HELENA -- By a thin margin Friday, the Senate mustered the two-thirds majority needed for a bill authorizing the state to sell nearly $100 million worth of bonds for construction of new state buildings around the state if state revenues hit a certain trigger.
Most of the $97.8 million in bonding money would be spent on new university system buildings, a new Montana Historical Society museum and pay for part of the costs of a new veterans' home in Silver Bow County.
House Bill 439, by Rep. Galen Hollenbaugh, D-Helena, passed the Senate on a preliminary vote of 36-14. Twenty-two Democrats and 14 Republicans voted for the bill, while 14 Republicans opposed it.
The 36 votes for HB439 were two more votes than were required to achieve the super majority. The Montana Constitution requires a two-thirds vote by both the House and Senate for the state to go into debt.
HB439 will face a final Senate vote next week.
The Senate made one change that Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, said he added to the bill that the House will probably reject. That would send the bill into a conference committee to iron out the differences.
The original bill provided that the bonding can occur only if the actual general fund tax collections and transfers for the fiscal year ending June 30 exceed by at least $20 million the estimates made by a bipartisan interim committee in November 2010. In committee, Lewis successfully upped the threshold to $35 million.
Senate Minority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula, called the bonding an investment in the future for Montana's children.
She talked about how the early Montanans raised money to invest in buildings for the future.
"They knew they were doing it for history," she said. "I ask you to make that same investment today and make that investment on behalf of all the children."
Opponents, however, argued that passage of HB439 would put the state further in debt.
Sen. Joe Balyeat, R-Bozeman, said Montana is already $3.4 billion in debt, or the equivalent of $14,000 for every family of four in the state.
He called bonding "an easy way" around the balanced budget requirement in the Montana Constitution.
"You can deficit spend as long as you're doing it on long-term debt," Balyeat said.
Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge, said that if the projects are worthwhile, the Legislature should appropriate the money in full for them in the budget and not go in debt.
"This is goodies today for payments tomorrow," he said.
But Sen. Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish, spoke on behalf of the bonding bill. He said it would create needed jobs to construct the buildings, plus offer modern facilities to train Montanans.
"I'm sorry we have to borrow money to do it," he said. But he told the senators that their predecessors borrowed the money to build a statehouse, and Montana now has "a beautiful Capitol."
Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, said the bill would fund good construction projects throughout the state.
"I think this is a good investment in Montana and for our dilapidated buildings in the state," he said.
But Sen. Greg Hinkle, R-Thompson Falls, warned that the state can't afford to keep going in debt.
"This train has to stop somewhere," he said. "If we don't throw on the brakes, I personally believe we are headed for a train wreck."
Sen. Bob Hawks, D-Bozeman, referring to a old building at Montana State University Billings, said, "You cannot train people in science in a building that was built in 1947."
Here are the projects that would be funded 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 experiment 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.