— Story by Mike Dennison – MTN News
HELENA — State lawmakers gave their final approval Thursday to two major proposals — the continuation of Medicaid expansion and the first state construction bonding bill in several sessions — as they neared the finish line of the 2019 Montana Legislature.
They also revived and advanced another bill to help finance a new, $48 million Montana Historical Society museum in Helena — a project on the drawing board for more than a decade.
The crucial votes occurred as lawmakers prepared to break for Easter, after which they’re expected to return to Helena and finish the session in a few days, completing work on the state budget and some additional final issues.
The Montana House gave its final approval to the Medicaid-expansion bill, House Bill 658, on a 61-35 vote, sending the measure to Gov. Steve Bullock for his signature. The Democratic governor has made it clear that he intends to sign HB658, which continues the $700 million-a-year program past a June 30 expiration date in current law.
“This is a good day for Montana,” Bullock said in a statement. “We have once again demonstrated that when we put partisan politics aside and come together to do right by Montanans, government can make a meaningful impact in people’s lives.
The Senate also gave its final approval to House Bill 652, which authorizes the state to issue nearly $80 million in bonds to help fund scores of construction projects, big and small, all across the state. The bill needed a two-thirds approval, because it issues state debt, and passed 40-10.
The projects authorized by HB652 include a $32 million remodel of Romney Hall on the Montana State University campus in Bozeman, a $22 million armory in Butte, a $4.5 million sewer replacement at the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs, a $4.25 million dental-hygiene lab at MSU-Great Falls, grants for school construction and maintenance and scores of water, sewer, bridge and reclamation projects in local communities across the state.
Money from the $80 million bond sale will finance portions of some of the larger projects. For example, the bill uses $16 million in bonds for Romney Hall, provides $9 million in cash and leaves it up to MSU to raise the additional $7 million from private donors.
“These investments are critical to all of our counties,” Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, said as he presented the bill on the floor. “We want to bridge the urban-rural divide here. This is for everybody. And these projects aren’t going away. These are projects that we’re gonna have to fund; we’ve got to help our local communities and our state make the kinds of investments that our predecessors made on behalf of our generation.”
Bullock had similar comments, after passage of the bonding bill.
“We’ve finally broken the logjam,” he said in a statement. “I’m pleased legislators recognized that instead of passing on crumbling infrastructure to our kids, we can make sustainable investments in our rural and urban communities across the state, create good-paying jobs, and grow our economy.”
Earlier Thursday, the Montana House voted 64-32 to remove the Historical Society museum bill from the House Taxation Committee, where it had been stalled since last week.
Several hours later, the House gave its preliminary approval to Senate Bill 338 on a 56-44 vote, with 14 Republicans joining all 42 House Democrats in favor.
Republicans opponents blasted SB338 as a violation of GOP promises not to raise taxes, because it increases the state lodging tax by one cent to help finance construction of the new museum and provide grants to local museums and historical sites statewide.
But supporters said the tax increase will be paid partially by out-of-state tourists and help tourism in many locales throughout the state.
The bill still faces one final committee hearing and vote before it has a final vote in the House next week.
Eighty percent of the new revenue generated by the bill — $6 million to $8 million a year — would go toward construction of the new Montana Heritage Center, over the next five years. The remainder of the money would finance a new grant program for local historical museums and sites.
The Historical Society has had the new Heritage Center on the drawing board for more than a decade. It already has about $10 million to put toward the projects, from private donors and state bonds sold a dozen years ago.
Rep. Julie Dooling, R-Helena, made the motion to bring the measure to the floor, saying the Heritage Center and the grant program had gone through extensive “vetting” and had good support in the Senate, which passed the bill last month.