Bonding bill debate raises Northern funding questions
A renewed look at a bill to provide funding for state building construction — including a major new facility for Montana State University-Northern — is again under scrutiny, although local legislators say they believe Northern's building will stay in the mix.
House Speaker Mike Milburn said Saturday that, while a budget agreement the Republican leadership reached with Gov. Brian Schweitzer Friday is conservative and makes passage of the bonding bill more likely, there still is talk of trimming that bill, now at nearly $100 million.
Greg Kegel, dean of Northern's College of Technical Sciences, said this morning that he believes there is widespread support for Northern's building project, but that he is concerned with any changes to the bill.
"I believe the only problem is, if they slice-and-dice that bill up, it will fail to pass, " he said.
After years of fighting for construction of a new building to house Northern's automotive technology and diesel technology programs, both among the best-rated in the nation, another struggle came up this legislative session to fund that construction.
The project, included in Schweitzer's proposed budget, originally was left out of the bonding bill.
Rep. Tony Belcourt, D-Box Elder, proposed an amendment to add the $7.9 million project to the bill, and with support of Hi-Line legislators including Havre's Republican Reps. Wendy Warburton and Kris Hansen and Sens. Rowlie Hutton, R-Havre, and Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, the bill passed both houses with the Northern project included.
The House voted last week to reconsider a Senate amendment upping the requirement that the state revenue exceed estimates to $35 million. Warburton and Hansen voted to reconsider, while Belcourt voted against the motion.
Opponents of the motion said the $35 million requirement would easily be met, and the motion was made simply as a bargaining tool in the legislative process this session.
Windy Boy said this morning that he is disheartened by the deal-making going on. After fighting almost all session to refuse federal funding for programs in Montana, the legislative leadership finally agreed Friday to include that money. Windy Boy said that kind of deal-making happens in the last days of every session. The reconsideration of the bonding bill is the same kind of deal-making, he said, on projects that would provide jobs in the state.
"This is a no-brainer, " he said. "The mantra all session long has been jobs, jobs, jobs. That's what gets me, is how much politics is being played at this time every session. "
Hutton said Monday that he believes the education portions of the bill will be in the final version.
"Those that seem to be targeted are the non-education projects, " he said.
The bill now includes, along with the Northern project, funding for construction at Montana State University in Bozeman; Montana State University-Billings; University of Montana-Western; the Montana State University College of Technology in Great Falls; and the University of Montana College of Technology in Missoula. The non-education construction projects are at the combined state veterinary, analytical and wildlife laboratories; the Montana Heritage Center in Helena; and the Southwestern Montana Veterans Home in Silver Bow County.
Hansen said Monday that Northern's building, in particular, should be fairly safe.
"I know that most Republicans are very much impressed with the Northern program and would be more likely to vote yes if the bill was smaller and still included Havre, " she said.
Hutton said the Hi-Line legislators have been working to gain support for the Northern project, including organizing meetings with, testimony by and letters from Northern officials and industry supporters.
"We have done our homework and worked hard to keep the project at MSU-N in front of the House and Senate, " he said. "I will make a point to visit with Speaker Milburn. "
Kegel also said he is confident the Northern project still will be in the bill. That is especially true as the project already has gone through the planning and development process and can have a good impact on workforce development, he said.
"The building is ready to go, it just needs the funding, " he said.
But Kegel said cutting any of the projects would hurt support for the bill, which will require approval by two-thirds of the legislators to pass. The bill now includes projects from numerous communities in the state, which would create jobs in those communities.
"I guess that's what my biggest concern is you take one thing out of one area (you will) lose those votes, " he said.
He said all of the projects will benefit their regions and the state, without having any impact on the federal deficit, which seems to be a major concern by some legislators this session.
The state should take advantage of a period of low bond rates, and being a little bit in the black, to push all of the projects forward, Kegel said.
"I think it's a great bill and moves the state forward …, " he said. "These buildings are assets. "
Warburton and Belcourt did not respond by deadline to a request for comment from the Havre Daily News.