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Montana House approves draft of bill to spend $3 billion in federal COVID-19 relief

by Austin Amestoy UM Legislative News Service University of Montana School of Journalism
| April 7, 2021 1:00 AM

Ahead of a key deadline on April 8, the Montana Legislature is quickly advancing a bill to spend billions in federal COVID-19 dollars as guidelines for how that money can be spent continue to roll in.

House Bill 632, sponsored by Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, and dubbed the “Beast Bill” by lawmakers, advanced out of the House Appropriations Committee on Monday, March 29, and cleared the full House on an 83-14 vote just three days later. The bill distributes about $2 billion to water and wastewater projects, public and private schools, broadband expansion, housing assistance and more.

Lawmakers in the House of Representatives raced to pass the bill to the Senate prior to April 8, the date by which all bills with money attached must be passed by their chamber of origin or are considered dead.

Work to assemble a framework for how to spend the money began after President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act on March 11, distributing $1.9 trillion in federal aid to states, schools, individuals and other areas to combat the economic effects of COVID-19-related shutdowns. While some state Republican lawmakers have openly protested the move as one that will lead to inflation and increased national debt, leadership has said they intend to put the money to work in sewer, infrastructure and broadband projects.

“Everybody isn’t on the same page with how responsible it is to dump another trillion dollars or so into the economy, but since it gets stuck back in the federal coffers if we don't spend it, we’ve got to spend it,” said House Speaker Pro Tempore Casey Knudsen, R-Malta.

Members of both parties acknowledge the bill is a long way from finished, as the federal government continues to give guidance limiting where and how the funds can be spent. Still, lawmakers said the bill was in “good shape” during debate on the House floor.

“House Bill 632 is a testament to the people that we represent,” said Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee. “We worked really hard -- amazingly hard -- to make sure we touched on all corners of the state and all the different aspects of people’s lives to put together a plan that gets Montana back on the road again. I’m proud to support this bill.”

The current bill addresses areas of spending in general terms and is expected to become more specific as it moves through the Legislature. More than $600 million is set aside for infrastructure grants for publicly owned facilities, water and wastewater projects, $250 million for communications and broadband projects, $150 million for “economic stabilization grants,” $50 million for mortgage assistance, $11 million for low-income housing solutions and $152 million for emergency rental assistance and workforce development.

The bill also contains funding for a number of programs in the Department of Public Health and Human Services, like $13 million for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, $1 million for child abuse prevention, nearly $2 million for state veterans’ homes, and more than $160 million for increased COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and vaccine distribution.

Public and private schools are set to receive about $400 million in a number of areas from after school and summer enrichment programs to administrative costs and support for students with disabilities. The bill would also create advisory commissions for each section receiving money comprised of nine members: three senators, three representatives and three members appointed by the governor. The commissions would work outside of the session to accept grant applications for funding from their specific sections.

Lawmakers from both parties have pinned HB 632 as a “once in a generation” opportunity to pay for long-standing projects that are often left unfunded due to budget restraints and tight revenues. HB 632 holds as much money as the state typically appropriates from its coffers in a single year, effectively doubling the capacity for state spending this year.

While most Democrats voted in support of the bill, some still attempted to amend the bill while it was on the House floor. Rep. Caferro proposed an amendment that would have distributed one-time, $1,000 payments to essential workers as a “thank you” for their work during the pandemic.

“These essential workers, along with the businesses, have been the engine keeping Montana moving,” Caferro told lawmakers.

But Rep. Garner, the bill’s sponsor, urged members to resist the amendment, saying it would pull away funds for one-time payments that could be used to fund larger projects.

“I think the best thing we can do is invest this money in the future of these families and the state,” Garner said, adding that many essential workers would qualify for federal stimulus checks. The amendment died on a 34-66 vote.

Democrats also attempted to amend the bill to eliminate a provision that would reduce funding by 20% to local jurisdictions that maintain COVID-19 regulations stricter than the state’s. That amendment also died after Republicans argued more funds should be going to counties and cities that aren’t “hurting” local businesses and the economy.

During his closing remarks, Garner said he was “extremely proud” of the body for the work they’d done so far, while echoing earlier remarks that the bill wasn’t perfect.

“I want to make sure that we understand that we don’t let ‘pretty darn good’ get in the way of ‘perfect,’” Garner said. “This is about transforming our state — it’s about anticipating what’s yet to come. Let’s put this money to work for the future of the people of Montana.”

HB 632 now heads to the Senate Finance and Claims Committee for additional debate.

The Senate Finance and Claims Committee also voted to advance House Bill 2, the state budget bill, on a bipartisan 13-6 vote on March 31. The more than $12 billion bill appropriating money to state agencies for the next two years cleared the House on a partisan 67-33 vote, with Republicans voting in favor and Democrats against, a week earlier.

The Senate committee added back several programs the House cut, including $2.2 million for mental health services for students and $763,000 for refugee programs in the Medicaid and Health Service Management divisions. The next stop for the budget is additional debate and potential amendments in the full Senate.

Austin Amestoy is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. He can be reached at austin.amestoy@umontana.edu.