University biology students and professors from Billings and a Chamber of Commerce representative joined a standing-room-only crowd at the Capitol on Wednesday to ask lawmakers to approve the long-awaited renovation of the Montana State University Billings Science Building.
The MSU Billings project is one of nine projects proposed in House Bill 439, which could become the first state building bond bill approved since the 2005 Legislature.
Two big things would have to happen for the proposed projects to be funded through HB439. First, the bill would have to become law. Secondly, the actual revenue collected by the state of Montana for the fiscal year ending June 30 would need to exceed the legislative revenue estimate introduced at the start of the 2011 Legislature by more than $2 million. Thus, the bonds would be issued only if Montana's revenue grows.
Because of the revenue trigger and the time required for planning and designing the projects, they would be started in 2012 and 2013. The MSUB Science Building, for example, probably would go out for bids in spring 2013, Joe Triem of the state engineering and architecture division told the House Appropriations Committee.
Built in the 1940s when the Billings college had about 50 students, the Science Building doesn't accommodate the exponentially larger student body or the modern science equipment they need. The proposed project would renovate the old building and expand it.
Like major projects proposed for the University of Montana College of Technology in Missoula and the Montana Heritage Center in Helena, the MSUB renovation/expansion would rely partly on funding from a state bond issue and partly on private fundraising. The university would need to raise about $500,000 to adequately equip the new and renovated space.
HB439 is being pitched as a jobs bill. And indeed it would be. The $90 million in bond proceeds would put construction workers on jobs all across the state for years. The university facility improvements in Billings, Bozeman, Missoula, Dillon, Havre and Great Falls would train Montanans for good jobs. The renovation and addition to the Montana Historical Society Museum in Helena would keep the museum right where it is across the street from the Capitol and showcase our state's heritage collections, most of which are stored for lack of space. Helena boosters predict the new center would boost tourism. The bonding bill would provide 35 percent of the money needed to build a veterans nursing home in Butte, with the federal government providing the balance.
The last time the Montana University System benefited from state building bonds, part of the proceeds constructed the health sciences building at the MSUB College of Technology. The COT enrollment has grown since then, and it is training students to work in high-demand health care jobs.
The bill's chief sponsors, Rep. Galen Hollenbaugh, D-Helena, and Sen. Carol Williams, D-Missoula, have found about 70 co-sponsors, indicating broad support for the idea of an infrastructure bond issue. A two-thirds majority is needed to pass this bill. Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, the chairman of the Senate budget committee, is a co-sponsor, as is Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, whose district includes a portion of Yellowstone County.
We are pleased to see Billings lawmakers on the co-sponsor list, including Republicans Elsie Arntzen and James Knox and Democrats Kim Gillan, Margie MacDonald, Robyn Driscoll, Mary McNally, Carolyn Pease-Lopez, Kendall Van Dyk and Gary Branae. We urge the rest of Yellowstone County's delegation to sign on, too.