Saying too much debate remains around Missoula College and where to build it, a Missoula legislator will attempt to strip funding for the project, while leaving intact other building plans requested by the Montana University System.
Rep. David Moore, R-Missoula, said Wednesday he will attempt to add his amendment to House Bill 14 this week.
Building a new Missoula College can wait, he said, until the university system reaches consensus with South Campus opponents, who want to see the school placed at Fort Missoula.
“The general consensus is that we want to upgrade Missoula College, but we also want to preserve the golf course on the South Campus,” Moore said. “Since there’s been so much consternation over this topic, the amendment would remove funding for the project from HB14, and let them work out the differences for the next session.”
The Montana Board of Regents and the Montana University System have identified construction of Missoula College as its top funding priority. The college’s current facility on South Avenue is outdated and overcrowded.
The state named the South Campus as the project’s preferred location. The site-selection process was well-vetted, university officials said, and it included lengthy public input.
“The Board of Regents and the Commissioner of Higher Education are confident that the South Campus location is the viable location for Missoula College,” said Kevin McRae, spokesman for the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.
“UM has given careful review and assessment to that, and the commissioner and board have examined that review. We’re not only in support, but we’ve concluded as a board and system that the South Campus is the viable place.”
House Bill 14, introduced by Rep. Galen Hollenbaugh, D-Helena, seeks roughly $87.9 million in appropriations and $87.9 million in general obligation bonds to complete eight building projects, seven of which pertain to the university system.
The bill also allows the state to seek $57.8 million in other funding sources, such as donations, grants and general fund money within state agencies. Those funds would be used to complete nine building projects, eight pertaining to the university system.
While most of Moore’s district lies in Missoula County, he said Missoula College and the South Campus location, planned within city limits, was a top concern expressed by his constituents.
“They can see the community value in that open space in the future, 50 to 100 years down the road,” Moore said. “I’ve been contacted by a lot of alumni from out of state who think it would be a mistake for the university to carry forth with its plans.”
Moore had intended to introduce a separate amendment to HB14, stipulating that any funding for Missoula College must be spent to build the project at Fort Missoula, not the South Campus.
He expressed frustration with the current process, saying state legislators had no control over how funding appropriated by the Legislature is spent by the university system.
“I found out we couldn’t stipulate location as a legislative body,” Moore said. “We have zero control over how they spend that money or what they do with it.”
Mick Robinson, deputy commissioner for fiscal affairs at the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, said the university system has vetted its building needs, including Missoula College.
He said the system uses funding appropriated by the Legislature to meet its highest priorities. Requests for money, he said, aren’t made lightly.
“In term of being stewards of the money – we’re very good stewards of those dollars,” Robinson said. “We work closely with the state Architecture and Engineering Division in terms of making sure that structure is appropriate.”
Moore said the Missoula community may never be in full agreement on where to build Missoula College. But he said it was wrong to dismiss opponents of the South Campus plan as a “group of old golfers.”
He believes opposition reaches beyond the core group of opponents, known as Advocates for Missoula’s Future, but extends deeper into neighborhoods surrounding the South Campus.
“If they don’t get funding this time, it’ll be two to four additional years,” Moore said. “There’s a lot of available space to be leased in town if (Missoula College) has overflow and needs. They may not like that, but that’s an option.”
The latest bill marks the third effort by the Montana University System to secure legislative funding to build Missoula College.
Bill Johnson, lobbyist for the university system, said every time the Legislature denies funding needed for construction, it’s the students looking to complete their education and find jobs who pay the price.
“The one thing we’re concerned about, this has been a multi-session effort,” Johnson said. “The students at Missoula College are there for one or two years, and every time this is delayed, that’s another generation of students jammed into overcrowded classrooms.”
At several meetings over the past seven months, members of Advocates of Missoula’s Future have threatened a lawsuit if the South Campus plan prevails.
Moore said litigation remains a possibility.
“There’s a possibility that if the money is appropriated, it will be litigated,” Moore said. “There’s a question regarding the intent of the gifters of that land to the state.”