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Guest opinion: Highway funding biggest success in 2017 Montana Legislature

May 9, 2017 GMT

The most significant infrastructure bill in over a quarter of a century was passed by the just adjourned 2017 legislative session. It was the six-cent increase in motor fuel taxes (by 2023) which will make it possible for Montana to continue to match federal dollars for highway maintenance and construction at a ratio of seven federal dollars to one Montana dollar.

The highway infrastructure bill was passed by an embattled coalition of Democrats and Republicans. Its passage was necessary to assure our roads and highways will be adequately cared for and that good blue-collar jobs will continue to be provided to support thousands of Montana working class families for many years to come. Thanks to the leadership of Kalispell Republican Rep. Frank Garner and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock for making it happen.

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The last time an infrastructure proposal of this size was enacted — in 1993 — the existing tax on motor fuel wasn’t sufficient to match federal highway dollars. Rather than leave the federal money on the table, neglect our roads and sacrifice jobs, the Legislature took the necessary action.

Spearheaded by Kalispell Republican Rep. John Harp, and Democratic Rep. Jerry Driscoll of Billings, the tax on gas and diesel was raised a nickel a gallon. Harp was a businessman with strong ties to the business community. Driscoll was a leader in the Montana AFL-CIO. That was in the time when if the Montana business community and organized labor were on the same side, they usually prevailed easily. Such was the case with the motor fuels legislation in 1993.

At the same time that the 1993 gas tax increase was signed into law by Republican Gov. Marc Racicot, Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Baucus was engaged for Montana on the national level. Baucus had just become chair of the U.S. Senate Public Works Committee. With the active support of our junior senator, Republican Conrad Burns, Baucus was successful in changing the federal matching formula to make it more favorable for states with small populations and large amounts of highway miles. Such bipartisanship was easier then than now on the federal level, too. The result was a windfall for Montana. That will continue wiith the 2017 tax increase.

The fragile bipartisan legislative coalition of Democrats and Republicans which passed the 2017 motor fuels tax was not large enough, however, to pass major infrastructure bonding legislation. Bonded indebtedness requires two-thirds majority approval. Badly needed building projects for college classrooms in Bozeman and beds for aging veterans in Butte, which had easily passed the Senate, were killed by a minority of only 34 votes in the 100-member House. Most of these same 34 legislators also opposed the gas tax. The result is that Montana’s critical building needs will still have to be addressed in the future, but probably at higher interest rates.

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Legislation to authorize loans for largely rural water projects from coal money, and to finance the critically needed, long-postponed reconstruction of the Montana Historical Society facility, all died in political maneuvering related to the death of the bonding bill.

I don’t think this would have happened in 1993, in a legislative culture more practical and more respectful of different points of view. Our political system, federal and state, worked better when it was less political. The people were better served.