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Discovery September 2000

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By Tom McCoy

Whether the state of Montana was going to provide matching funds for certain types of federal research grants was extremely uncertain until a special session of the Montana Legislature passed House Bill 1 on May 11.

If you recall, the Montana University System was left with no state matching funds to support several key programs when the Supreme Court ruled that HB260 was unconstitutional. HB260, passed during the 1999 Legislative session, created a mechanism for matching funds for Montana University System federally sponsored research. It also funded a number of other economic development programs in the state.

Following the Supreme Court ruling, a coalition that included county economic development organizations, the Montana University System and key agricultural organizations went to work to try to convince Gov. Marc Racicot to call a special session to deal with the demise of HB260. The only other alternative for the MUS was to ask for a supplemental appropriation from the 2001 Legislature and go ahead and overspend funds this biennium to cover the matching funds needed. Not a good alternative.

In March, the governor called for a special session, and the process of once again advocating for matching funds for university research and education kicked into high gear.

Hearings were held in Helena to discuss the various HB260 programs. At this time, the major emphasis was placed on matching the EPSCoR programs of the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA and NSF. This meant that at a minimum the MUS needed $6.4 million this biennium just to fund these critical programs, not to mention several other key programs that require matching funds.

On May 8, the special session began and one of the first items out of the chute was HB1 introduced by Rep. Karl Ohs. HB1 states, "the interest income from $140 million of the coal severance tax permanent fund that is deposited in the general fund is statutorily appropriated" to fund the programs that were in HB260 of the 1999 Legislature.

In short, the MUS has $4.4 million, appropriated to the Board of Regents, that will be applied to match EPSCoR grants this biennium, July 1, 1999 - June 30, 2001. HB 1 also includes $200,000/yr for 5 years for the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center. That much is certain.

However, a major unknown is the role of the Research and Commercialization Board, created in HB 260 and reinstated in HB1. The MUS will have to go to this board with its future requests for matching funds. It remains to be determined how this board will function and the types of programs it will fund. Given the criteria that must be included in order for the R&C Board to award matching funds, the MUS should be highly competitive for these funds. Please call or e-mail me if you have questions. Otherwise, stay tuned.

Tom McCoy is MSU Vice President for Research, Creativity and Technology Transfer.

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