The Montana Legislature will adjourn its biennial session by May 1. Before lawmakers go home, they should give final approval to legislation that will protect our parks and historical heritage.
Senate Bill 24, sponsored by Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, proposes a simple change that will provide sorely needed operational funds for Montana State Parks. The bill proposes that optional parks fee on annual vehicle registrations would increase from $6 to $9. Vehicle owners could still choose not to pay the fee, simply by deducting it from the amount owed for registration.
Experience has shown that 77 percent of vehicle owners opt to pay the fee. Those fees are the largest source of funds for our state parks, and some of the new revenue will be directed to grants for developing trails — the most popular park feature among thousands of Montanans surveyed. Hikers, bikers, walkers and motorcyclists all want more trails.
SB24 passed the Senate 33-16 and awaits action in House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee. If you value your state parks, such as Lake Elmo, Cooney Reservoir, Makoshika, Medicine Rocks or you want to use trails in your local or state parks, let your representative know now.
Senate Bill 338 proposes ongoing support for the Montana Historical Society, local museums and tourism promotion. Also sponsored by Gauthier, this bill would raise the current state lodging tax from 3 percent to 4 percent. For the first five years, part of the new revenue would fund the long-planned expansion and renovation of the state history museum and archives across the street from the state Capitol. The Montana Heritage Center project would also raise $10 million in private donations.
Part of the increased lodging tax would start a grant program for local Montana museums. The bill specifies that the historic Moss Mansion in Billings would be one of the first grant recipients. The Moss is jointly owned by the state and the city of Billings. However, the state has never spent money to maintain it. The costs of major maintenance on the century old mansion far outstrip what the Billings Preservation Society raises in private donations.
The Moss is in dire need of roof repair and other work to stop the leaks that resulted in wet interior walls and floors this spring. SB338 would allocate $400,000 to work at the Moss.
After five years, the local grant program would continue, but funds no longer needed for construction/renovation at the Montana Heritage Center would be split between ongoing maintenance for that state facility and statewide tourism promotion.
The House Taxation Committee has scheduled a hearing on SB338 for 9 a.m., Wednesday in the Capitol. The committee needs to hear from Montanans who want to continue Montana's commitment to historic preservation.
The state and local museums tell Montana's story to visitors, researchers, students and other Montanans. They house irreplaceable artwork, documents and artifacts dating from the present back to prehistoric periods in what is now the state of Montana.
If you want more recreational trails and better maintenance of state parks and fishing accesses, speak up for SB24. It is a key part of a well researched parks improvement plan.
Montana will finally fix the old, leaky state museum and have secure, climate-controlled storage and exhibit space — if SB338 becomes law. A solid plan for the Montana Heritage Center has been on the drawing board for a decade. There's no bonding, no state debt. The bill properly taps out-of-state visitors for most of the new revenue to maintain the outstanding Montana museums they have the privilege of experiencing while in our great state.