Lawmakers (from left) Rep. Llew Jones, Rep. Ryan Lynch, Rep. Carl Glimm, Sen. Ryan Osmundson, Rep. Nancy Ballance and Sen. Jon Sesso huddle in the closing days of the 2019 Legislative Session. Credit: Eric Dietrich / MTFP

HELENA — As the 2019 Montana Legislature came to a close Wednesday and Thursday, a trio of loose ends dominated the discussions: a long-sought historical museum in Helena, state-funded preschool, and the ever-shifting measure informally known as the Save Colstrip bill.

Here’s where each of those threads ended up as the 2019 session wrapped up Thursday afternoon.

Montana Heritage Center — Funded

Among the last measures to pass in the House, Senate Bill 338 bumps up the state lodging tax to help the Montana Historical Society build a new museum in Helena.

SB 338 increases the state lodging tax from 7 to 8 percent, enough to bring in an extra $9 million a year. In addition to filling a Montana Heritage Center building fund, some of that revenue will be devoted to grants to historical societies and museums around the state.

The bill, sponsored by Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, was tabled in the House Taxation Committee after passing the Senate, but was blasted onto the House floor April 18. It passed its third and final reading in the House on a 58-40 vote Thursday afternoon.

State preschool — Dead

Senate Bill 352, a budget companion bill seen as a likely vehicle for last-minute horse-trading, ultimately passed the Legislature with relatively minor provisions. As passed, it tweaked funding for law enforcement radio systems and for work preventing the spread of invasive aquatic species.

Meeting intermittently over the course of a day and a half on Wednesday and Thursday, a six-member free conference committee had broad latitude to add significant amendments to the bill, which was initially introduced as an essentially blank measure including only a $100 appropriation.

While several amendments were drafted for inclusion in SB 352, most of the committee’s debate focused on proposals for state-funded preschool, a priority for Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat. A provision that would have created a new state agency for preschool, a Department of Early Childhood, failed on party lines Wednesday with only the committee’s two Democrats supporting it.

An amendment that would have created a state preschool program without the new agency failed on the same lines Thursday, as did a fallback proposal from Democrats to renew the existing STARS preschool pilot lawmakers approved in 2017.

‘Save Colstrip’ bill — Dead

Some lawmakers fought to revive Senate Bill 331, the contested Save Colstrip bill, in the waning days of the session. The proposal would have paved the way for NorthWestern Energy to acquire an additional share of generation at the coal-fired plant at a bargain price, with certain costs passed to ratepayers without regulatory oversight.

After a rocky ride in the Senate and attempts to pin the bill’s success to the renewal of Montana’s Medicaid expansion program, SB 331 died on the House floor on April 16.

On Wednesday, amendments emerged that contained key provisions of the defunct SB 331, including a guaranteed $75 million in cost recovery for NorthWestern if the utility acquired an additional 150 megawatts at the Colstrip plant.

SB 331’s sponsors, Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, and Sen. Tom Richmond, R-Billings, had two bills in mind to carry the amendments: House Bill 22 and House Bill 597. Both bills failed to move to free conference committees, the only assignments that would have let lawmakers amend in the Colstrip provisions.

Without a vehicle to carry the proposal back to the House, the Colstrip bill coasted into its final roadblock.

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Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.