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.

Governor’s pension fix and 401K proposal both move forward

Pension Joint Select Committee Chair Dave Lewis (R-Helena), right, and committee member Rob Cook (R-Conrad)

Pension Joint Select Committee Chair Dave Lewis (R-Helena), right, and committee member Rob Cook (R-Conrad)

The Joint-Select Committee on Pensions has had a tough job the last few months– wading through the complex budget shortfall facing the state’s largest retirement systems. Over the next 30 years, those funds will end up more than $4 billion in debt if nothing is done.

When the committee first started meeting, it was mentioned that the committee would try to put forth one, encompassing bill to fix the pensions, combining what they liked from the 18 different bills presented to them. But as discussions moved forward, it became clear the group of eight Republicans and four Democrats were considering two main, and opposing, ideas.

  • Governor Steve Bullock’s proposal: This plan, modified from a plan put forth by former Governor Brian Schweitzer, would keep the current ‘defined benefit’ retirement systems in place for future employees. It would attempt to fix the plans by requiring employees put more of their money into the retirement systems, requiring employers put in more money, and then pulling some money in from state trust lands. The Governor’s plan is being carried by Representative Bill McChesney (D-Miles City). It’s HB454
  • A ‘Defined Contribution’ model: This moves all future employees to ‘defined contribution’ plans, which are similar to 401(k) retirement plans used widely in the private sector. The idea has largely been spearheaded by Committee Chair Senator Dave Lewis (R-Helena) who says the current model is unsustainable in the long-term. Lewis’s ideas were modified into HB338 carried by Representative Keith Regier (R-Kalispell). This proposal would pay for current pension funds from other sources.

Ultimately, the joint-select committee decided to pass both ideas on to the House Appropriations Committee. Chair Lewis says he has received criticism for not settling on one bill, but he says the two main ideas are in too stark opposition to combine.

“You can’t meld those,” he said. “These are policy choices the Legislature’s going to have to make.”

Republican Legislator proposes bills to bring some light to dark money

Representative Rob Cook (R-Conrad)

Representative Rob Cook (R-Conrad)

Representative Rob Cook (R-Conrad) has introduced two bills he calls a “necessary first step on the long road to true campaign reform.”

After the deluge of anonymous political spending in the 2012 election, campaign finance has become a top issue of the 2013 Legislature.

Representative Cook’s bills are modest compared to other reforms suggested by lawmakers. His first bill (HB254) would require election materials such as flyers to include disclaimers if they were paid for with anonymous funds through Political Action Committees.

As it stands, the disclaimer would look like this:

“This communication has been funded by anonymous sources. It is the responsibility of the voter to determine the veracity of the statements being made and the true character of the organization behind this communication.”

Representative Cook says he is amenable to making that disclaimer shorter.

Cook’s second bill (HB255) would require certain PACs to submit expense summaries to the Commissioner of Political Practices detailing money spent opposing or supporting candidates or issues. The Commissioner would then make this report public and offer it to the donors to that particular PAC.

Cook cited the dark-money group American Tradition Partnership as an example of the organizations about which he is trying to find more information.

“I wanna know where you played, who you played against or for, and how much you spent,” Cook said.
State Director of Right to Life Montana Greg Trude opposes both bills.
“Is this going to absolutely make it so someone like ATP is going to disclose,” Trude said about Cook’s first bill. “Or is somebody going to have to hunt them down. It’s going to be a big waste of time as far as I’m concerned.”
He also argued both bills unfairly encroach on First Amendment rights. No action was taken on either bill Monday.

Missoula College most contentious project in bonding bill

A University of Montana handout showing a rendering of the proposed new Missoula College building

A University of Montana handout showing a rendering of the proposed new Missoula College building

The Montana Legislature is looking at a nearly $100 million dollar bonding bill (HB14) to fund a dozen construction projects at colleges and other state departments. These range from renovating Main Hall at the University of Montana-Western in Dillon to constructing a new Montana Historical Society building.

The single project in the bonding bill   generating the most opposition is building a new Missoula College facility (formerly known as the Missoula COT) on the current University of Montana golf course.

“The last best open space in Missoula just happens to be a golf course,” Missoula resident Lewis Schneller told a bonding bill hearing of the Joint Appropriations Subcommittees on Education and Long Range Planning. Schneller echoed the sentiments of several bill opponents in preferring the a new Missoula College be built instead west of town at the site known as Fort Missoula.
College officials say the current facility built for 700 students is woefully inadequate to serve the 2,500 students currently attending school there. Missoula resident Cindy Reimers says most of the people she talks to agree a new facility is badly needed but “only about one in a hundred people I speak to want it at the new location being chosen by the University.”

University of Montana President Royce Engstrom says building on the golf course, otherwise known as “South Campus” is a proposal “thinking about the future of the University of Montana as a whole.” He says Missoula College is the next building that needs to be built, but UM has outgrown the main ‘Mountain Campus’ and other projects will need a space. He points out the UM golf course is less than a mile away from the main campus, versus the six to seven miles it takes to reach Fort Missoula.

“Where does the next building go, does it go in Fort Missoula?” Engstrom asked the committee. “Does it go at South Campus? Does is go along the River? That’s a very inefficient way to design and plan for the long term future of this institution, the University of Montana that is so important to Missoula and so important to the state of Montana.”

Similar bonding bills failed the previous two legislative sessions. Long Range Planning Subcommittee Chair Representative Rob Cook (R-Conrad) thinks there is “consensus the projects are necessary.” But he says there may not be consensus on approving bonding loans for all of the projects versus paying for them with cash from the state’s budget surplus. He does hope to see all of the projects stay together in one bill, however.

“Once you start to separate projects then the likelihood of that project actually getting funded and getting the go ahead is significantly reduced. The goal would be to keep as many of these together as possible,” he said.