- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 26, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - The Montana House moved forward Wednesday with an $80 million infrastructure bonding bill, setting up a final vote on the most contentious issue that has faced lawmakers on what will likely be the final day of the legislative session.

Pressure mounted on Gov. Steve Bullock and his fellow Democrats to flip the four votes needed for a supermajority of 67 representatives to pass the bill on Thursday.

The signs were clear all week that it would take a huge political effort to gain enough support for a bonding bill that would pay for a package of public works and capital building projects, including renovations of Montana State University’s Romney Hall.

During an hour-long Republican caucus just before Wednesday’s vote, House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, declared an impasse with Bullock.

On the floor, he told his fellow Republicans that he could not support the measure because of its high cost and because Bullock and Democrats had not made the necessary concessions to get his vote.

Wednesday’s vote was a preliminary one, but highlighted the urgency in which the governor and lawmakers had to work for a last-ditch agreement. Bullock said he hadn’t given up, but time was not on his side as lawmakers become more restless to adjourn.

“I have worked across the aisle and met the Republican-majority Legislature more than halfway,” Bullock said after the vote. “Montanans want us to create good-paying jobs, build safer roads and bridges, and strengthen our economy. And they want it done this legislative session. It’s time to get this bill across the finish line.”

At least for part of the day Wednesday, it seemed some of the pieces were falling in place for an agreement that included passage of separate legislation favored by Republicans. The Senate approved a charter schools bill, a measure that Knudsen had called for in this and past sessions.

But in a sign that a deal with the governor had fallen through, the House rejected bringing the charter school bill to the floor.

The $80 million bonding package considered by the House Wednesday was a scaled-down version of the $98 million Senate bill. A separate, $78 million House proposal that contained many of the same projects was previously rejected three times.

The infrastructure bonding package hung in the balance throughout what is likely the final week of the legislative session. Negotiations continued in the Capitol throughout the week - in hallways, behind closed doors and by telephone. The House speaker and the governor spoke by telephone earlier in the day, but those sides acknowledged that the chat did not finalize a deal. On Tuesday, Bullock convened a session with key legislative leaders to help nudge talks.

“It was made abundantly clear to me over the last five days that according to this governor’s office and this Democratic caucus that Republican priorities are not as important as Democratic priorities,” Knudsen said on the House floor.

Republicans had earlier given the governor a menu of 11 proposals they said would help win votes from Republican conservatives. Bullock agreed to sign four of the proposals into law, but Republicans said they wanted the governor to support legislation of greater substance, including charter schools and an abortion bill that would prohibit doctors from aborting viable fetuses.

But Bullock and other Democrats said abortion rights were non-negotiable.

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