LEWISTOWN — In an airplane high above Central Montana, Petroleum County commissioner Craig Iverson looks across the 570 miles of road across the smallest county in the state.
With the exception of state highway 200 and route 244, nearly all of the roads are gravel and subject to the elements. Some are washed out, some are nearly impassible due to bumps and ruts.
With a population of just 496 as of the 2020 census, Petroleum County is the eighth least-populated county in the United States with a proportionately small tax base.
It’s nearly impossible to maintain roads across the region with a small budget, and even smaller staff.
“With a crew of two, it’s hard to get across all of that every year,” he explained. “The roads have fallen apart just because of time and use from recreational people hunting and boating. And we need to crush some gravel to repair some places in some of those roads.”
But therein lies the problem: “There is no money in Petroleum County to crush gravel,” Iverson said.
Lack of funding is one issue facing rural roads, and emergency response on rural roads is another.
These issues were the focus of an aerial media tour hosted by the Montana Association of Counties, Montana Wild, and the Montana Wildlife Federation in support of Senate Bill 442.
In Fergus County, county staff have more than 1,700 miles of road to maintain. They have to prioritize roads in more traveled areas, while recreational roads are often neglected due to lack of staff, time, and money.
“We just had the incident where an individual got lost on Knox Ridge,” said Fergus County commissioner Carl Seilstad. “And I believe we got two emergency service vehicles stuck just trying to get to it.”
SB 442 would have addressed many of these issues. The legislation called for 20% of the state’s marijuana revenue allocated to help counties pay for the building and repair of rural roads, among other initiatives.
The bill passed with bipartisan support, and voted through the legislature with 130 of 150 lawmakers in support.
But Governor Gianforte issued a veto of the bill on the final day of the legislative session, leading to a procedural dispute about whether legislators are able to override the veto; click here for details.
Montana Wild, the Montana Wildlife Federation, and the Montana Association of Counties have filed lawsuits, compelling the governor to transmit the veto to the Secretary of State’s office to poll legislators for a potential veto override.
“It had wide support. You had organizations from all across the spectrum of ideologies and beliefs and the things that they work on supporting it,” said Jeff Lukas of the MWF. “So we’re not going to stop fighting for it. We hope that the lawsuit compels the right action. And we’ll see how it shakes out.”
In his letter accompanying the veto, Governor Gianforte called the bill a “slippery slope” and expressed concern that county governments would use extra state money in the their budgets as an excuse to fund “capricious and unnecessary projects”.
County commissioners say that’s not the reality of their jobs.
“I am going to say we don’t have any fluff in our budgets,” Seilstad said. “We supplement a lot of our budget through payment and lower taxes from the federal government. We use the gas tax, missile road money, grants. It takes every bit that we put in there to maintain what we have. Even with all of that it’s a struggle to try and meet the needs that we have to take care of.”
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