Bullock

Gov. Steve Bullock speaks to the Montana Contractors Association on Jan. 12, 2017, in Helena. Bullock says he has come up with $10 million that can go to release $144.5 million in stalled highway construction projects.

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HELENA — In a surprise development Thursday, Gov. Steve Bullock said he had found $10 million in state money to match federal highway funds and allow $144.5 million of delayed highway projects to be put out for bid this fiscal year.

Transportation Director Mike Tooley said this move will allow the state Transportation Department to put out for bid the 30 projects that the agency had put on hold in December because of a funding shortfall.

Bullock made the announcement during a luncheon speech at the state convention of the Montana Contractors Association as he outlined his long-term Build Montana infrastructure plan.

Toward the end of the speech, Bullock said he had come up with a short-term infrastructure solution.

“Yesterday, I directed our budget office to transfer $10 million in a short-term loan as a stopgap measure to shore up the Montana Department of Transportation budget for the projects that it planned to let out this year, though that will carry out to the next biennium, which starts July 1,” he said. “That enables the department to move forward with projects that it had to put on hold, and I’ve directed them to do so immediately.”

Contractors broke into applause.

“This is not an ideal solution,” Bullock added, saying the state needs a long-term funding plan.

The source of the money Bullock came up with was a determination by the federal government that the state is due $10 million in matching funds from the federal Medicaid program, according to the governor’s office. That $10 million will go into the state general fund and then will be loaned to the Transportation Department. The loan details are to be worked out, but revenue from the state gas tax will be used to repay the loan.

“The governor has been searching for a solution ever since the delays were announced,” said spokeswoman Ronja Abel. “We were informed about the availability of this funding very recently.”

The timing of the governor’s announcement was “just the way it worked out,” Abel said.

The Democratic governor’s announcement came a few hours before the House Appropriations Committee was to hear a bill by Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, to take $14.3 million from the state general fund to be used to match the federal highway funds so the projects could proceed.

Hertz took a swipe at the governor in his testimony, saying: “If it takes the Legislature to move (Bullock), we are glad to provide help.”

He said it’s critical that the highway projects go to bid and people be hired for construction jobs.

Hertz urged the committee to keep his bill alive, even with Bullock’s solution.

At the hearing, House Appropriations Chair Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, said she found it “a stunning coincidence” that Bullock announced his highway funding short-term fix on the same day the contractors were in town for a convention and the same day that Hertz’s bill was up for hearing.

If the state has $10 million in excess Medicaid money sitting in the general fund, Ballance said it should have been used instead to serve people who have been on the waiting list for several hundred days to get on Medicaid, the federal-state health program for the poor.

Republicans on the committee peppered Tooley with questions, trying to find out when the department learned there was a funding problem.

Cary Hegreberg, executive director of the Montana Contractors Association, praised both Bullock’s and Hertz’s efforts.

“We’re extremely grateful for that (Bullock’s effort),” he said. “We’re also grateful for Rep. Hertz.”

Hegreberg said the effort by Bullock and Hertz “illustrates that good roads is not a partisan issue.”

He said it’s critical that a long-term solution be found to so the state can come up with the money to match federal highway funds. The federal government provides 87 cents for every 13 cents the state provides.

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