By Freddy Monares and Michael Siebert
UM Community News Service
HELENA – The Montana Legislature adjourned Friday after a short and chaotic day of failed attempts to pass a package of bills that would have used bonding to fund infrastructure projects.
Debate in the House was tense at times, as a Senate-set deadline neared for House Bill 8 and Senate Bill 367.
The bills would have allowed for bonding, or borrowing, and the use of local matching funds for roughly $123 million to help pay for projects like water systems, a veterans’ home in Butte and the controversial renovations of Romney Hall at MSU.
Republicans say they funded more than $1 billion in cash and federal matches for infrastructure this session. Speaker of the House Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, named it as one of his top three accomplishments.
“True critical infrastructure in the state of Montana — water projects, sewer, roads, bridges — those are the kind of infrastructure projects that Republicans can get behind, and we did,” Knudsen said.
Leadership from both parties, along with Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, had been in negotiations to get a bonding bill passed by the Legislature. Friday’s session was supposed to convene at 8 a.m., but the speaker, along with Republican House leaders, were held up negotiating with the governor.
Knudsen says the deal the governor proposed was not adequate for the Republicans.
“As I’ve said for the last couple of days, it was clear that their priorities were more important than our priorities, and that was reflected in the structure of this last-minute attempt at a deal,” Knudsen said.
Bullock said infrastructure has been one of the main focuses of the legislative session since day one. He said Republicans voting against bonding need to answer to the Montanans who he says would have been positively affected by the passage of the legislation.
“I think partisan politics for a small group of Republicans … once again beat out Montana jobs in our communities,” Bullock said.
Bullock says he expected Senate Bill 367 to pass Friday morning.
“But it wasn’t my expectation,” Bullock said. “I know that over the last 24 hours, contractors, superintendents, mayors, county commissioners, chamber of commerce members were saying, ‘it is time to get this done.’”
Bullock says Republicans and Democrats worked on a plan Thursday night that took bonding out of the mix, but that didn’t make it into the bill representatives voted on on Friday.
Infrastructure has been a point of contention this session, and the method to fund it has been a hot topic. Some Republicans wouldn’t vote for bonding on principle, saying the state needs to live within its means, while Democrats said the time to borrow money is now when interest rates are low.
During Friday’s debate, both parties attempted multiple motions to move House Bill 8 up and down on the agenda, knowing that if Senate Bill 367 didn’t pass, Democrats would vote against the bill. House Bill 8 would have required a ¾ majority to pass and Senate Bill 367 would have needed ⅔ of the 100-member House, meaning they would need members of both parties to vote for them.
House Minority Leader Jenny Eck, D-Helena said Thursday the two bills were part of a larger infrastructure package.
“It’s either all or nothing at this point,” Eck said. “We can move everything forward and make progress for the state of Montana or not, but we’re not going to have some winners and some losers – and, frankly, that’s what they’re attempting to do.”
Knudsen says he was disappointed that House Bill 8 was voted down. He says he’s never seen the bill used as political leverage.
“Certainly the threat has been there in the past, we saw that last session,” Knudsen said. “But in the end, everyone agreed that House Bill 8 is good policy.”
Friday was the 89th day of the 90-day session and while infrastructure was a key issue, it wasn’t the only one. The budget, facing a shortfall because of a drop in revenue from taxes on a slowing oil and gas industry, dominated most debates, whether they were about school funding or raising wages for workers who care for the disabled or elderly.
The budget debate ended fairly smoothly and several lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, celebrated that in their end-of-the-session speeches.
“While we tripped on the one thing, which is not the first time,” Thomas said, referring to the bonding votes at the end, “We got the job done in a big way on the big picture items.”
Bullock said Montanans can certainly be disappointed with how the session ended, but “there are many measures that’ll have come out of this 90 day session that will make Montana a better place to live, work, raise a family, recreate and educate.”
Several issues got early bipartisan support, like modernizing the state’s laws on rape, sexual assault and language of consent, or a package of bills that revamped laws on child welfare and family services. Lawmakers also touted the work the Legislature did on combatting the issue of invasive aquatic species like the zebra mussels found last year in some waterways.
In all, 1,188 bills were introduced and 236 have officially become law. An additional 264 passed the Legislature or are awaiting Gov. Bullock’s signature or veto. Meanwhile, 464 bills were killed during House and Senate floor sessions, with the remainder tabled or killed during committee hearings.
Here’s a look at the 65th Legislature by the numbers:
– 2,611 total pieces of legislation were drafted, the highest number since the 2007 session.
– 1,423 of them were never introduced in committee.
Topics ranged from the controversial, like the four bills on abortion to the bipartisan, like many of the 126 drafted local government bills.
Some topics clearly took precedence over others. Only five bills were drafted on the subject of religion, while 153 addressed health care issues. Proposed laws that intended to revise the way Montana conducts its elections also stood out, with 128 bills drafted. Many of those laws were in response to concerns over ballot tampering and voter suppression.
Bullock has vetoed 13 bills. Two of them, House Bills 246 and 262, altered gun laws. HB 246, introduced by Rep. Randy Brodehl, R-Kalispell, would have allowed Montanans to carry firearms on Postal Service property. The other, HB 262, introduced by Rep. Bill Harris, R-Winnett, would have essentially allowed anyone who may legally possess a firearm the right to concealed carry.
Bullock also vetoed Senate Bill 97, introduced by Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, which would have banned the application of “foreign law” in Montana courts. “Foreign law” was widely understood to include Muslim Sharia law. It passed the House on a vote of 56-43 before ultimately being vetoed.
Other vetoed bills include Senate Bills 7, 32, 100 and 264, as well as House Bills 202 and 306. Each one was introduced by a Republican lawmaker.
Republicans held the majority in both the House and Senate, with 91 Republicans in both houses and 59 Democrats. This divide often led to the death of highly partisan bills, most often those introduced by Democrats. However, Bullock’s veto authority killed some of the more contentious Republican bills, like those pertaining to guns and foreign law.
Because Montana’s legislature is run by citizens, lawmakers’ occupational backgrounds are diverse. While 20 percent of legislators listed themselves as retired, many more work in a variety of fields outside the session.
About 17 percent said they work in the agriculture field, while another 18 percent said they work in the business sector. Smaller numbers work in more specific areas, like the 5 percent of attorneys or the 7 percent of educators.
Thirty-two percent work in a variety of other industries, including communication, insurance, law enforcement and technology.
The majority of lawmakers were born in Montana, but 59 were born out-of-state.
Most legislators are highly educated, with 77 having a college degree, and another 38 having gone through grad school. Eleven lawmakers have only a high school diploma.
Lawmakers’ racial and gender identities are largely white and male, with 108 men and 42 women currently in office. One hundred identified as white, with nine Native Americans and two Spanish or Latino legislators.
Freddy Monares and Michael Siebert are reporters with the UM Community News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism and the Montana Newspaper Association. UM Visiting Professor Courtney Lowery Cowgill contributed to this report.