The Montana Historical Society is housed in the 1950 Veterans and Pioneers Memorial Building across North Roberts Street from the state Capitol. The society has tried for years to procure state funding to expand its facility in order to display and house more of the artifacts, photographs and documents that belong to all the people of Montana.

A deep breath and perhaps a beer are now in order, according to Montana Historical Society Director Bruce Whittenberg.

A bill creating the Montana Museums Act of 2020 and authorizing construction and funding of the MHS’s Heritage Center project in Helena cleared the Legislature on Thursday by a 58-40 House vote. Senate Bill 338 carried by Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, increases state lodging sales and use tax from 3% to 4%, a measure expected to yield $9 million per year in full effect. The bill establishes a historic preservation grant program for museums around the state and directs 20% of lodging tax revenue to the Heritage Center project through the end of 2024.

The project includes construction of a new building adjoining the current MHS building near the Capitol, increasing available space by about 66,000 square feet. Whittenberg said earlier this session that Gauthier’s bill represented the best mechanism yet proposed to fund the project, for which the MHS began seeking state funding 14 years ago.

“I’m excited for all the state of Montana because this was truly the Montana Museums Act of 2020,” Whittenberg said. “So there’s so much in it for small museums and communities around the state, and it also helps us solve the problem with the Montana Historical Society.”

Gauthier echoed that sentiment when talking about the potential the bill’s grant program holds for museums in towns of all sizes in Montana.

“What I like best about this bill is Bozeman’s going to get a piece of this, Malta’s (going to) get a piece, Sidney, throughout the whole state,” Gauthier said.

The grant program receives 5% of lodging tax revenue in the five years the Heritage Center commands a 20% share. From the beginning of 2025 on, the Heritage Center and grant program will likely see 6% shares to coordinate with the Infrastructure Development and Economic Accountability Act, or House Bill 553, carried by Rep. Eric Moore, R-Miles City.

For the program’s first act, the bill provides grants of $400,000 to the historic Daly Mansion in Hamilton and Moss Mansion in Billings to help pay for deferred maintenance.

“We made this thing work, and it’s good for Montana,” Gauthier said. “And it’s good for Helena, it’s good for every small town in the state.”

He credited a bipartisan effort and work with the Solutions Caucus for helping the bill finally reach the governor’s desk.

Rep. Julie Dooling, R-Helena, carried the bill in the House and made the blast motion to move it out of House Taxation to the House floor last week. Dooling said Thursday she wasn’t sure at first whether the bill would garner enough House votes to finally pass.

“We knew that we had the votes to get the blast out, we just didn’t know for sure if we had enough votes for the second reading and third reading,” said Dooling, who added that she was “really happy” to see the bill finally clear the Legislature. “I had heard a lot of rumors this morning that people were going to change their yes votes to no votes, but we actually picked up two.”

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The Senate’s adjournment on April 28, 2017, killed a lodging tax increase which would have funded the project before it could be debated. In 2015, a bill providing $25 million for the project passed the Senate and reached third reading in the House but failed four times.

House Taxation revived Gauthier’s bill April 12 a day after tabling it, but voted 9-9 on motions to send the bill to the House floor and table it a second time. Dooling’s April 18 blast motion finally brought the bill to the House, where it passed second reading the same day.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Steve Bullock confirmed Thursday that the governor intends to sign the bill, saying that the project’s funding was a priority throughout his administration. Bullock, per state term limits, will not be in office for the next regular legislative session in 2021.

“We’ve got some work to do now, but it’s something we’ve been anticipating for a long time,” Whittenberg said. Engineering and architecture need to be revisited, he added, as does fundraising – MHS is committed to raising $10 million towards the Heritage Center’s total cost, estimated at $44 million last session.

“This is something that’s going to be good for our kids, our grandkids and down the road,” Gauthier said.

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Local and State Government Reporter

State and local government reporter for the Independent Record.

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