How to spend $3 billion? MT lawmakers get to work

Panels begin work on fed COVID-19 funds
Posted at 5:20 PM, Mar 15, 2021

HELENA — With no time to waste, state lawmakers Monday began work to authorize spending upwards of $3 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds for Montana – a task they said would consume the final weeks of the 2021 Legislature.

“It’s going to take some effort to get this all aligned,” said House Appropriations Committee Chair Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad. “It’s going to take a few tries; we won’t get it perfect the first time.”

Three newly formed budget panels started meeting Monday and have only a week to write the first draft of the plan to spend more money than exists in the state’s entire annual general fund budget.

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Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

Yet that draft will undoubtedly undergo several rewrites before the Legislature completes its work in early May, as lawmakers and the Gianforte administration sort through federal rules on the money – some of which have yet to be written.

“I think it’s fair to say there will be thousands of pages of administrative rules and guidance coming out,” said Gianforte’s budget director, Kurt Alme. “And a lot of it will be coming out in the weeks and months to come.”

Lawmakers also will be deciding how to spend an additional $450 million from the COVID-19 relief bill passed in December.

While details are still emerging, Alme and other officials laid out Monday what they do know, about the flood of federal money coming Montana’s way from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) signed last week by President Biden:

  • At least $2.7 billion from ARPA, and possibly more than $3 billion, will be mostly available for the Legislature to authorize. The only category within that amount not subject to legislative approval is direct aid to larger cities and counties, such as Billings, Bozeman and Missoula.
  • The $2.7 billion total does not include additional federal aid paid directly to individuals, such as the $1,400-per-person payments for citizens earning less than $75,000 a year, or tax credits, or money for Indian tribes.
  • Although the Legislature must authorize the spending for Montana, much of the money is designated for specific programs or purposes, as outlined in federal law or rules.

For example, ARPA directs money toward COVID-19 vaccines and testing, schools, colleges, aid to farmers, airports, child care and housing assistance – and many other programs. The Legislature will have its broadest discretion over deciding how to spend about $900 million of the total that’s designated as “state recovery funds.”

A key element of this category is infrastructure, such as water-and-sewer projects and broadband to expand high-speed Internet service – projects that do not have to be COVID-related.

Alme said the Gianforte administration may want to use some of this money to finance programs offering retraining for people who’ve lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

“It’s certainly a good opportunity for Montana, and we’re looking forward to try to work with the Legislature to try to figure out how to offset the impacts of COVID-19 and help get our sectors of the economy a soft landing and return to more normalcy,” he told MTN News.

Sen. Ryan Osmundson, R-Buffalo (right).

Sen. Ryan Osmundson, R-Buffalo, who chairs the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, said he hopes the money will help create a vibrant small business climate in Montana, for the longer term.

“I would love to see the state of Montana become the single, biggest small-business state in the union,” he told MTN News. “We’re going to have to have the infrastructure in place to do that.”

Alme also said the spending bills may need what he called a “savings clause” – language that allows the Gianforte administration to adjust or move money around, if emerging federal rules disallow types of spending approved by the Legislature.