The House Taxation committee tabled a bill Thursday creating the Montana Museums Act of 2020 and along with it a proposal to fund the Montana Historical Society’s long-coveted Heritage Center project.
Senate Bill 338, carried by Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, called for an increase in the state lodging sales tax from 3% to 4% and for 20% of its revenue to be redirected to Heritage Center capital projects through 2024.
Gauthier’s bill also called for a historic preservation grant program through the state Department of Commerce, funded by 5% of lodging taxes through 2024, and a pair of $400,000 grants to historic mansions in Billings and Hamilton for deferred maintenance.
Gauthier said Thursday that the motion to table generated some surprise, calling his bill’s tax increase “the best funding mechanism we had.” However, he was confident that the committee's Thursday action won't stand as the final word.
“We’ll resurrect it hopefully in committee soon, and we’ll put it to the floor in the House,” Gauthier said.
MHS began lobbying more than a decade ago for state funding of its Heritage Center project, plans for which include renovation of the current MHS building and construction of a second building across 6th Avenue to increase available space from 93,000 to nearly 159,000 square feet.
MHS Director Bruce Whittenberg said in January that space constraints at the existing building allow visitors to see only 5 to 8 percent of the museum’s collection at one time.
An appropriations amendment failed in the committee Thursday morning before a motion to send the bill to the House floor yielded a 9-9 tie.
Rep. Rhonda Knudsen, R-Culbertson, said the bill’s reliance largely on tourists weighed too much on rural Montanans such as those in her district, who she said become “tourists” whenever they travel to cities.
“We’re tourists every time that we have to travel to one of the larger cities for medical care, for sporting events, for other high school events,” Knudsen said. “This is egregious. We can’t tax our citizens this much more.”
Whittenberg called Gauthier’s bill “as good as anything we’ve seen” before the Senate Finance and Claims committee on March 25. The bill cleared the Senate 33-16 four days later.
"It’s very disappointing, but not terribly surprising, to have the bill fail in House Taxation," Whittenberg said of the committee’s motion in a Thursday email. "It saddens me, because this was such a great idea for all of Montana’s museums and historic properties."
Gauthier’s bill was not even the first touching upon Heritage Center funding to fail this session. In March, the House Appropriations Committee tabled House Bill 14, which requested $32.1 million in bonding for the project.
In 2017, a lodging tax increase proposed to fund the project passed the House but did not receive a floor vote before the Senate adjourned. A 2015 bill providing $25 million for the project passed the Senate by a wide margin but failed on four third-reading votes in the House.
Whittenberg thanked Gauthier for providing "great leadership" carrying the bill and expressed hope for further action on the House's part.
"This is as good a bill as we have been able to craft, so I hope this is not the end of the process for this session," Whittenberg said.
Gauthier said he would carry a similar bill next session if Senate Bill 338 ultimately fails, but added that he fully intends on it reaching the governor’s desk in 2019.
“It’s far from being dead,” Gauthier said.