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Montana Gubernatorial Candidates Spar Over Infrastructure Funding

Gov. Steve Bullock and his Republican challenger, Greg Gianforte, agree on one top priority: It’s past time for Montana to make significant investments in infrastructure.

Gov. Steve Bullock and his Republican challenger, Greg Gianforte, agree on one top priority: It’s past time for Montana to make significant investments in infrastructure.

 

The condition of roads, sewers, water lines and other public facilities has typically been reserved for discussions with councilmembers, commissioners and contractors. This year, it has become an issue at the forefront of campaigns as candidates for state office try to appease frustrated voters and a new, nonprofit coalition of local officials, unions, business organizations and economic development groups.

 

“It’s not really that sexy, is it?” said Darryl James, executive director of the Montana Infrastructure Coalition formed in May. “But it’s not really new either.”

 

For six years, the Legislature has failed to approve a major infrastructure funding bill, or Bullock has vetoed the measures to balance the state budget.

 

In 2011, the Legislature failed to reach a consensus on how to help rural eastern Montana towns grapple with rapid growth related to the Bakken oil boom. Two years later, nearly all the state’s legislators approved a proposal those communities considered imperfect, but helpful, that would offer $35 million in grants. It was vetoed by Gov. Steve Bullock to preserve the $300 million rainy day fund he insisted was necessary but that Republicans considered excessive. In 2014, the Montana chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers issued a report card that gave the state an overall C- rating. The engineers wrote that the funding needed to maintain or upgrade infrastructure exceeded funding for eight types of projects – schools, wastewater, dams, drinking water, irrigation canals, transportation, transit and solid waste, tallying more than $12 billion in needed water system needs alone.  

 

In 2015, a segment of conservative Republicans split to kill a $150 million bipartisan compromise bill by one vote in the session’s final day, citing pork projects and too much bonding instead of cash. Bullock had earlier vetoed another proposal introduced by Sen. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek, which closely mirrors a proposal he introduced on the campaign trail earlier this year.

 

“There will be a lot of pressure on the governor and the legislators to get something through, no matter if Bullock or Gianforte wins this election,” Carroll College political scientist Jeremy Johnson said. “Both candidates are really arguing about who should be there rather than whether we should or should not do something.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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