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Our View - Legislature needs to pass museum, infrastructure bonding bills


The sad legislative story of the Montana Historical Society Museum goes back to before Montana was a state — though the story wasn’t sad then.

The Montana Historical Society was chartered by the Territorial Legislature in 1865, 24 years before Montana became a state, because those leaders believed the history and heritage of the area needed to be preserved.

Since then, the society has collected items and documents ranging from millions of dollars worth of Charles M. Russell artwork to documents ranging from territorial documents to documents from this year’s governmental workings, from spinning wheels brought by early settlers to the famous rifle held by Sioux Chief Sitting Bull in a historic photograph.

Along with people coming to Montana specifically to visit those collections, along with Montanans traveling to Helena to see them, the society works with local museums and organizations, providing education and exhibits throughout the state.

And for the last 12 years the society has tried to improve the museum housing the items. Outside of providing more and better displays, the conditions in the aging building are likely to start damaging the exhibits if something is not done soon.

As the society’s president, former Secretary of State Bob Brown, said, the society can maintain the items for a while, “but there comes a day of reckoning.”

The first attempt, 12 years ago, had some success, with the state authorizing some bonding and telling the society it needed to find other funding for the rest of the about $35 million project.

Then politics stepped in. In most of the last 10 years of sessions, legislators have killed infrastructure bills because they refuse to bond. The refusals came in the time of some of the lowest interest rates in recent history while the Federal Reserve tried to stimulate spending after the Great Recession.

This year, the museum has been separated out from other projects, with funding from a proposed resort tax increase going toward that project along with being earmarked for helping local museums, always short of cash for needed repairs and improvements.

That at a time when the cost of the project has gone up by some $10 million since first proposed, a cost that will continue to increase the longer it is delayed.

The bill by Sen. Jeffrey Welborn, R-Dillon, Senate Bill 376, passed the Senate Friday on a 28-22 vote with Sens. Russ Tempel, R-Chester and Frank Smith, D-Poplar, voting for it and Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, voting against.

Now it goes to the House in the midst of tumult in both the House and Senate over the other infrastructure proposals, which include money for basic infrastructure and other projects that have languished for years, as the museum has, including the rebuild of Romney Hall at Montana State University in Bozeman to provide more classroom space for its expanding student body and the construction of a new veterans facility in Butte.

And these projects have a huge economic return for the entire state. University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research estimates that the Historical Society museum, for example, will increase the number of out-of-state tourists coming to Montana by 78,000 and increase spending by $7.5 million a year.

But all of these and other projects, including work on infrastructure in the east at the Bakken formation and in other areas, have been stifled for years with political games.

The Historical Society Museum no longer has the stigma of “bonding” so the House should approve that forthwith. While using bonds would have allowed immediate construction, and the costs will rise while the society is waiting for money to accumulate, the sooner it is approved the lower the cost will be.

And the same with the other projects and infrastructure in general. Expenses aren’t going to go down and interest rates will go up — with its dillydallying the Legislature already passed up the lowest rates. The Fed has raised rates three times since the last session. But it has clearly indicated it will raise rates again, so the time to bond is now.

And the legislators have played games with the ideas of state debt — selling bonds — for the last 10 years.

In one session, lawmakers said the governor’s revenue estimates were too high and, with a budget shortfall coming, they couldn’t justify borrowing money.

Two years later, after the revenue came in higher than predicted — as Gov. Brian Schweitzer told them it probably would — they then said the state had money in the bank and they couldn’t justify borrowing.

Changing stories as the day changes and trying to justify after the fact why they would not take advantage of the lowest interest rates in decades to build and repair Montana infrastructure needs to stop.

Ironically, the people saying they need to save Montana citizens money by not bonding projects are generally the same people who killed a bill that was intended to save people money — the mail ballot for the special congressional election May 25, which was estimated to save counties in the state some $750,000. But, talking out of the other side of their mouths, the legislators say bonding — at low interest rates and lower construction costs than the projects will see in the future — would cost Montana citizens and refuse to pass bonding bills.

Contact your legislators by visiting  http://leg.mt.gov/css/Sessions/65th/legwebmessage.asp or by calling 406-444-4800. Let them know that they need to invest in Montana, past, present and future, and vote for the infrastructure projects.


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