The 65th Legislature has been taking a hard look at Montana State Parks this session, sending one bill to Gov. Steve Bullock that would give the division more autonomy while scrutinizing its budget and wrangling over how to spend more than $11 million it has in the bank.

House Bill 324, brought by Rep. Bradley Hamlett, D-Cascade, puts the hiring and firing of the head of Montana State Parks in the hands of the governor-appointed Montana State Parks and Recreation Board. The State Parks administrator currently works under the governor-appointed Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks director.

The bill also “administratively attaches” State Parks to FWP, meaning services such as accounting remain with the agency while day-to-day operations are autonomous in the parks division.

Hamlett has advocated this session for giving the Parks division more autonomy from FWP, saying that he saw a “turf war” and “red flags” between parks and the often higher profile fish and wildlife divisions.

Although the idea for HB324 traces back earlier, Hamlett introduced the bill as questions swirled around the dismissal of the former State Parks administrator and revelations that millions of dollars available to the division went unspent. The reasons behind the dismissal remain out of the public eye, with the state citing personnel rules prohibiting disclosure.

Debate on Hamlett’s bill has been contentious, with lawmakers and those testifying split on a path forward for State Parks.

“This bill is the result of a long, long, long conflict that has been going on inside this department,” Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, said as he carried the bill on the floor. “I’m not going to stand here and say this bill is perfect, but I do believe the second floor (governor’s office) needs to have this bill in front of them to consider what might need to be done in the immediate future.”

Opponents see the appointment of interim FWP director Martha Williams, who has voiced support for the parks system, and the impending hiring of a new State Parks administrator as a chance for a new direction.

“Martha Williams has given us every indication that she holds parks in high regard,” said Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman. “I think this goes too far. I think we should give acting director Williams the chance to be the director of Fish, Wildlife and Parks by rejecting this bill.”

HB324 passed both chambers by wide margins and now sits in the hands of the governor. Bullock’s staff says he is taking a close look at the legislation, but noted that his administration opposed the bill throughout the process when asked about a potential veto.

“On 324 I think the point here is this legislative session brought to bear some of the parks’ struggles that’ve been documented for years,” said Marne Hayes, coordinator of the Montana State Parks Foundation. “The habitat and regulatory issues FWP deals with are now even more significant with the aquatic invasive species issues, and that leaves little room for something equally important with Parks. I think that’s why the parks board and foundation have been really supportive and excited this moved forward.”

While questions persist about how State Parks, which faces a mounting maintenance backlog and staffing challenges, accrued $11.2 million in the bank, lawmakers have been looking for ways to spend it.

House bills 2 and 5 came into the session with proposals to spend nearly $6 million on capital projects for Makoshika, Bannack and Lewis and Clark Caverns state parks. The expenditures are among the highest priorities in the system, although far from the only ones, with an estimated $23 million in needed maintenance.

As the spending bills moved through committees and the chambers, with the House currently considering HB2 after Senate amendments, the three park projects have remained in the legislation. A number of proposals have also come to finance other park projects or divert it to other areas.

As the bills currently stand, $4 million of State Parks money will be diverted from the ending fund. That includes $1 million in each of the next two years for maintenance and repair work at Virginia and Nevada cities. Another $2 million would go to rebuilding a county road to Hell Creek State Park near Jordan.

“This is getting a lot of bang for the buck in Garfield County,” Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, said about the project.

Hell Creek has become a hot button issue surrounding the future of State Parks. The state has proposed walking away from the federally owned site, triggering uncertainty about the park.

Parks board vice chair Mary Sexton does not agree with the diversion and pointed out that the board recently approved $773,000 for needed septic upgrades at Hell Creek.

“I think it’s a county issue,” she said of the road.

Sexton also disagreed with the $2 million going to Virginia and Nevada cities – money that would be spent by the Montana Heritage Commission rather than State Parks.

“I know there’s been the discussion about funding for parks, but I do not think it should go to other entities … it’s disappointing,” she said, adding that she is happy to see the requested park projects funded. The board intended to come back in two years to ask the Legislature to authorize more of the end fund for needed park maintenance and upgrades, she said.

Hayes echoed the hope that the money would stay in State Parks, but says she sees some logic in the spending for historic preservation and access to a state park.

“We would like to see all the fund balance go to parks but know it’s been a challenging conversation,” she said. “Virginia City and Nevada City and the road to Hell Creek are at least somewhat appropriately related to parks.”

In addition to authorizing the funding, lawmakers put a “zero base budget” on State Parks and FWP’s communication and education division. The provision means FWP will have to justify expenditures point-by-point to the Legislature.

State Parks came into the session carrying the unspent funding, but also with a structurally imbalanced budget, meaning predicted expenditures exceed revenues. The department is working with the governor’s office to balance the budget.

There has been no indication that the communication and education division face any budget issues, but Ankney said on the floor he intends to scrutinize the budget of every FWP division in future years.

Ankney defended the zero base budget measure on the floor, saying “We all want good parks where we can take our kids and grandkids and believe this will help them in their budget and within their organization. It’s not punitive, it’s to help them … find out their strengths and weaknesses.”

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin