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Advocates of the proposed Montana Heritage Center may have only one more chance to secure funding for the facility this legislative session after the Senate voted down a bill to authorize a lease-to-own program.

Senate Bill 420, sponsored by Sen. Bradley Hamlett, D-Cascade, came up two votes short on third reading of the two-thirds needed to pass, failing on a 32-18 vote. The bill would have authorized the Montana Department of Administration to lease the facility from a private builder, with the option to buy it, for the Montana Heritage Center. 

On second reading of the bill, Hamlett called SB420 a “worthwhile concept going forward,” noting that it would cost more than bonding but less than cash.

Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, criticized the bill for shifting funding to leasing as tantamount to outright funding the project.

“It’s taking the money out of the left pocket and putting it in the right pocket and saying it’s right, but it’s not right,” she said.

Minority leader Sen. Jon Sesso, D-Butte, urged the chamber to give SB420 a chance and keep a leasing option available.

“I stand here today and don’t know that there’s one private owner interested in doing this,” he said. “It’s not about anything but a different means to build a public building.”

Hamlett closed by highlighting a legislative hearing room that is part of the heritage center design. A new hearing room would decrease congestion and increase safety in the Capitol during the session, he said.

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With SB420 dead, Senate Bill 416, brought by Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, remains the viable Senate bill funding the heritage center at a maximum level of $32.5 million.

While heritage center supporters sought higher funding of $39.5 million in the governor’s House Bill 5, currently tabled, proponents were pleased to be included in Brenden’s bill, said Montana Historical Society Director Bruce Whittenberg in a previous interview.

“We’ll do what we have to do to get it done,” he said.

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or tom.kuglin@helenair.com

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