What a difference a couple of weeks or even a few days makes in positions of Montana lawmakers. Over a weekend, two leaders of the Senate, Billings Republicans Taylor Brown and Jeff Essmann, switched from supporting a state jobs and infrastructure bill to opposing the legislation.
House Bill 439 survived because two other Republicans changed their votes from “nay” to “yea.”
Back in the House, where HB439 had garnered 72 votes on March 25, only 53 voted in favor last week.
Republican House leaders, including Speaker Mike Milburn of Cascade, Majority Leader Tom McGillvray of Billings and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Walt McNutt of Sidney, all voted against the bill after voting for it on March 25.
Today, April 18, could bring the final vote on the only viable legislation to directly create thousands of Montana jobs in the upcoming biennium. HB439 needs a two-thirds majority of the 100 representatives to pass.
The infrastructure projects and the jobs they would create are the same now as when the House approved the bill on March 25. The 1947 Montana State University Billings science building needs upgrading and expansion. The overcrowded College of Technology in Missoula requires larger, permanent quarters. Consolidating state agriculture labs and taking care of deferred maintenance at Montana Agriculture Experiment Stations still makes sense. However, this bonding bill is in danger of becoming a political hostage. That would be a shame, because HB439 previously passed both chambers with bipartisan two-thirds majorities. Hearings drew diverse proponents, including Montana Farm Bureau, Montana AFL-CIO and Montana Chamber of Commerce. Projects proposed in HB439 would put Montanans to work in Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Dillon, Great Falls, Havre, Helena, Missoula and elsewhere in this great state. The long-term benefits would be substantial: university facilities to prepare students for 21st-century jobs, the long-planned expansion of the state Historical Society Museum, a nursing home dedicated to southwest Montana veterans, and improvements in agriculture research resources statewide. This infrastructure would continue to serve Montanans long after the 20-year bonds are repaid.
The authors of HB439 wrote in a provision ensuring that the proposed bonds would be sold only if the state’s revenue increases. Initially, the bill said that the proposed $97 million in 20-year bonds could be sold only if revenue for the fiscal year ending June 30 is $2 million more than a legislative committee predicted in January. The bill was amended in the House to boost that trigger to $20 million and again in the Senate to set it at $35 million.
If the House rejects the Senate amendment, the bill would go to a conference committee that could set the trigger even higher or hold up the bill as leverage for votes on other bills.
With a $35 million over-estimate trigger, chances of bonds being issued are “50-50 at best,” HB439 sponsor Galen Hollenbaugh, D-Helena, told The Gazette State Bureau.
Don’t let those odds get worse. Don’t let this opportunity for investing in education and creating jobs slip away.
Lawmakers, please listen to your constituents.
Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, summed up the proponents’ argument well for his House colleagues last week, saying: “I’ve had nothing but support for this bill. It’s a jobs bill.”
We call on all lawmakers to focus on the importance of investing in Montana’s people and infrastructure. The good reasons for supporting HB439 in March are reason to vote its final passage this week.