HELENA — The Montana Senate barely mustered the minimum votes required to pass its infrastructure package, as concerns swirl that another legislative session might fail to produce a long-elusive deal to address the state's crumbling roads and bridges, antiquated sewer and water systems and a host of other infrastructure needs.
While the Senate moved Thursday to send its proposal to the House on a 34-16 vote — the minimum two-thirds margin required — the House is expected to again consider its own version on Friday.
The House version is sure to get scrutiny from fiscal conservatives who have helped derail previous proposals because of their concerns over cost and funding formulas. It will require 67 votes in the 100-member chamber to win passage — a tall order considering that it only garnered 56-44 during a preliminary vote earlier this week.
A key issue of debate focuses on whether to use bonds — and how much — to finance the projects.
"There have been a lot of people from my side of the aisle concerned about debt," said Sen. Eric Moore, a Miles City Republican who is the lead sponsor of the Senate infrastructure bill. "This is a big lift. We're a big state, and we have trouble agreeing on what is responsible use of debt. And we even have trouble agreeing on what the definition of infrastructure is."
The Senate is proposing nearly $100 million in bonds, while the House version would finance $78 million in projects — up from $33 million from the House version introduced earlier this week.
There has been some movement on both sides — but there remains a wide gap. The $20 million difference could be a difficult to bridge.
"If they can find 67 votes in the House to support $78 million, and we're looking at that difference with my bill, we can solve it," Moore said.
Democrats know they have work to do to persuade Republican colleagues to support the measure.
"We're just trying to meet the bare minimum of projects around the state," said Democratic Rep. Jenny Eck of Helena, the House minority leader.
Differences over the overall cost of the package and how to finance the scores of projects — particularly high-ticket ones supported by Democrats and Gov. Steve Bullock — have long been sticking points. Democrats have insisted on using an infrastructure bill to fund a $25 million renovation of Montana State University's Romney Hall in Bozeman and a $10 million veterans' home in Butte.
Democrats offered a concession by removing a $27 million museum project in Helena from the bonding bill. The project has been a particularly sore point in previous negotiations.
Republicans have sought to focus spending on public works projects such as bridges, water systems and wastewater treatment facilities and have resisted projects such as the museum and spending money on government buildings.
The House put forward five bills that would use up to $213 million in cash payments to pay for scores of projects across the state.
Thursday's Senate vote was met with cautious optimism by Gov. Steve Bullock, Democrats and Republicans who say the state can't go without an infrastructure package for another legislative session.
"Montanans have waited too long for a bipartisan statewide infrastructure plan," said Governor Bullock. "The Legislature is one step closer to delivering infrastructure — and the thousands of good-paying jobs that come with it — to my desk. Now let's get this done."