HELENA — Montana’s $1.25 billion in federal money to mitigate impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic should be spent on immediate “safety net” needs and business assistance, especially for the hard-hit hospitality and entertainment industries, an advisory council report said Friday.
The 24-member council, appointed by Governor Steve Bullock, also said the money should be targeted for public-health and healthcare expenses, such as protective equipment and additional testing and tracing of the disease.
Bullock unveiled the council’s recommendations Friday, but didn’t explain yet how and when he would start authorizing the spending of money. His office said later that he will review the recommendations and likely announce the first round of allocations next week.
Bullock said Friday he asked the group of bankers, business owners, lawmakers, municipal and county officials, and farmers and ranchers to provide guidance on how the money should be spent and how it can “ensure we are setting a long-term path to economic recovery.”
Bullock said his administration, in consultation with local officials and the business community and others, will decide how to spend the money.
Larry Simkins of Washington Cos. In Missoula, who chaired the council, said its report is a broad but detailed outline of how the money should be spent – but that the specifics are up to the state. “What this report is not, is a list of selected or specific projects or grant recipients,” he said. “It’s not a recommendation of how much money should be allocated to each specific relief program. The state has an obligation to ensure the funds are spent in accordance with the federal guidelines, rules and regulation. The state must be accountable for the expenditure for every taxpayer dollar.”
The council recommended three main categories of assistance to Montana citizens and businesses:
- “Immediate safety net” spending, such as food banks and food pantries, homeless shelters, mental-health and child-care providers, and mortgage-payment or rent assistance.
- “Business stabilization,” which is described as direct grants or loans that can be forgivable, or low or no-interest, to help businesses and nonprofits, particularly those affected by statewide closure orders.
- A “jump start” for tourism, hospitality and entertainment businesses, which have been directly affected by the pandemic and largely unable to operate. It recommends direct assistance for these businesses, through grants, loans or state-backed lines of credit.
The council also recommended that, whenever possible, the money be distributed through existing frameworks and organizations, such as economic-development groups, banks and state programs.
It also said Bullock should hold back some of the money to deal with “unforeseen or unknown impacts” of the pandemic in the future.
The money is part of the $2.1 trillion federal CARES Act, which was passed in late March and allocated funds to each state to cover pandemic-related expenses. Under federal guidelines, the money cannot be used to cover general government shortfalls in revenue, duplicate other expenses already covered by federal appropriations, or workforce bonuses or hazard pay.
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