Senate tables construction project cash plan, with hope to revive bonding bill

A committee of State Senators has tabled a bill which would have provided for about $100 million in state construction projects—many of them on state University campuses. The bill tabled by the Senate Finance and Claims committee paid for those projects with cash. They were all removed from a bonding bill proposal that died in the House.

There are still efforts in the legislature to get those buildings built.

The motion to table this mammoth Long Range Building Program in the Senate Finance Committee passed 17-3—widely bipartisan. In total, this bill has about $230 million in construction funds from a variety of sources. But about $100 million would have paid for projects that used to be in the state bonding bill. Projects ranging from a new Montana Historical Society building to the new Missoula College. The Long Range Building Program would have paid for these projects with cash out of the state’s general fund.

But looking at how the state budget looks now, Representative Rob Cook (R-Conrad) says “In truthfulness, there isn’t enough cash to cash all the projects.”

He describes why he thinks the committee almost unanimously tabled these Construction projects both sides of the aisle claim to want as “a last desperate measure to try to put together a budget that includes at least some cash projects and some bonding projects.” 

Many Republicans don’t like the idea of bonding—taking loans out for the buildings. They want to pay up front. That’s why they took all the projects out and put them in the cash plan. Two Tribal Water Compacts were all that were left in the bonding bill. Representative Cook still wanted the bonding plan to stay alive and make it over to the Senate just in case.

But it didn’t, bonding proposals take a two-thirds vote of a legislative chamber—and even the eviscerated bonding bill couldn’t swing it. Now there isn’t enough money to pay for them with cash.

So when Cook calls this a last desperate measure, here’s the scenario he’s talking about:

Senate Finance tables the cash plan, then tries again to work with the House to muster the two-thirds vote required to bring the bonding bill back to life and another two-thirds vote to send it over. Then Senate Finance revives the cash plan, then they have both.

“That is the idea, to put both vehicles in Senate Finance and Claims so they can see what the cash balance is,” said Rep. Galen Hollenbaugh (D-Helena), maybe putting some back into bonding, maybe keep others in the cash plan.

Legislators could remove projects too—and some are trying to remove the contentious Missoula College project. Senator Eric Moore (R-Miles City), he’s the one that brought forward the move to table the bill.

He’s not a fan of moving anything back to a bonding program, but he says at this point in the session—it’s tough to know what’s going to happen.

“This is where things start to happen really fast so nothing’s ever completely dead, nothing’s ever completely certain until we Sine Die, pound the gavel and the Governor signs it,” he said.

The Legislature is scheduled to wrap up April 27th.

What the state pay plan looks like now, and what’s next

Representative Galen Hollenbaugh (D-Helena)

Representative Galen Hollenbaugh (D-Helena)

Lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee passed an amended version of the State Pay Plan (HB13) over the weekend.

As Lee Newspapers Reporter Chuck Johnson writes, the bill “no longer provides for any across-the-board percentage pay hikes for state employees.”

Rather than approving a plan giving a five percent raise this and next year to all state employees, the pay play now gives a lump sum of money to the Governor’s office to renegotiate raise amounts with labor unions. It also strips about $38 million from the plan negotiated between former Governor Brian Schweitzer and those unions, from about $152 Million to $114 Million.

Representative Steve Gibson (R-East Helena)

Representative Steve Gibson (R-East Helena)

“What it basically says is ‘sorry Executive, you don’t really have any power to negotiate. We’ll hand you some money and you have to go back out and negotiate with the money that we’ve given you,” said Representative Galen Hollenbaugh (D-Helena). He sits on the Appropriations Committee and joined all Democrats in opposing the bill.

“If we wouldn’t have gotten the bill out of here Saturday, It probably would have been tabled,” said Representative Steve Gibson (R-East Helena) who brought the amendment to the pay plan on Saturday. Gibson had moved to pass the original pay plan to the House Floor, and was the only Republican to vote for that in House Appropriations. The motion failed and Gibson says this change to the bill was needed to get Republican support.
“I did not want to see this die,” Gibson said. “I do not want to walk away from here again and see these people that deserve a raise not get one.” Gibson notes the pay plan now gives the Governor discretion to give higher percentage raises to those in lower pay brackets, and perhaps lower raises to those who have received raises in broadband pay over the last few years. He also says the bill still preserves a ten percent increase to health insurance each of the next two years.
“I think Representative Gibson has done his best to keep this pay plan bill, House Bill 13, moving forward,” said Eric Feaver, President of the state’s largest public employee union, the MEA-MFT. Feaver says the objective now is to pass the bill out of the House as amended, then try to add some more money back into the bill when it heads over to the Senate Finance and Claims Committee.

Why Democrats didn’t fight for family planning money on the House floor

HollenbaughRepresentative Galen Hollenbaugh (D-Helena) said the shock of Tuesday’s unanimous House budget vote still hadn’t worn off even after the body took their final, and again unanimous, vote to send it to the Senate on Wednesday.

Members of both parties agreed not to bring up the dozens of proposed amendments to the $9 billion budget plan, letting discussions over those move to the Senate.

Supporters of some of those amendments outside of the legislature are crying foul, and one gaining much of the attention would have added back about $4.5 million dollars in federal money back into the budget to be used for family planning services. A Republican-dominated subcommittee removed that money earlier in the budget process because some of the money goes to support Planned Parenthood of Montana. Planned Parenthood of Montana does provide abortion services, but none of the federal money has been used to that end–in accordance with the law.

Democratic House members who spoke firmly and frequently in support of restoring those funds were silent when the chance came to bring that amendment to the budget debate Tuesday.

“We were disappointed at the failure of the House as a whole to at least have an open discussion,” said Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana Communications Director Lindsay Love. She calls the House budget vote the result of “backdoor dealings that have dominated the budget process this session.” She says the transparency of the process does matter.

“The transparency of the process does matter and Montanans who are watching or listening in from their home communities who care about these programs to be able to see what’s going on up front and out in the open I think is very important,” Love said.

Rep. Hollenbaugh says the budget vote was not crafted in backrooms, but through open discussion between the parties. He’s the Vice Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, which puts together the main budget bill (HB2), and says he first pitched the idea of putting the budget through without amendments.

“We’re not letting the perfect get in the way of the good,” he said, “because this budget has an awful lot of very good items in it.” He says the risk for the Democratic side was if one amendment was brought up on the heavily Republican House Floor, all the other proposed amendments would probably follow suit–many of which would have cut resources.

“Rather than take that chance on the House Floor, The Appropriations Committee and leadership were looking at it and saying ‘We actually have a very good product here and we can be comfortable in sending that over to the Senate.”

“the good will…engendered by moving the budget in a unanimous fashion as we work with the Senate is to say look there’s lot’s of agreement,” Hollenbaugh said, and “that we would look for inclusions of very few things.”

And of course, he said, the family planning money is one of those very few things.