Infrastructure Looms as Defining Issue in Races

At the end of the last legislative session, Montana Rep. Scott Staffanson pleaded for the House to reconsider a contentious infrastructure bill that failed by a single vote.

📅   Wed June 08, 2016 - West Edition #12
BobCaina Calvan - ASSOCIATED PRESS


At the end of the last legislative session, Montana Rep. Scott Staffanson pleaded for the House to reconsider a contentious infrastructure bill that failed by a single vote.
At the end of the last legislative session, Montana Rep. Scott Staffanson pleaded for the House to reconsider a contentious infrastructure bill that failed by a single vote.

HELENA, Mont. (AP) At the end of the last legislative session, Montana Rep. Scott Staffanson pleaded for the House to reconsider a contentious infrastructure bill that failed by a single vote.

That one vote is weighing heavily on Staffanson as he fends off a challenge in the June 7 primary by fellow Republican Joel Krautter, a Sidney attorney who is hitting Steffanson hard for joining other conservatives in blocking a $150 million infrastructure package that sought to pay for roads, bridges and antiquated sewer systems.

While Staffanson called the legislation a bad bill, Krautter argues that the bill, while not perfect, was good enough.

“A lot of people in my district and eastern Montana as a whole felt very let down by the failure of the infrastructure bill in the last session,” Krautter said.

Infrastructure looms as a defining issue in key legislative contests across Montana, as Republican moderates and conservatives battle over the direction of their party. Moderates are pushing compromise to get things done, while ideological purists say they are keeping an eye on government debt and pork-barrel projects.

Don “K” Kaltschmidt, a Whitefish car dealer who is seeking to represent Senate District 3, is pushing a bipartisan approach to deal with his district's urgent needs.

He pointed to an overburdened sewer system in Whitefish that he said is starting to give off a stench. “We're getting a lot of odors coming out of the treatment plant. And as I knock on doors, residents in the area say there is a real issue with that sewer plant,” Kaltschmidt said.

No one disagrees that the state has a long list of pressing infrastructure needs, but philosophical differences have been difficult to bridge.

“It's not that the legislature didn't do anything with infrastructure,” said Rep. Keith Regier, who as House majority leader voted against a compromise bill known as SB 416 that Democrats and moderate Republicans supported but was spurned by 33 GOP conservatives.

There were clear differences about how to deal with the matter, he said.

Conservatives balked at using bonds to finance the deal. They also objected to a list of projects that included a student center at Montana State University in Bozeman and a heritage center in Helena.

“To me, a museum is not infrastructure,” said Regier, who is now vying for the same Senate seat sought by Kaltschmidt.

As he campaigns for a second term, Gov. Steve Bullock has also made infrastructure an issue. Bullock, a Democrat, recently proposed a $200 million infrastructure package but did not lay out specifics. His Republican opponent, Greg Gianforte, said infrastructure would also be a priority. But he, too, has yet to present a detailed proposal.

“Last session a few legislators put politics ahead of Montana jobs and it backfired,” Bullock said in an email sent by his office.

Whether it will backfire politically remains to be seen.

The political action committee for the Montana Contractors Association — whose members would benefit from infrastructure projects — is supporting 10 candidates who they say may be more open to reaching a compromise to pay for the work.

“Our goal is to build a bigger middle in Montana politics. We get more stuff done in the middle,” said Cary Hegreberg, the association's executive director.

The association's PAC has already begun contributing money to its favored candidates as well as making independent expenditures.

Already, the contractors group has sent out mailers in support of John Bedford, a moderate Republican who accuses the incumbent, Rep. Daniel Zolnikov of Billings, of “petty party politics” in voting against SB 416.

“There was no room for negotiation,” Zolnikov countered. “It's a big issue, and we need to properly address it.”