HELENA — A major COVID-19 relief spending bill is now moving on to the full Montana House, after a budget committee finished work on it.
House Bill 632, sponsored by Republican Rep. Frank Garner of Kalispell, authorizes the state to spend several billion dollars in COVID relief and stimulus money from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA. The House Appropriations Committee spent the last two weeks intensively discussing what should be included in the bill. On Monday, they finalized the text that will be debated on the House floor.
Lawmakers have been rushing to get HB 632 ready to move through the House before a deadline next week.
“632 is not perfect in its current form,” said Republican Rep. Llew Jones of Conrad, who chairs the committee. “It certainly has got a lot of the work we’ve done so far in it.”
On Monday, the committee approved an amendment that contained the updated text. They then passed the bill on a 16-8 vote.
Under the plan laid out in HB 632, the federal money will be divided into five large sections, each receiving hundreds of millions of dollars:
· Education, including nearly $350 million directly for school districts and $7 million for private schools, along with a variety of other programs
· Health, including $143 million for COVID testing and contact tracing, $111 million to support child care providers, $23 million to bolster the public health workforce and $22.5 million for vaccine distribution
· General infrastructure, including more than $500 million primarily for water and sewer projects around the state
· Communications, including $250 million for broadband internet improvements, cell phone towers or public safety radio
· Economic stabilization, including $150 million for grants to impacted businesses, $152 million for emergency rental assistance and $50 million for mortgage assistance
For all of those sections except education – where the state has less flexibility in how to distribute the funds – HB 632 would set up advisory commissions, made up of six lawmakers and three members chosen by the governor. They would make recommendations on how the money should be used, after the Legislature adjourns.
“This keeps the Legislature involved and makes it a little bit more of a team effort,” said Garner.
Supporters of the bill said this funding is an opportunity the state has to take advantage of.
“We’re going to do water projects in Circle and put shovels in the ground in Butte, America, and do workforce training in Helena and small business loans in Kalispell,” said Garner. “We’re going to invest in Montana and the people of Montana.”
The bill is still likely to be heavily amended – possibly as soon as Tuesday, when it is scheduled for a preliminary vote on the House floor. Jones said one planned amendment would lay out millions more in additional infrastructure funding, allocated for specific cities and local governments, but only available if they have a qualifying project.
Some Democratic members of the committee had concerns about how the money in the bill will be directed. They particularly questioned a provision that would reduce by 20% some grants to local governments, if those governments have in place stricter COVID-19 protocols than the state has.
Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, a Democrat from Crow Agency, said, in light of the appearance of COVID variants that may be more infectious, now wasn’t the right time to discourage these measures.
“Cities and counties are being extorted to take off their regulations,” she said. “The problem that I see with this is that we’re not done yet.”
But Republican Rep. Matt Regier of Kalispell, who supported the provision, said it was a reasonable requirement.
“I find it ironic that there could be local governments that are imposing strict COVID protocol – which hurts the economy, which hurts the people – and now we want more taxpayer money to bail that out,” he said.
Garner said, since most of the money won’t be given out until the summer, lawmakers are hopeful the COVID situation will be greatly improved before localities have to make this choice.
Some Republicans on the committee opposed the bill, saying they appreciated the work that had been done on the bill, but that they had concerns about the massive federal spending encouraging the growth of government or dependence on government.
“I think there’s a host of unintended consequences we haven’t thought through,” said Rep. Terry Moore, a Republican from Billings.
Supporters said, if Montana doesn’t use this money, it won’t make any difference in the federal debt and will only be redirected to other states that will use it.
Rep. Mary Caferro, a Democrat from Helena, said the spending on things like child care would be key to getting people back into the workforce.
“This doesn’t create dependence; it creates independence,” she said.
Garner said HB 632 is likely to go through additional changes throughout the rest of the legislative session, to make sure it complies with updated federal guidelines as they are released.