HELENA - The House voted Wednesday to accept Senate changes to a $100 million bonding bill to keep it alive.
In a rare move, 21 of the 68 Republicans spurned the plea of their majority leader, Rep. Tom McGillvray, R- Billings, to reject the Senate changes and send the bill to a conference committee to take another look at it.
The House voted 53-47 for the Senate changes to House Bill 439, by Rep. Galen Hollenbaugh, D-Helena. All 32 Democrats and the 21 Republicans voted to OK the Senate changes, while the other 47 Republicans voted "no."
HB439 now faces a final House vote Monday. Then it needs a two-thirds majority vote because it would create state debt by issuing bonds. If it gets the vote, HB439 will head to Gov. Brian Schweitzer's desk for his signature or veto.
Schweitzer said last summer that he opposed a bonding bill, but he has softened his opposition in recent months.
The bill would authorize the state to issue $97.8 million in bonds to construct some new buildings across Montana and repair others. A number of the new buildings would go on Montana University System campuses, including for colleges of technology. Other bonds would go toward building a new Montana Historical Society museum in Helena and a southwestern Montana veterans' home in Silver Bow County.
The House version of the bill provided that the bonding could take place only if the actual general tax collections and transfers for the budget year ending June 30 are at least $20 million more than the estimates made by a bipartisan legislative interim committee in November. The Senate upped that threshold to $35 million.
McGillvray urged representatives to reject the Senate change and send the bill to conference committee, where it could see updated revenue estimates.
When the state is proposing to issue $100 million of bonds, "we want to make sure we're doing the right thing," McGillvray said.
Agreeing was Rep. John Esp, R-Big Timber, who said: "This is a big step. We're contemplating borrowing $100 million."
However, Republican Rep. Duane Ankney of Colstrip, a retired coal miner, urged his colleagues to support the Senate amendments to the bill so it can pass.
"I've had nothing but support for this bill," Ankney said, referring to emails and phone calls he has received. "It's a jobs bill."
He said it would put Montanans to work by creating jobs for contractors, carpenters, heavy equipment operators, truck drivers, cement workers and a number of other trades.
Hollenbaugh warned that the only reason some lawmakers want to defeat the Senate amendments to HB439 and send it to conference committee was to raise the trigger to try to kill the bill.
He pointed out that HB439 has the support of the Montana Contractors Association, Montana Chamber of Commerce, Montana Building Industry Association and a host of other groups.
Hollenbaugh said the state chances of hitting the $35 million threshold are "50-50 at best."
The Helena lawmaker urged his colleagues to approve the Senate amendments to help return Montanans to work.