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Northern building plan moves ahead

A long-delayed project at Montana State University-Northern may be moving forward, with the Montana House of Representatives Friday approving an appropriations bill that spends some $180 million on construction projects.

Greg Kegel, dean of Northern's College of Technical Sciences, said this morning that he is pleased the project to build a new automotive and diesel technology building has gotten this far, although he had hoped the matching requirement for Havre's university would be reduced.

"It makes us a little nervous, where we're going to go to get 3 million," he said.

The construction appropriations bill, House Bill 5, passed the House on a 72-27 vote Friday, with all of this area's members of the House — Reps. Wendy Warburton, R-Chinook, Kris Hansen, R-Havre, Rep. Roy Hollandsworth, R-Brady, and Clarena Brockie, D-Harlem, — voting for the bill.

It passed the Senate, which had amended the original House bill, on a 30-20 vote with Sens. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, and Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, both voting for the bill.

Chancellor Jim Limbaugh thanked the legislative support for the project, including Rep. Mike Lang, R-Malta, working to make sure it was included, and voting for the bill.

"Montana State University-Northern appreciates deeply the support exhibited by the Legislature through the appropriation of $4.9 million for our auto-diesel center," Limbaugh said this morning.

"We also want to thank specifically Sens. Jergeson and Windy Boy and Representatives Warburton, Hansen, and Lang for their advocacy on our behalf. We are now partnering with the (MSU-Northern) Foundation to begin our campaign to raise the additional $3 million needed to make this important addition to our campus a reality," Limbaugh added.

This is the second straight attempt to find funding for the building, which has a $7.9 million price tag listed out of a study approved in 2007. A bill last session, which failed to pass, would have provided the entire amount through sale of state bonds.

It was included in this year's bonding bill, but then the Legislature shifted funding for some $100 million in construction, including Northern's facility, from the bonding bill to an appropriations bill that would pay cash, against the opposition of the governor's office.

Judy Beck, spokeswoman for Gov. Steve Bullock, said this morning that the bill does address significant needs, although the governor supports bonding for many of the projects.

"Montana has significant infrastructure needs all across the state," Beck said. "They range from the impacts of the oil and gas boom in the eastern counties, to our university and two-year college campuses that, frankly, are not up to the standards required to produce graduates ready for jobs in the 21st century.

"Given Montana's solid fiscal position, interest rates that are at historic lows, and our sterling bond rating, issuing bonds is by far the most efficient way to fund these projects," Beck said.

The bill authorizes $7.9 million to build the facility to house Northern's automotive, diesel and farm mechanics technology programs, and appropriates $4.9 million for construction, leaving Northern to raise the remaining $3 million.

Kegel said the new building is essential for the growth of the programs.

The university has made five additions to the building in the last 40 years — and Kegel has said it didn't meet code when the first construction was done nearly 70 years ago.

He said the new building is needed for what the university hopes to do with the programs, which have seen significant growth over the last three years.

"We're hoping to move it to the whole next level," he said.

The project has been stop-and-go for more than five years, and three legislative sessions.

The Legislature in 2007 approved spending $800,000 for planning and design for the building. Gov. Brian Schweitzer then cut part of that appropriation, but the university was able to find ways to complete that process despite the cut.

The design would create a completely modern, state-of-the-art facility.

In the contentious 2011 legislative session, funding for the building went back and forth. It first was left out of the state bonding bill, then $7.9 million was added for Northern's project and it passed the House.

It also passed the Senate, with amendments, but then failed to pass the House as amended, with legislators saying the price tag — some $98 million total for the bill — was too high in a session where the majority talked about a likely budget shortfall.

This session, after the state's ending fund balance ended higher than was projected by Schweitzer — more than $400 million left after spending — conservative lawmakers have said the state shouldn't be borrowing money when it has cash in the bank.

Lt. Gov. John Walsh, in an April 10 interview with the Havre Daily, said it is the perfect time for the state to borrow money for construction.

With interest rates at a near all-time low for government borrowing, bonding the projects would free up revenue for a cash reserve and other projects at a low cost to the state, while also building the state government's credit rating, Walsh said.


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