GOP introduces bill to patch MT highway funding shortage - KTVQ.com | Q2 | Continuous News Coverage | Billings, MT

GOP introduces bill to patch MT highway funding shortage

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Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson

Legislative Republicans Monday introduced a bill to shore up the state highway fund this year – a move they said would enable the state to finance $144 million worth of construction projects that have been delayed.

“We know it’s a temporary fix, but we’ve got to get the money back in there, so we can proceed with these jobs,” said Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, the sponsor of House Bill 203.

Hertz’s bill, which will be heard in committee later this week, would take $14.5 million out of the state treasury and transfer it to the highway fund.

He said that money will allow the state to leverage another $130 million in federal highway money and get the projects going, which were delayed by the Bullock administration in November because the highway fund was short of money.

Yet Gov. Steve Bullock’s budget director told MTN News Monday the solution won’t work, because state law requires other money in the fund to be spent first – before any influx from the regular state treasury can be used.

“While the bill is great talking point, it doesn’t fix a single problem,” he said.

Still, the measure marks an initial try toward solving a shortfall in the highway funding account – certainly one of the key budget issues of the 2017 Legislature.

The account, which funds highway construction and maintenance, the Highway Patrol and the state Motor Vehicle Division, has fallen below a level where it can finance highway construction projects.

State highway officials have said declining fuel-tax revenue (the main source of funds for the account) and rising expenses have led to the shortfall in the fund.

Bullock has proposed cutting the Highway Patrol and the Motor Vehicle Division, to make the account balance, and also delayed 30 highway construction projects scheduled for bid this year, worth $144 million.

A coalition of contractors, local governments and other interests are supporting a 10-cent-per-gallon increase in state motor-fuel taxes to replenish the highway fund.

Bullock has said he’s “open to discussing” a fuel-tax increase, but hasn’t taken a position.

Sen. Ryan Osmundson, R-Buffalo, a co-sponsor of HB203, told MTN News he thinks Bullock is playing politics with the highway fund and trying to pressure lawmakers into proposing and supporting a fuel tax – even though the governor hasn’t taken a position.

“It is a bit surprising to me,” he said. “I don’t know why they picked this issue to make political hay with.”

He said GOP lawmakers decided to propose the temporary fix of transferring money from the state treasury this year to get the highway projects going. HB203 says the $14.5 million will be transferred back into the treasury from other sources later this year – but doesn’t identify where it will come from.

“There are a lot of different funds where the governor has authority to move, from here or there,” Hertz said.

Hertz said he hopes lawmakers will pass the bill quickly and get it to the governor’s desk.

Villa, however, said state law won’t allow money from the treasury to be spent on highway-fund items until all the non-treasury money is spent down.

When asked what solution the Bullock administration has in mind, Villa said: “We look forward to doing what we’ve done for the last four years, and working with legislators to find a fix.”

Osmundson said it’s possible the bill could be amended, to address any technical problems.

About Mike Dennison

MTN Chief Political Reporter Mike Dennison joined MTN News in August 2015 after a 23-year career as a newspaper reporter covering Montana politics and state government. While some may believe that politics are boring, Mike firmly believes that's not the case if you tell the story with pizzazz and let people know why the story is important.
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