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Lawmakers advance funding for Gallatin College

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The House Appropriations Committee passed a major state construction bill that now includes $23.5 million for Montana State University’s two-year campus.

By Alex Sakariassen MONTANA FREE PRESS

Lawmakers and university officials have over the past month worked to resurrect a priority request from Montana State University for state assistance in constructing a new headquarters for MSU’s two-year affiliate, Gallatin College.

The project didn’t appear on an initial list of state-funded construction projects at the start of the 2023 session. But after expressing concern that the lack of a central home for Gallatin College could hamper the booming campus’ continued growth, MSU succeeded in getting the project added to a slate of long-range building proposals contained in House Bill 5. The $23.5 million for Gallatin College replaces an identical appropriation previously proposed for renovations to Lewis Hall, which houses MSU’s ecology, microbiology and computational biology departments. The House Appropriations Committee approved the latest version of HB 5 on Friday, with 22 of the committee’s 23 members voting in favor. The sole no vote came from Rep. Joe Read, R-Ronan.

“We don’t expect any changes to Section 14 in HB5 on the House floor,” MSU Vice President of Communications Tracy Ellig said via email Monday. “HB 5 is a very large bill, so there will likely be quite a bit of floor discussion, but we’re not anticipating any related to Gallatin College.”

The Legislature’s funding for Gallatin College comes with a number of conditions, including a requirement that MSU match the state’s appropriation with donations. In addition to the $23.5 million in state funding, MSU would be required to raise an additional $22.5 million, and that amount cannot include the value of land donated for the project. MSU would also have to present a plan for the project to the Department of Administration for approval by Sept. 30. Under the current language, none of the state or MSU-raised funds can be used for plan development or for land acquisition.

Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian told the House Appropriations Committee on March 15 that, after speaking with MSU President Waded Cruzado, he was confident those criteria could be met.

“It’s a fairly tight timeline,” Christian acknowledged. “I will tell you Gallatin College is a project that’s been in the works for a half a dozen years, if not a dozen years. We’ve got a lot of planning done on it. We know what we think it should be, what it should look like.”

In response to questions from the committee, Christian added that the process for review and approval of the project was more prescriptive than what’s been applied to past capital improvement requests. But, he continued, the Gallatin College funding does fall outside the bounds of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s priorities for long-range building projects this biennium, which Christian previously characterized as emphasizing “renewal and renovation” of existing structures rather than new construction.

As Montana Free Press reported earlier, the community demand for a new Gallatin College facility has grown in tandem with the campus’ population, which logged a fall 2022 headcount of 750 students. That’s more than double the headcount reported in fall 2013, the same year Gallatin County voters approved a $369,000-a-year levy to support the college’s efforts. 

But as Daryl Schliem, CEO of the Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce, told MTFP this month, Gallatin College has hit its capacity with regards to students, programs and physical space. Failure of the Legislature to invest in the campus would prove “devastating” for the county and the state as a whole, Schliem said, while committing to funding now would reap a “$1 billion return” in skilled, locally trained laborers for Montana’s workforce over the next several years.

The next step for HB 5 is a hearing on the House floor, which has yet to be scheduled. As an appropriations bill, it must be transmitted to the Senate for consideration by April 3.

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