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Montana Historical Society plans for budget cut; no more Capitol tours

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Montana Historical Society Montana Historical Society
Montana Historical Society Director Bruce Whittenberg Montana Historical Society Director Bruce Whittenberg
HELENA -

The Montana Historical Society in Helena plans a broad range of program cuts next month to meet a 16 percent budget reduction – including canceling guided tours of the state Capitol.

“It’s less opportunity for visitors and Montanans alike to learn about their spectacular Capitol building,” MHS director Bruce Whittenberg told MTN News. “It will be based on a self-guided tour now.”

The cuts are part of coming reductions across state government, put in place by the 2017 Legislature and Gov. Steve Bullock and triggered by tax revenue that isn’t meeting projections.

If state revenue for the 2017 fiscal year, which ended June 30, comes in below $2.18 billion, a full slate of budget cuts outlined in a Senate bill will take effect next month – including the Historical Society.

Whittenberg said he’s been told to “prepare for the worst” on the revenue triggers, and has outlined more than a dozen program changes at the society, effective Aug. 18. They include:

  • Discontinuation of guided tours of the state Capitol building.
  • Layoffs for eight of the agency’s approximately 60 employees, and reduced hours or unpaid leave for another 16 employees. The management team will take two weeks of unpaid leave.
  • Ending Thursday evening public programs at the Historical Society’s museum in Helena.
  • Delaying exhibit schedules at the museum, Society Press projects and digital strategies.
  • Curtailment of most travel for agency employees, who do training and consulting with local museums and teachers across the state.
  • Restricting the Montana History Conference to Helena, instead of holding it in towns across the state.

Whittenberg said most of the Historical Society’s budget is personnel, so as staff and staff time are reduced, programs will be scaled back, too.

The society’s mission is to provide access to its collections of historical documents and displays, “and that’s all done with very experienced, very talented people,” he said.

“So, (the cuts) mean less access to the stories of Montana’s history, less access to the collections,” Whittenberg said.

The agency’s annual budget is about $6 million. The main budget bill passed by the 2017 Legislature cut that budget by about $400,000 for the next two years, but the bill with cuts triggered by revenue shortfalls adds another $600,000 a year – a total of $1 million a year, or 16 percent in fiscal 2018 and 2019.

Whittenberg said he’d like to believe the next Legislature might restore the cuts, but he’s not optimistic.

“We are anticipating that (the cuts) will be permanent,” he said. “I mean, I don’t see a big restoration of funding in the next legislative session. … We’ll certainly shoot for that, but you have to plan like they’re going to be permanent.”

Other state government cuts that would be brought on by the revenue shortfall include an across-the-board cut for nearly all agencies of 0.5 percent, additional reductions in the governor’s office, State Library and Legislature, $7 million in rates paid to health-care providers for the poor, $4 million in mental-health services, and a delay in state payments for public-school maintenance.

About Mike Dennison

MTN Chief Political Reporter Mike Dennison joined MTN News in August 2015 after a 23-year career as a newspaper reporter covering Montana politics and state government. While some may believe that politics are boring, Mike firmly believes that's not the case if you tell the story with pizzazz and let people know why the story is important.
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