Montana could get as much as $2.7 billion in the new federal COVID-19 relief bill Congress is poised to approve this week – for everything from aid to cities, schools and the hospitality industry to direct checks and unemployment benefits for citizens.
But Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who voted for the bill last weekend, said Tuesday the most important part is the bill’s funding to accelerate the availability of vaccines, for everyone who wants one.
“This vaccine component of this bill really is the foundation for all the other programs that are in this bill,” he told Montana reporters in a conference call. “What’s keeping people from going to work, is the fact that they don’t have a vaccine in their arm, and they’re afraid they might get sick.”
The $1.9 trillion package, proposed by President Joe Biden, has passed the U.S. Senate and may face a final vote in the U.S. House on Wednesday. Congressional Republicans have been unified in their opposition.
Tester’s staff said Montana will get at least $1.25 billion from the bill, once it passes.
But Kurt Alme, the budget director for Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, told the House Appropriations Committee Tuesday afternoon that the amount is as high as $2.7 billion, in a multiple of programs.
Some of that money will go directly to cities, towns and individual citizens, many of whom will get a payment of up to $1,400 or, if they’re still unemployed, an additional $300 a week payment in unemployment benefits from the feds.
But hundreds of millions of dollars likely will be authorized and guided by the 2021 Legislature, in consultation with Gov. Gianforte, who must sign any spending bills. The House Appropriations Committee began its first full hearing Tuesday on House Bill 2, which is the main bill funding state government for the next two years.
Alme told the panel that lawmakers, when deciding how to allocate the federal money, should choose spending plans that would not finance on-going programs.
Tester said the bill “isn’t perfect,” but called it a “pretty damn good bill overall.”
“I think this overall package is one the country needs right now,” he said Tuesday. “And, we’ll be fighting to make sure the money is spent in a responsible way.”
As outlined by Tester’s staff, the bill’s components for Montana include:
- Checks of up to $1,400 per person, for citizens earning up to $75,000 a year or couples earning up to $150,000. It also has child tax credits that will increase the amount further for families with dependent kids.
- Enhanced unemployment benefits of an additional $300 a week, through early September.
- Money to support vaccine distribution, education and publicity to encourage more people to get vaccinated, and evaluate the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.
- Business-relief aid targeted at the hospitality industry, including motels, restaurants, bars, hair salons, gyms and other tourism businesses.
- Direct aid to Montana cities, for costs incurred during the pandemic.
- “Hundreds of millions” of dollars for K-12 schools in Montana.
- For Montana colleges, $94.4 million.
- About $8.5 million for rural hospitals.
- About $31 million for Montana Indian tribes, for vaccines, other COVID-19 response efforts, emergency housing and other social services.
- About $33 million for Montana airports.
- Money to restore full long-distance service in Amtrak, including the Empire Builder run through northern Montana.
Two Montana mayors – Mark Kelly of Great Falls and Rick Norby of Sidney – also joined Tester on the conference call, saying the pandemic had affected “every aspect of community life,” and that the money is dearly needed across Montana.
Vicky Byrd, the CEO of the Montana Nurses Association, said the bill’s money for vaccinations and protective gear for health-care workers is vital. About 11 percent of Montanans have been vaccinated so far – nearly 118,000, as of Monday – but 745,000 Montana adults have yet to be vaccinated, she said.
Byrd also said that while Gov. Gianforte has lifted a statewide face-mask mandate, people should continue to wear masks in public places until vaccination reaches an appropriate level.
Tester said many communities and families are still suffering or recovering from the effects of the year-long pandemic, and that the relief bill is meant to help them get through the next several months while people get vaccinated, so the economy can fully re-open.
“The bottom line is that this package will allow us to get this virus under control, get folks back to work, and fully re-open our schools and re-open our economy,” he said.
Montana’s Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, who voted against the bill, repeated his criticisms Tuesday that much of the bill is a waste of taxpayer money, spent on “liberal wish-list priorities for President Biden, (Chuck) Schumer and (Nancy) Pelosi.”
He noted that it spends money to bail out union pensions, finance “boondoggle transportation projects in mostly blue states” and to expand subsidies for health-insurance policies covered by the 2010 Affordable Care Act.