By Matt Volz Associated Press

HELENA (AP) – Debate on Gov. Steve Bullock’s $293 million public works package began Friday, with state officials, contractors, students and union representatives urging lawmakers to fund the projects despite Montana’s current budget crunch.

A legislative budget panel opened a hearing on a bond measure sponsored by Rep. Jim Keane, R-Butte, that is a major part of the governor’s package. The bill’s projects include repairs to roads, bridges, water systems and wastewater systems across the state. It also includes school maintenance and building projects.

The bond bill would cover $157 million worth of projects, and the overall package would be paid for with a mix of cash and bonds.

Similar infrastructure packages were vetoed by Bullock in 2013 and rejected by the Legislature in 2015. That stalled some upgrades needed across the state, particularly in eastern Montana, where North Dakota’s Bakken oil boom brought more people to the area and strained the infrastructure there.

Bullock budget director Dan Villa told the panel that the new bill will fix communities, while the use of bonds will allow the state to pay for most of the projects without adding to its cash flow problems.

“I wish I wasn’t here for this,” Villa said. “I wish we had passed this last session.”

Last session, lawmakers in the Republican-led majority had two major problems with the infrastructure package: Putting the state in debt to pay for the projects, and including building projects that they didn’t see as essential infrastructure.

Some of those building projects are back in the current bill, including the renovation of Montana State University’s Romney Hall, bonds for a Montana Historical Society museum and a loan to pay for construction of a new veterans’ home in Butte.

Supporters of those projects pressed lawmakers to keep those projects in the package.

“We all have an obligation to safeguard and showcase the vital history of the state of Montana,” said Bob Brown, a former state legislator from Whitefish, speaking in support of the historical society.

The GOP caucus has identified infrastructure as a top priority, but said they will be coming up with package of their own that covers “essential infrastructure.”

House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, said in an email that essential infrastructure includes basic necessities like water and sewer. Other projects can be proposed in separate bills, he said.

Republicans won’t oppose using state bonds to pay for some infrastructure projects this session, Knudsen said.

“There is simply not enough cash in the coffers to pay for all the needs of our state and bonding will likely be needed to fill the gaps,” he said. “But I can tell you that our caucus’ patience gets thin when you start talking about bonding for non-essentials in a time of fiscal restraint.”

The hearing on Keane’s bill is expected to continue until the end of the month.

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