Last acts on biennial budget on House floor

State Rep. Mike Hopkins looks through a pile of budget documents as the Montana House of Representatives debates the state's spending plan for 2018-2019  on March 16, in Helena. 

Associated Press

HELENA — The Montana House unexpectedly agreed Saturday to reconsider an infrastructure bill that had been killed the day before because of objections by fiscal conservatives over issuing $78 million in bonds.

The measure will again go before the chamber next week for another up-or-down vote on the same infrastructure package that was voted down Friday on a 65-35 vote — two votes short of the required two-thirds needed for passage.

Republican Rep. Mike Hopkins of Missoula offered the motion to resurrect the failed bill. It was supported 64-34.

"It doesn't have anything to do with the vote count," Hopkins said. Reconsidering the bill keeps the chamber's options open "so people can continue their conversations," he said.

Democrats welcomed the action, which keeps alive a possible deal to help pay for a package of big-ticket construction projects and long-awaited public works projects. "We welcome a conversation on infrastructure that works for all of Montana," said Rep. Shane Morigeau, a Democrat from Missoula.

Fiscal hardliners aren't likely to budge without significant changes to the existing bill, said Rep. Nancy Ballance, a Republican from Hamilton who chairs the chamber's Appropriations Committee.

"Reconsidering it would just bring to the floor again for a similar vote. If you can reconsider it on Day 68, you can reconsider it on Day 69 or Day 70 — all the way to the end," Ballance said. "We need to know where our priorities are."

Other Republicans hope they can continue whittling away at the amount of money that would be financed through bonds. Republicans had sought to keep the amount at $33 million, but Democrats wouldn't go for it because it would mean that key projects would go unfunded. Democrats won support to boost the bonding amount to $78 million, but they weren't able to muster enough votes to win final passage.

To make further changes to the bill, however, House leadership would have to agree to suspend legislative rules that ordinarily prevent House members from doing so.

Another vote might do little to change the outcome, unless Democrats can find more Republicans to reach the minimum 67 votes.

Democrats have insisted on using an infrastructure bill to pay for a $25 million renovation of Montana State University's Romney Hall in Bozeman, a $10 million veterans' home in Butte, a $5 million dental hygiene building addition at Great Falls College, and a $5.4 million science and technology addition at Montana State University-Billings.

While a Senate version awaits House consideration, the $98 million in bonding contained in that proposal would come under fierce scrutiny among House Republicans who have already balked at their own chamber's proposal.

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