HAMILTON — Montana lawmakers are showing support for bills that will not only clear the way for expanding Bitterroot College, but also could make it easier for other community colleges to be organized in Montana.
Three different pieces of legislation -- one specific to program expansion at Bitterroot Community College -- have cleared the half-way point in Helena.
One measure, SJ-15 introduced by Senator Jason Ellsworth, passed the Senate and is now before the House Education Committee.
That's the resolution formalizing last year's special election, where Ravalli County voters endorsed the formation of the college, but without approving funding.
"It doesn't talk funding the district. But it simply creates the district. So that the trustees that got elected now have official positions and not just trustee-elect,” explained Rep. David Bedey (R-Hamilton).
“They can go to work doing all of the things if we get this through the House, all the work necessary to actually open the college,” Bedey added.
It's been an uphill climb for the school, which operates under the University of Montana after the fledgling effort got bogged down in the Legislature in 2009.
Bedey says that first attempt on Bitterroot College more than 10-years ago underscored the problems in forming community college districts in Montana.
So not only is the legislation this session designed to advance the local plans in Ravalli County, but to make it easier for lawmakers to understand how it works here and could work in the future.
"Last time Ravalli County attempted to create a Community College District it was the confusion in the law that I think that contributed to it getting an unfavorable reception from the Legislature,” Bedey told MTN News. “So it was important for us to clarify the law first."
That clarification is coming in two companion bills. House Bill 179 addresses how community college districts can be organized.
“The current law is so confusing, or has so many omissions in it, that it was creating questions in the senators' minds,” Bedey explained.
Meanwhile, House Bill 67 explains how funding can be approved.
"And to include language that talks about how you actually establish the initial budget for a new community college and gets into the local tax levy requirement. How that is to be taken care of,” Bedey said.
Both House bills have been transmitted to the Senate and are expected to be taken up after the break.
The current legislation doesn't address how Bitterroot College will be paid for. That will be up to the trustees to iron out, with the funding question booted ahead to the next session, two years from now.