A bill to help fund the Montana Historical Society’s Heritage Center project with an increased state lodging tax passed by a wide margin Thursday on its second reading in the state Senate, meaning it's likely to clear the body.
Senate Bill 338, also known as the Montana Museums Act of 2020, calls for an increase in the state lodging tax from 3 percent to 4 percent. Twenty percent of that revenue would be redirected to the Heritage Center project through the end of 2024. All accommodations tax revenue currently goes to the state general fund.
The Montana Historical Society has lobbied for state funding since 2005 for its Heritage Center project, which would renovate the group’s existing building at Sixth Avenue and North Roberts Street, and add a second at the same intersection. The project would bring the historical society's capacity from 93,000 square feet to nearly 159,000.
According to MHS Director Bruce Whittenberg, visitors at the existing building can only see 5 to 8 percent of the museum’s collection at one time because of space constraints.
The bill, carried by Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, requires no general fund money or bonding to fund the Heritage Center project. The lodging tax increase would raise $30.3 million through fiscal 2023, according to the bill’s fiscal note.
Packaged with the Heritage Center revenue is a historic preservation grant program through the state Department of Commerce, funded by 5 percent of lodging tax revenue through the end of 2024, and immediate grants of $400,000 each to historical mansions in Billings and Hamilton.
The bill needs to pass its third Senate reading by Monday’s transmittal date to have a chance at reaching the House floor. All remaining bills in the state Legislature must pass at least one chamber of the state Legislature by Monday to stay alive in the final three weeks of the legislative session.
"This is another great step in the process, but we have a ways to go," Whittenberg said Thursday. "The Montana Museums Act of 2020 is … a great bill for all of Montana’s museums, historic properties and our communities." He specifically praised the lead of Gauthier and Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena.
A proposed increase of state lodging taxes to pay for the Heritage Center project carried by another Helena lawmaker, then-House minority leader Jenny Eck, failed in the state Senate after passing the House in 2017.