Breaking Ground For Tourist Museum

Taxpayers Committed To New Museum

By Tim Ravndal

Over the past multiple Montana legislative sessions there has been multiple attempts to fund a new Montana Museum in Helena Montana.  That effort was led by former First Lady of Montana Betty Babcock.  She worked through multiple sessions personally to secure taxpayer funding to build an expansive new museum.

The 59th Montana Legislature (2005) passed House Bill 5, which granted $30 million in authority to seek private donations, and House Bill 540, which authorized $7.5 million in general obligation bonds, for the Montana Historical Society building project. Since that time, nearly $6 million has been raised or pledged from private donors and foundations. The 66th Montana Legislature (2019) passed Senate Bill 338, (The Montana Museums Act of 2020)

The 2019 Legislative Senate Bill 338 placed in action the design and green light to advance the development and construction of the new museum.

A new repository for the state’s historic collections and resources is front and center in the project. When construction is completed, it will nearly double the size of the existing Montana Museum.  In addition, the construction will add exterior and interior renovations to 66,995 square feet of the existing 1952 Veterans and Pioneers Memorial Building.

With tourism being touted as the 21st Century industry in Montana it begs the question by many as; “Who is really going to pay for this?”  Yellowstone and Glacier Parks bring many tourists to Montana but many question the amount of time and money that government officials claim is spent in Helena.

HB5 in 2005 appropriated funding for capital projects for the biennium ending in 2007.  The legislation provided funding for a transfer of one time funds that opened the door to the taxpayers footing the bill.  HB540 further obligated the taxpayers to the project

The 2005 legislation also provided for other matters related to appropriations that included  to help fund other construction projects and to allow the department of administration to bypass requirements that eliminate fair bidding and bonding process for state building projects.  The list included in HB5 went on to add pet projects across multiple departments including removing restrictions relating to the law and journalism buildings at the university of Montana.

In 2019, SB338 advanced through both houses and was signed by Governor Bullock.  The fiscal note associated with SB338 provides the next step in placing the burden of construction on the taxpayers of Montana.

SB338 established the Montana Museums Act of 2020 and increases the accommodations sales tax to help fund the act.  The new law increases special revenue with fiscal year increases through FY 2023.  The law distributes 75% of special revenue generated to the general fund with the remaining 25% going to the Montana Heritage Center.

The funding will provide for the construction of the new Montana Heritage Center and will give taxpayer funding to the Montana Department of Commerce for the issuing of historic preservation grants.

A committee has been formed by Governor Bullock to help decide on how the funding will be distributed.  Many private historic museums that are holding treasures across Montana will be left out of the mix in applying for funding.  Majority of the grants will be awarded to government sanctioned museums across Montana.

Construction on the Montana Heritage Center got underway on September 24th.  Funding and completion projections on the project will continue to be assessed by the committee.

No secure funding mechanisms are in place to enhance private facilities. The Miracle Museum Of America is one of multiple privately owned and operated museums that are struggling to ensure that their doors can remain open to share those treasures with tourism and residents alike.

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