HELENA — The House again Wednesday failed to come up with enough votes to approve a nearly $100 million bonding bill for construction of new state buildings across Montana.
Backers of the bill picked up five votes overnight Wednesday, but five more votes are needed to pave the way for the financing of the new buildings.
The vote on House Bill 439, by Rep. Galen Hollenbaugh, D-Helena, was 62-38, an improvement over the 57-43 margin Tuesday. The vote was on whether to accept the Senate amendments to the bonding bill. It takes a two-thirds supermajority votes in each house to authorize state to go into debt as it would by issuing bonds.
On another issue, House Democrats made another failed attempt to pass House Bill 13, by Rep. Cynthia Hiner, D-Deer Lodge, to give state employees a pay raise after many had their pay frozen the last two years.
The bill, negotiated by the Schweitzer administration and state employee unions, calls for giving a 1 percent raise in January 2012 and a 3 percent hike in January 13. Those making more than $45,000 have had a pay freeze the past two years, while those making less than $45,000 received a $450 payment.
The attempt to pass the pay bill by Rep. Sue Malek, D-Missoula, failed 58-39. It lost votes from Tuesday when it failed 58-42.
"I think the chances are slim to none at this point," Hiner said. "But it's never over till it's over."
The bonding bill figures to be the subject of intense lobbying until the Legislature adjourns later this week. Leading the effort were officials from the Montana University System and Montana Historical Society and such trade association groups as the Montana Contractors' Association and Montana Chamber of Commerce.
Later Wednesday, the House voted 54-42 to reconsider the bonding bill, a motion that took only a simple majority.
"So we have a short timeframe to see what we can do to nudge the next fives that we need to hit that two-thirds threshold," Hollenbaugh said.
He was optimistic about the chances.
"If I didn't think we could get them, I wouldn't reconsider," he said.
The five House members who switched from "no" votes Tuesday to "yes" votes on Wednesday were Reps, Elsie Arntzen, R-Billings, Christy Clark, R-Choteau, Cleve Loney, R-Great Falls, Joe Read, R-Ronan, and Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork.
"We're gaining, but it's pretty frustrating," said Cary Hegreberg, executive director of the Montana Contractors' Association. "This is a pretty big bill for the contractors of Montana. It's a lot of work, a lot of jobs, and we're very interested in seeing this bill pass."
Sheila Stearns, state commissioner of higher commissioner, said she's disappointed by the vote but remains hopeful. She said it's a good time to invest in the construction of the buildings with interest rates so low.
"It's just frustrating to me," she said. "It's such a great opportunity, and I can't believe we're going to miss it."
Part of the bonding money would go to help build a new museum in Helena for the Montana Historical Society.
Mike Cooney, interim director of the society, said, "We picked up a few, but I'm disappointed. This bill really meant a lot to a lot of people, not only to the Historical Society but also to education and the veterans. So to put these this much time and effort in it, only to get this far, only to have it reach this point, is very disappointing."
But Cooney, a former longtime lawmaker, said he knows that until the Legislature adjourns, things can happen.
"We'll be here to the end, and perhaps something will turn this around," he said, but added that "it's a big hill to climb."
Here are the projects that would be funded by the state issuing $97.8 million in bonds as provided in the bill:
-- Combined state laboratories (veterinary diagnostic lab, analytical lab and wildlife lab), $6.7 million.
-- Montana Historical Society museum, $23 million.
-- Montana State University-Billings, science and instruction tech building, $14.25 million.
-- MSU, classroom renovation, $2.5 million.
-- MSU, Montana agricultural experience stations, $1 million.
-- MSU-Great Falls College of Technology, agricultural and trades building, $4 million.
-- MSU-Northern, auto tech center, $7.9 million.
-- Southwestern Montana Veterans Home, Silver Bow County, $5 million.
-- University of Montana-Missoula College of Technology, new facility, $29 million.
-- UM-Western, main hall, $4.45 million.
The bonding couldn't occur unless the actual state tax collections for the fiscal year ending June 30 exceeds by $35 million the estimates for the year made by a bipartisan interim legislative committee in mid-November.