonds.

Republicans had proposed $33 million in bonds for a scaled-back list of projects, but that would have been a deal-breaker for Democrats. Democrats have insisted on using an infrastructure bill to fund a $25 million renovation of Montana State University's Romney Hall in Bozeman, a $10 million veterans' home in Butte, a $5 million for a Great Falls College dental hygiene building addition, and a $5.4 million for a Montana State University-Billings science and technology addition.

To garner more Republican support, Democrats had agreed to pull a $27 million museum project in Helena from the package as a stand-alone proposal using half-percent rise in state lodging tax to pay for it. Separate versions of that proposal were narrowly approved in both chambers on Friday.

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