HELENA — The House took a step Wednesday designed to make it easier to secure legislative passage of nearly $100 million for the proposed construction of new and renovated state buildings.
It agreed to move all $75.5 million worth of university system and other construction projects that were to be financed by bonds in House Bill 14 into a different bill, where they would be paid for instead by cash.
The measure includes $10 million (plus $5 million in matching funds) to modernize a science building and labs at Montana State University Billings.
So the money to pay for new and renovated buildings is now in HB5, which is the state’s long-range building program.
The House will take a final vote on the bill before sending it to the Senate.
A committee last week did the same thing with $23 million intended to go toward construction of a new Montana Historical Society museum building by moving it from HB14 to HB5.
The net effect of the change is that it will take just a simple majority vote in the 100-member House and 50-member Senate to approve these projects. In contrast, a two-thirds majority vote would have been required under the bonding bill.
Backers of the projects were worried about the difficulty of getting the two-thirds votes to pass them.
A similar bonding bill failed in 2011 when it was unable to obtain the super-majority votes in the final House vote on Senate amendments.
On Wednesday, Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, made the motion to move the HB14 projects to HB5.
Agreeing was HB14 sponsor, Rep. Galen Hollenbaugh, D-Helena, who said, “This appears to be a decent compromise to move Montana forward.”
It passed 90-10.
Then Rep. David “Doc” Moore, R-Missoula, tried to strip from the bill the money for the construction of a new Missoula College building because of the local controversy over plans to build it on what’s now a University of Montana golf course.
“The Missoulians I have talked to all express the public sentiment that has all but been ignored by the UM administration,” Moore said. They believe “it’s a done deal and you have no say.”
Moore criticized UM’s failure to consider reasonable alternatives for the site of the proposed new buildings.
“The debate isn’t about a building,” Moore said. “It’s about the community. It’s about what’s best for Missoula 50, 100 years from now.”
Rep. Champ Edmunds, R-Missoula, disagreed. He said UM President Royce Engstrom testified before a committee and assured legislators that due process had taken place in Missoula.
“It’s not our job as legislators to tell them where to put it,” Edmunds said. “It’s our job to put up the money.”
Edmunds said there are no shortages of other places to play golf in Missoula.
Moore said it’s not about disagreeing with project, but the process.
“This is headed to litigation,” he said.
Moore’s amendment failed 40-60.
Then the House endorsed the amended HB5 75-25. It faces a final House vote before advancing to the Senate.
Earlier Wednesday, Hollenbaugh said HB14 will be amended to provide a contingency that if HB5 is defeated later, these construction projects will go back into HB14, where they will be financed by bonds as originally proposed.
State Architect Tom O’Connell said later Wednesday that HB5 now contains a total of $228 million, with the additional projects, funded by a variety of sources.
If HB5 passes as amended, it would further lower state’s projected ending fund balance in mid-2015 by $75.5 million.
A legislative status sheet earlier this week showed the projected ending fund balance was at $227.6 million. So the action Wednesday would drop the projected balance to $152.1 million.
Gov. Steve Bullock has said he wants the Legislature to leave an ending fund balance of at least a $300 million as of mid-2015.