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Montana Gov. Steve Bullock

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, left, shares laughs with Gary Forrester, of MDU Resources, and Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. They were attending the Big Sky Energy Forum at the Crowne Plaza. 

Gov. Steve Bullock on Wednesday defended his veto of a bill that would have provided up to $15 million in financial assistance to Eastern Montana counties feeling the effects of rapid energy development.

Speaking at the Big Sky Energy Forum in Billings, Bullock said he was forced to veto House Bill 218, and many other bills as well, to preserve a general-fund surplus of around $300 million by 2015. Another goal heading into the 2013 session was to not spend more money than the state takes in, Bullock said.

“House Bill 218 is like a number of bills that, unfortunately, we had to veto,” Bullock said after delivering the keynote address at the energy conference.

That doesn’t mean Eastern Montana, which is feeling the socioeconomic effects of an oil boom, will be left high and dry, Bullock said.

Counties facing the effects of energy development will receive more than $22 million from Senate Bill 175, which provided more money for education; $16 million from the Treasure State Endowment Program is being funneled to Eastern Montana to pay for infrastructure; water projects will be fully funded; and an additional $5 million in transportation funding is also heading toward the region, Bullock said.

“We did put real money in,” he said. “Would I like to do more? Yes.”

Bullock said a bill to fund buildings by issuing bonds would have also benefited energy-producing regions, but the Legislature decided against that option.

Many Republicans criticized Bullock after he vetoed 71 bills earlier this week.

Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, who sponsored House Bill 218, expressed disappointment.

“When I hear the governor saying the budget was being shorted, the revenue estimates show we would still have a $287 million ending fund balance in 2015 and a $17 million structural balance,” Ankney said. “These are really not making sense to me. I’m sure he’s getting his information from his budget director, but it sure is going to raise havoc with Eastern Montana.”

Bainville, Culbertson, Glendive and Miles City are all feeling major impacts from energy development in Eastern Montana and western North Dakota, but they have no money to pay for pressing infrastructure needs, Ankney said.

“I work very well with the governor and I have a lot of respect for him, but I just don’t see where he’s coming from,” Ankney said. “These are not make-or-break for the budget.”

Bullock said he didn’t think he would have to veto as many bills as he did.

Heading into the session, Bullock said he reassured legislators that when he took out his veto pen, it would be for fiscal reasons, not personal.

Yet the Legislature left around 200 bills on Bullock’s desk and left town, which eliminated the possibility of negotiating with lawmakers through amendatory vetoes.

“I wasn’t happy that the Legislature left town without adequately doing their one job, and that’s passing a balanced budget,” Bullock said.

Despite his disagreements with legislators, energy issues remained “front and center” during the 2013 session, Bullock said.

Bills making it easier to move wide loads and permit gravel pits were approved. “We expanded the scope of our renewable portfolio to include new hydro power projects, and upgrades to existing hydro projects will also receive renewable energy credits,” Bullock said.

Bullock said Montana will continue to be a major player in the coal industry, and the wind industry has undergone tremendous growth in the past five years.

Bullock said his priorities for the next four years include expanding and diversifying Montana’s energy sector.

 “We can boost the responsible development of fossil fuels to meet current demand,” Bullock said.

He reiterated his support for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The proposed pipeline would cross Eastern Montana and is designed to transport oil from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf Coast. But Montanans have also insisted the pipeline include an “on-ramp” to transport crude from the Bakken region.

In an earlier breakout session, an official from TransCanada, the pipeline's developer, said he's hopeful that construction on the pipeline will begin later this year after final approval by the federal government.

Bullock expects more success from the state's energy industry.

"As we educate future generations of scientists and business leaders, I’m more than optimistic that we’ll see an energy future that provides so many great opportunities for that next generation,” Bullock said.  



Editor of Billings Business, a publication of The Billings Gazette.