Montana lawmakers seek compromise on infrastructure funding

Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton

(UM Legislative News Service) When it comes to maintaining the state’s infrastructure, Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, said the debate boils down to two arguments at the Montana Legislature.

“When we argue about infrastructure, and we argue about it every single session, the problem is you get two arguments going at the same time,” Ballance said. “One argument is what should we fund. Which, in my opinion, should be separated from how do you pay for it.”

Montana lawmakers are aiming to solidify a means to pay for public works projects with House Bill 553. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Eric Moore, R-Miles City, would establish a payment plan that mixes cash and borrowed funds.

The bill, referred to as the Infrastructure Development and Economic Accountability (IDEA) Act, would establish what Moore calls a “rainy day fund.” Cash or borrowed money would build the fund, depending on state debt and revenue intake.

“We either issue bonds or pay cash, depending on how full it is. When we’re flush and full of cash, we pay cash. When times are a little tight, we issue more bonds,” he said.

Moore said some members of the Republican caucus are hesitant to pay for projects with borrowed funds, and that’s the reason bonding bills have failed in previous sessions. But he said his bill would establish a responsible guideline.

“Debt isn’t good or evil in it of itself, right? It’s the level of debt. Very few of us wrote a check for our first house or our first car,” he said. “The question (the bill) is trying to answer is what is our level of bonding.”

The 2017 Montana Legislature failed to pass a bonding infrastructure bill by a margin of two votes.

Tim Pierce is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Greater Montana Foundation and the Montana Newspaper Association.