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Mont. Senate OKs $7.9 million 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."

Sen. Rowlie Hutton, R-Havre, voted for the bill, but with less enthusiasm. He said he favored the building projects for educational institutions, but not in favor of some of the other projects.

"This was a tough vote for me," he said.

But Hutton said he had promised Greg Kegel, dean of the College of Technical Sciences, and outgoing Chancellor Frank Trocki that he would work to win approval for the building, "so I placed my vote for Northern."

College officials maintain that the existing building is outdated and in critical need of replacement.

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.


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