Infrastructure becomes key focus in Montana governor's race

Greg Gianforte, left, a Republican running for Montana governor, chats with a member of the crowd after a news conference held by the Bozeman Republican at the state Capitol in Helena on Wednesday. Gianforte says the state needs new leadership to steward Montana's infrastructure needs.

Associated Press

HELENA — The issue of infrastructure was front and center in the Montana governor's race Wednesday, as the two leading candidates traded barbs over who to blame for the political deadlock over a funding source to pay for roads, bridges, sewers and other projects.

During a news conference at the steps of the Capitol, Republican Greg Gianforte again blamed Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock for stubbornly opposing GOP proposals by staking a position that Gianforte called "my way or no highway."

Meanwhile, Bullock traveled to Butte to again pitch a $200 million plan he unveiled last week. Bullock used the State Korean War Veterans Memorial in Stodden Park as the backdrop for pushing for a bipartisan infrastructure plan.

A compromise bill fell one vote shy of passage last year after wrangling over funding formulas and a list of projects that outraged conservatives.

One of those proposed projects was a veterans home that would have been built in Butte.

"There is an empty lot here in town that should be bustling with construction activity and supporting hundreds of jobs in Butte," the governor said. "It sits empty because a small handful of legislators put Montana politics ahead of Montana jobs, played fast and loose with our economy, and voted down an infrastructure bill that would have resulted in thousands of jobs and investment across Montana and right here in Butte."

Gianforte and other Republicans have dismissed Bullock's proposals as political gamesmanship.

"The governor had four years to get infrastructure funding done," Gianforte said. "Let me say to the lawmakers who are with me today coming back to serve in the 2017 session: I'm sure you're greatly frustrated."

While Bullock and Gianforte say infrastructure funding will be a top priority, neither has yet to flesh out details of their plans.

A key obstacle is differences over a funding formula, with some Republicans balking at using bonds to borrow the money needed to finance state projects.

Gianforte said he had "no philosophical opposition" to using bonds, but said he preferred using cash to pay for a wish-list of projects that he has yet to identify.

Bullock said his visit to Butte was part of his administration's effort to hear directly from Montanans about their priorities.

Earlier in the day, the Montana Department of Transportation announced it would be seeking public input on a long-range transportation plan, the bulk of it paid by federal money.

The five-year plan features $2.2 billion of highway and bridge improvements, including work on 13,000 miles of state and federally roads, according to Charity Watt, a state transportation planner.

But the state has millions of dollars in other infrastructure needs — not only to roads, but to sewer and water systems, schools and other needs — that both sides agree will go unfunded without a deal.

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