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Charlie Russell Gallery revised

Vic Reiman, museum technician at the Montana Historical Society, pulls a barrier cord that covers the perimeter of the Mackay Gallery in this file photo from March. Lawmakers voted down a bill providing funding for a new Montana Historical Society museum, which would be called the Montana Heritage Center.

When the 64th Montana Legislature adjourned Tuesday after voting down a major infrastructure bill in the session’s final days, a potential $25 million slated for construction of the Montana Heritage Center in Helena was among the losses.

Supporters of renovating the existing Montana Historical Society and constructing a new building to form the Heritage Center have sought funding in the Legislature for the last 15 years. Senate Bill 416 included funding for the Heritage Center in addition to numerous other infrastructure projects across the state. On Monday, that funding came one vote shy in the House.

“This is the 150th anniversary of the Historical Society, it’s still the 150th anniversary and we’ll continue to celebrate through our programs and exhibits,” said director Bruce Whittenberg. “Gov. Bullock and a majority of the Legislature supported it and it’s kind of unconscionable all these needs will go undone … just because the vote failed doesn’t mean the needs go away.”

SB416 was not just about the Heritage Center, but infrastructure for schools and universities, counties and water treatment, he said.

In looking forward, the Historical Society plans to continue its work while it regroups for the next Legislature, Whittenberg said.

“I need a little time to take another look and rethink things,” he said. “We’ll decide exactly what our plan will be and look to bring it back in two years and try again.”

Republican opposition to SB416 came largely due to bonding and resistance to the state incurring debt.

Among the Republicans voting against SB416 was Rep. Kirk Wagoner, R-Montana City. He would love to support the Heritage Center, he said, but its funding was thrown in with other measures he disagreed with. Bonding and emphasis on urban over rural projects were his main reasons for opposition, he added.

Some Republicans opposing the bill said one reason was the size of a few, large infrastructure projects including the $25 million for the Heritage Center. For example, Rep. Don Jones, R-Billings, said that $25 million could have been more widely distributed across the state and paid for many separate badly needed school-maintenance projects.

Helena educator and Democratic Rep. Moffie Funk called the argument for school funding, “disingenuous.” Schools could absolutely use more resources, but Montana can afford to fund both and provide good paying jobs in the process, she said.

As an educator, the Historical Society is a valuable resource for her students, she added.

“We’re all proud Montanans, if we weren’t proud to be a Montanan we wouldn’t have run for office,” Funk said. “I’m incredibly disappointed we couldn’t see the value of celebrating our heritage.”

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Other Democrats shared in the frustration.

“Yet again here we are not having done something for all of Montana. I’m still in shock,” said Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena. “The construction industry is due. We really needed to get this done for this industry and for the building that would’ve happened across Montana.”

Cohenour carried a bill to name the proposed Heritage Center after Montana’s former first lady, the late Betty Babcock. The bill was not only meant to honor Babcock, a Republican and staunch supporter of the Heritage Center, but to garner bipartisan support for funding, she said.

“We really deserve to have a place to have our heritage on display,” Cohenour said. “To essentially get the rug pulled out from the whole project, it’s disappointing for Helena and Montana.”

When asked Tuesday whether the infrastructure bill might be reconsidered at a special legislative session later this year, Gov. Steve Bullock said that lawmakers will have to go home and listen to their constituents and decide what they want to do. The governor or the Legislature itself can convene a special session.

The IR State Bureau’s Mike Dennison contributed to this story.

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or tom.kuglin@helenair.com

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