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MT lawmakers draft multibillion-dollar COVID relief bill this week

And, House acts on main budget bill, too
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Posted at 8:39 PM, Mar 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-22 19:59:50-04

HELENA — From child-care grants to COVID-19 testing to $1 billion of infrastructure projects, Montana lawmakers this week must mash together the kitchen-sink of spending bills, authorizing as much as $3 billion of federal COVID relief and stimulus funds.

A trio of budget panels made recommendations Friday, after just one week of combing through the mass of proposals to spend the money.

Now, another panel of lawmakers – the Joint Select Committee on House Bill 632 – must write the bill’s first draft and prepare it for a hearing this week, followed by likely action on the House floor next week.

“Our hope is that Montana is going to be a factory of economic development – and (that it will) help Montana families and businesses,” said Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, of the bill that he’s carrying.

And HB632 isn’t the only bill in the mix to spend federal COVID money.

MT lawmakers draft multibillion-dollar COVID relief bill this week

The House will take a final vote Monday on HB630, which contains another $461 million in Montana’s share of federal funds approved by Congress in December, and not yet authorized or spent.

All told, Montana lawmakers must decide how to spend as much as $3.5 billion in federal COVID relief funds – more than the state’s entire general fund budget for an entire year.

And they’ve had just more than a week to design their plan, unlike the two months they usually spend crafting the first draft of the regular state budget.

Garner, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said the budget panels have had to sort through what’s being proposed for spending, examine whether it’s allowed under the bill signed by President Biden 10 days ago, and guess how it may fit into the state’s larger budget and other spending bills.

Two of the three panels agreed on specific recommendations Friday; the third panel, which oversees human services, issued a list of discussion points and possible proposals. The recommendations and proposals include:

$600 million for water and waste water

· Almost $600 million in water and wastewater projects across the state. About $200 million of this pot is for the St. Mary’s irrigation project along the Hi-Line; so is another $235 million for water, sewer and storm-drainages systems in towns and cities.

Some of these projects are already in other bills before the Legislature. Lawmakers must determine which of these projects may be eligible for the federal funding and which may be funded with state money.

· About $360 million for broadband infrastructure that can expand access to high-speed Internet to areas of the state without it.

· About $400 million for K-12 schools, including $7 million for private schools.

$400 million k-12 schools

· About $170 million for emergency rental and homeowner assistance.

· $143 million for Covid-19 testing and contract tracing. Within the proposals for this pot of money is $36 million for the state veterinarian diagnostic research lab.

· $111 million for child-care grants.

· $50 million in business-assistance grants and another $65 million in small business credit.

· $23 million to bolster the public-health workforce.

The above proposals do not include other money that may be in the bill, such as federal help to shore up or augment health-care programs like Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Plan and the Affordable Care Act, additional workforce training, the university system, other capital projects, road projects and vaccines for COVID-19.

Garner noted that the version of HB632 hammered out this week is just the beginning, and said it will certainly be amended in the final few weeks of the session, and as lawmakers learn more about federal guidance and the evolution of the state’s overall budget.

The Montana House also has another task this week: Debating and passing House Bill 2, the primary bill that funds the day-to-day operations of state government for the next two years. It’s on the House floor Monday.