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Senate OKs funds for Northern automotive-diesel center


HELENA — The Montana Senate agreed in an initial vote Friday to authorize the state to borrow about $100 million for projects around the state, including $7.9 million for a major revamp to the automotive-diesel center at Montana State University-Northern.

The big bonding bill received a 36-14 vote, just clearing the two-thirds threshold required for the state to borrow money. If it passes a final vote, the measure will return to the House, which has approved a version of the bill.

Senators increased the economic trigger required to be met before the state can borrow the money and launch the projects. Supporters say the trigger ensures that revenues continue to improve enough to warrant the additional debt load, giving many Republicans assurances to vote for the measure.

Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, said the bill will be beneficial to the Hi-Line.

Every two or four years when we are out campaigning, we always say we are for education," he said after the session. "Here is our chance to prove it."

College officials that the existing building is outdated and in critical need of repair.

Fourteen Republicans joined the 22 Democrats in supporting the legislation. If the initial vote holds up on Monday, the bill will go to Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who is expected to sign it.

Opponents argued the state should not be borrowing money at all right now.

"This is goodies today, for payment tomorrow," said Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge. "Every Legislature that comes back here will have to figure out how to pay for what we get today."

Supporters argued the construction industry needs the boost in jobs. And they said the completed facilities will help train workers in various higher education and vocational programs to help build the economy in the future.

The measure has been backed by the construction industries, helping convince conservative Republicans who are often their ally that the bonding measure makes sense. Projects have been spread around the state in an effort to collect votes.

The largest is the long-delayed new museum building in Helena.

Others include a science and technology building at Montana State University-Billings for $14 million; $3.5 million for classroom renovation and agriculture experiment stations at Montana State University in Bozeman; $4 million for vocation and trade facilities at the Great Falls College of Technology; an $8 million auto tech center at Montana State University-Northern in Havre; a new $29 million facility at the Missoula College of Technology; $5 million for a new main hall at the university branch in Dillon; and $5 million for a veterans' home in Butte.

The measure moves ahead as lawmakers look to finalize spending plans in the coming days. House and Senate leaders expect to vote on the main budget bill, House Bill 2, early next week even though the governor has made it clear a veto is likely. Gov. Brian Schweitzer has been particularly critical of the way GOP leaders are abandoning about $100 million in federal money, largely for social programs aimed at helping the needy and elderly.

Republicans were able to move forward a very troubled companion bill that allows them to increase K-12 school funding. The 27-23 initial vote Friday in the Senate allows Republican budget crafters to hash out the final details of education spending with House leaders.


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