HELENA – The Montana Historical Society came up empty again in its attempt to obtain money from the Legislature to proceed with plans to build its new Montana Heritage Center.
Although the 2013 Legislature voted to spend nearly $55 million for new and renovated university system buildings, the Montana Historical Society wound up being left off the final list in its request for $23 million.
Montana State University also was turned down in its request for $20 million to turn Romney Gym into a student academic center in Bozeman.
Two years ago, the Historical Society project was on a list of nearly $100 million worth of building projects that were to be funded by issuing bonds. That required a two-thirds majority vote and ultimately died when it failed to obtain the super-majority in the final House vote so nothing passed.
“We appreciate being considered this year,” Historical Society Director Bruce Whittenberg said Thursday. “I know the governor supports this idea, and we intend to tell the story of the Historical Society and are hopeful we’ll have a better result next session.”
In 2015, the Historical Society will celebrate its 150th anniversary. It was created in 1865, one year after Montana became a territory.
“That would be a wonderful time to pass the legislation to get this project going,” Whittenberg said.
Gov. Steve Bullock said he was disappointed that money for the Historical Society building and Romney Hall weren’t included in the list of projects that were funded.
“It just makes sense for Montana,” he said. “It’s real unfortunate we didn’t get that done.”
Bullock had proposed the original bonding bill for university buildings and the Historical Society, calling it the JOBS bill for Jobs and Opportunities by Building Schools. He said it not only would provide more than 2,000 construction jobs but would be used to train the workers of future.
Rep, Galen Hollenbaugh, D-Helena, who has sponsored the bonding bills the past two sessions, was disappointed the Historical Society again wasn’t funded.
“If I’m back, I’ll be working on this project and hoping the third time will be the charm,” he said.
Hollenbaugh said he has had some difficulty explaining to his colleagues that the Montana Historical Society is not a local museum, but a statewide one and an important one.
“We’re going to have to work on the educational component,” he said. “It’s a state agency, and they should be funded as a state agency and not have to have bake sales to complete the project.”
The funding for the Historical Society building was originally into House Bill 14, the bonding bill, but backers faced trouble obtaining the two-thirds majority needed to pass it. As a result, the projects were stuffed into HB5, which would pay for building projects with cash.
In the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, removed the costliest projects from HB5, including the $23 million for the Historical Society. On the floor, he later successfully restored two of the major ones $29 million for Missoula College and $10 million for Montana State University-Billings, but not the Historical Society building.
An attempt on the Senate floor failed 28-22 to put back the Historical Society building back in HB5.
“The bottom line, it seems like a Helena project so the votes aren’t there,” Lewis said. “I had to go with the buildings that could get the votes.”
Lewis said the best chance for the Historical Society project was in the bonding bill, but it couldn’t muster the needed two-thirds votes in the House.
“With cash, there was just room for two of the four (major) buildings,” he said.
Lewis said he believes Historical Society officials need to go back and reconsider the idea of building the new facility.
“There are dozens of museums around the state,” he said. “Is there a way to take traveling exhibits and displays around the state?”
Legislators might be more supportive of spending money to buy vehicles for the Historical Society to move its displays around the state to share with local museums than paying for a new building in Helena, he said.