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Bullock touts $300M infrastructure package to business leaders amid Republican opposition

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BILLINGS, Montana — Gov. Steve Bullock on Tuesday sought to enlist the business community to help him promote to skeptical lawmakers a $300 million plan to upgrade state buildings, sewers, roads and other infrastructure across Montana.

Doubtful lawmakers have questioned both the amount of spending and Bullock's desire to use bonds to cover about two-thirds of the costs.

It's shaping up to be a major point of friction for the Legislative session that starts in January. Republicans already have voiced opposition to the plan — a centerpiece of the Democratic governor's biennial budget proposal.

A similar impasse in 2013 culminated in Bullock's veto of a Republican proposal to pay for infrastructure improvements in eastern Montana's oil patch with cash.

On Tuesday, Bullock told a small gathering of business leaders in Billings he needed their backing to sell a spending package he said would expand Montana's economy and generate new jobs.

The debate over how to pay for the improvements was based on a "false choice," Bullock said, with lawmakers failing to recognize that using cash could be more expensive than bonds over the long-term.

Keeping that cash in investments, he argued, would generate more money than the state would have to pay in interest on bonds.

"It makes sense if we're going to make long-term investments to also do it in a way that captures these dang-near record low interest rates, and pay for it over time," he said.

Incoming Senate President Debby Barrett, a Dillon Republican, said Tuesday that the two sides are coming at funding infrastructure projects in different ways.

She predicted Bullock will run into trouble trying to get the bonds through the Legislature. She also suggested he needs to pare back on spending.

PHOTO: Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, left, meets with construction industry representatives, from left, Jill Cook and Carl Anderson of Morrison Maierle Engineers and Bill Enright of Interstate Engineering, among others, for a round table discussion about infrastructure in Billings, Mont., Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Billings Gazette, Larry Mayer)
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, left, meets with construction industry representatives, from left, Jill Cook and Carl Anderson of Morrison Maierle Engineers and Bill Enright of Interstate Engineering, among others, for a round table discussion about infrastructure in Billings, Mont., Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Billings Gazette, Larry Mayer)

"If we have a smaller list and pay cash and don't increase our debt, that would be a more acceptable way to go for my caucus," Barrett said.

The bulk of the package — more than $165 million — would go toward a long-range building program. Those projects range from a new, $39.5 million Montana Heritage Center, to a $1.5 million upgrade to the fire alarm system at Bannack State Park.

Also in Bullock's proposal is a revived version of the oil patch spending that was vetoed in 2014.

Rep. Austin Knudsen of Culbertson, who was chosen as House speaker last week, said the $45 million earmarked in the proposal is only a drop in the bucket for what his constituents in eastern Montana need.

"Sidney needs about $60 million now, for sewer projects and upgrading water lines," he said. "I'm not opposed to a bigger number for eastern Montana."

But, Knudsen said he supports using cash for those projects and said Republicans are likely to support some overall infrastructure spending if it's along those lines.

Among those who listened to the governor's pitch for the spending package in Billings was William Enright, a senior project engineer with Interstate Engineering in Billings.

He said the governor and his supporters need to be more forceful in getting out their message if they hope to overcome the opposition.

"It's a marvelous idea," Enright said, "but we've got a Democratic governor and Republican House and Senate."


Baumann reported from Helena, Montana.

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