Romney Hall

Snow falls softly on Romney Hall on the campus of Montana State University.

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Montana State University leaders were ready to celebrate Thursday after the Legislature quickly gave final approval to an infrastructure bill that raises, at long last, $25 million to renovate Romney Hall.

It was part of the larger $80 million bonding bill, House Bill 652, which the Senate passed by a lopsided 41-9 vote. Senators then unexpectedly suspended the normal rules to go straight to the final vote and passed the bill 40-10.

Because it borrows money, the bill needed a two-thirds super majority of 34 votes to pass, said Tracy Ellig, MSU’s lobbyist in Helena.

“It’s a done deal! It’s on to the governor’s desk!” Ellig said, laughing. “I didn’t see it coming. It’s done. That means Romney will happen, the Great Falls dental clinic will happen, and so will four greenhouse laboratories for the Agricultural Experiment Station. It’s fantastic news.”

MSU President Waded Cruzado wrote a message to the university community calling the vote “exciting news.” Cruzado had made Romney Hall’s renovation the top major building project for the Bozeman campus since 2010, and argued it was crucial to help MSU teach its record number of students.

“Today’s final vote has been a hard one and a long time coming,” Cruzado wrote.

“With these funds, Romney will go from a marginally useable building with only four classrooms to a pivotal academic building for the campus with 19 classrooms and more than 1,000 classroom seats. It will have a writing center, math center and a greatly expanded center for our veterans.

“This will be a building that nearly every MSU student will use for generations to come.”

Cruzado noted the bill will also provide $4.25 million for the new dental hygiene clinic, $2 million for the greenhouse research labs and millions for schools, towns, counties, bridges, water and sewer systems and other state infrastructure needs.

Gov. Steve Bullock welcomed the bill’s passage, calling it the first time during his tenure the Legislature has passed a bonding bill.

“We’ve finally broken the logjam,” Bullock said in a statement, to fix “crumbling infrastructure” and create good-paying jobs.

The bonding bill calls for MSU to raise $7 million to bring the Romney renovation up to $32 million.

The bonding bill takes precedence over the backup cash that lawmakers added to House Bill 5 in case the bonding bill fell short again, Ellig said.

State money for Romney won’t become available until the start of the new fiscal year July 1, Ellig said. “We’re going to do our best to try to get to work on it this summer.” Reconstructing the nearly century-old building could take two or three years, he said.

“Persistence paid off,” Ellig said. What made the difference this session was probably passage of House Bill 553, which set up a framework for deciding how much the state could safely borrow in future years, he said. “It laid to rest a lot of concerns about bonding.”

Cruzado thanked several lawmakers for their work on the bonding bill, including the sponsor, Rep. Mike Hopkins, a Missoula Republican, and Sen. Mike Cuffe, a Eureka Republican, who spoke in favor of Romney on the Senate floor.

Gallatin County senators split along party lines. Democrats Pat Flowers, Mike Phillips and JP Pomnichowski voted yes. Republicans Scott Sales and Gordon Vance voted no.

Cruzado added that the state budget bill, House Bill 2, hasn’t had a final vote, but it appears it will have enough money so that tuition can be frozen the next two years for students from Montana.

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

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