Panel hears pleas to approve long-delayed building projects

By MATT VOLZ, Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Military veterans, college students and history supporters made passionate pleas Friday to Montana lawmakers to finally approve the building projects they've been requesting for years.

Their testimony came on the final day of a two-week hearing by a legislative budget panel on a bill that would authorize $157 million in bonds for public works and building projects. The bonding bill is part of Gov. Steve Bullock's $293 million infrastructure proposal, and the three projects covered Friday have been repeatedly rejected.

One is a veterans' home for Butte, for which the bill requests up to $16.8 million in bonds. Veterans groups have been seeking money since 2009 to build the home to serve southwestern Montana. The other veterans' homes in the state are in Columbia Falls, nearly a four-hour drive away, and Glendive, which is six hours away.

A 10-acre site has been donated and the state has collected its share of the construction funds, but the U.S. Veterans Administration has not come up with its larger share because the project is low on its priority list.

The veterans are asking the state to use the bond money as a "bridge loan" to pay for construction that would be repaid once the federal funds come through. Vietnam veteran Tom Goyette said this may be the last chance, because the state Legislature meets only every other year and donated land will have to be returned to its original owner in 2019, under a 10-year agreement signed in 2009.

"If we don't get it done this session, all the work we've done to this point to get it built is wasted," Goyette said.

The bill's sponsor, Democratic Rep. Jim Keane, of Butte, told the budget panel to stop simply thanking the veterans for their service and give them what they need — more nursing home beds for the state that has the second-highest rate of veterans in its population.

"To heck with the thanks," Keane said. "That isn't going to (help) their mental problems or blown-off legs or other issues that they have or a place to live when they have no family."

Earlier, students and university leaders looked for support for a $28 million renovation at Montana State University's Romney Hall, which lawmakers have rejected since 2011. The renovation would add much-needed classroom space for the growing university, plus a larger veterans' center and tutoring centers, university officials said.

The Montana University System lists Romney Hall as its top need for all its facilities across the state.

"It's in deplorable condition, but still we're forced to use it," university president Waded Cruzado said after the hearing. "What really pains me is to see those students in those horrible classrooms taking classes."

A long line of Montana Historical Society supporters urged the panel to approve the project they've been waiting 12 years to build, a new heritage center and museum. The society has $6.7 million left from a bond package approved by the Legislature in 2005, and it has raised another $3 million, but it still needs the $27.6 million requested in the bill.

Director Bruce Whittenberg told the panel to consider it an economic development project, because the jobs created during construction and the additional tourist spending that will result will more than pay for it.

More importantly, he said, moving from its current cramped space to a new, larger one will allow the society to display more of its collection and better care for it.

The head of the budget subcommittee, Republican Rep. Mike Cuffe, of Eureka, said the panel will decide within the next two weeks on recommendations for those three projects and the other water, sewer, roads and irrigation projects in the bill.

"These projects, we heard the emotional ones today," Cuffe said. "Everything in the bill is extremely important to somebody, some community, some place in the state."

 

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