A local legislator said during a video conference Tuesday that it sounds like prospects for a new building at the local university looked good after a hearing on the state bonding bill.
Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, said legislators and people testifying seem to support building a new facility at Montana State University-Northern to house its diesel, automotive and farm mechanics programs.
“The word I got is it was a great hearing (Monday) …, ” he said. “There wasn’t anybody that seemed to have any quibbles about the project at MSU-Northern, the diesel building. ”
Jergeson and Reps. Wendy Warburton, R-Chinook, and Kris Hansen, R-Havre, participated in the video conference from Helena, sponsored each week by the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce and Havre Public Schools. The video conference is normally held in the Robins School administration building on 5th Avenue and 6th Street.
Warburton said the legislators need to find funding for another program at Northern, the Bio-Energy Center. The $400,000 the state has been appropriating for that program has been left out of the budget, as it was in 2011, she said. Local legislators were able to add the funding during that session.
“We’re going to have to
try to get that money in again, ” she said.
Paul Tuss, a member of the state Board of Regents of Higher Education and the executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp., said that $400,000 has become the base funding for the lab, which is doing work including developing technology to produce biodiesel and patenting a process to make jet fuel out of camelina seeds, which can be grown right in north-central Montana. It would be difficult to continue working at the level the lab is now without that funding, he said.
“Anything you can do to keep that up would be greatly appreciated, ” Tuss said.
Hansen said, since it was Gov. Steve Bullock who left the money out of his budget proposal, any help Tuss and other local residents can give to the Bio-Energy Center funding would be appreciated by the legislators.
Tuss also said any support the legislators can raise for the bonding bill would be appreciated.
The $8-million Northern project initially was left out of the the bonding bill proposed in the 2011 Legislature, but local legislators successfully added it later.
That bill failed to pass. The building was included in this year’s bonding bill.
Jergeson said the committee has yet to take any action on the bill, and it still requires Northern to raise $3 million of the price tag, something Chancellor Jim Limbaugh has said needs to be reduced.
“I agree that a $3 million match is a little high, ” Jergeson said, adding that he helped raise the $2 million match required to build the Applied Technology Center at Northern last decade.
“That’s a big task for a small campus like ours, ” he said.
Jergeson said he will look for ways to reduce the required match for Northern, adding that other sources such as the cash program in the state’s long-range building plans that might be able to help.
Hansen warned that, although she and the other local legislators support the bill and Northern’s project, it could be a tough sell.
“I have to be frank, here, ” she said. “This is another $100 million worth of debt. The state currently carries something in the range of $3 billion in debt … and asking for debt when there is $400 million in the ending fund balance is going to be a hurdle. ”
She said she talked to Montana State University President Waded Cruzado last summer and asked about making smaller requests for single projects, rather than a massive bonding bill.
“That appears to be flatly rejected again, ” Hansen said. “Understand that we support Northern’s project, but it is not going to be a cakewalk to get it passed. ”
Tuss said the people who put together the bill knew it wouldn’t be easy to pass — he said he hopes it does receive strong bipartisan support as it passes through the House and Senate — but they put together a proposal they thought would make sense.
The bill would provide an estimated 2,400-2,500 construction jobs in the state, he added.
“I’m not sure if we start parsing out different projects, buildings, from the overall bill, if that makes sense politically, ” Tuss said. “Only you folks would know that. I’m not sure if that makes sense or not. ”
He said many of the arguments being raised also were raised in the 2011 session, and that he understands the argument about increasing state debt.
“We also know interest is probably the lowest it ever will be, ” Tuss added.