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Lawmakers meet to discuss process, COVID-19 money

At stake is $1.25 billion in federal funds
Posted at 5:44 PM, Mar 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-30 20:36:47-04

As Montana prepares to receive $1.25 billion in federal aid for coronavirus expenses, state legislative leaders are meeting Tuesday to discuss the process for spending the money.

Senate President Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, who helped initiate the meeting, told MTN News that he wants to ensure the money is spent in the best possible way to “mitigate the damage to our economy, as well as get people through this disruption in their lives.”

Democratic leaders said they’ll be on the call as well – but that they believe Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock has the authority to spend the money, with federal guidance.

House Minority Leader Casey. Schreiner, D-Great Falls, also said he hopes the Legislature doesn’t create any “bureaucratic barriers” to get the money out as fast as possible.

“It would just slow down the process of Montanans getting that money that they need,” he said.

The money is meant for state and local governments, although it’s not entirely clear what the breakdown will be.

Bullock’s office said Monday it’s awaiting written guidance from the federal government and won’t make any decisions until it receives that information.

“The Governor will be looking at critical areas of need – whether it is protecting workers who have lost their jobs, getting resources to our front-line health care providers, or helping small business – and how to allocate funds to local governments,” his office said in a statement.

House Speaker Greg Hertz, R-Polson, said it’s his understanding that money must be spent on coronavirus-related expenses, and not just to replace less-than-expected government revenue. The feds will audit the expenses and could ask for repayment of ineligible spending, he said.

“People could get real creative on how they spend these dollars, but they’d better be really careful,” he said.

Hertz also said the Tuesday conference call is a chance is a chance for lawmakers to be prepared to deal with financial and policy questions that could arise in the future, as the state deals with the economic and health fallout from the outbreak.

Sales said he’d like to know the extent of the governor’s authority, on spending the money, and whether the Legislature might be involved, through a special session or otherwise.

“That’s a lot of money,” he said. “I think the Legislature needs to be involved in the decision-making on where it’s spent and how.”

He also said it’s possible the Legislature could have to have a special session later in the year. The Legislature isn’t scheduled to meet in regular session until January 2021.

Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, also said lawmakers will be talking about how they conduct interim committee meetings and still involve the public, between now and the next regular session.

“The law is that (citizens) can observe and participate in their government,” he said. “That’s the challenge we are trying to struggle with.”