Governor’s Council Makes COVID-19 Relief Recommendations

With $1.25 billion to mitigate impacts of pandemic, report lays out aid priorities for Montana

By Tristan Scott
Gov. Steve Bullock during the 64th Montana Legislative Session in Helena. Beacon File Photo

A governor-appointed advisory council says Montana should use its $1.25 billion share of federal relief aid as an “immediate safety net” to offset economic blows dealt by the coronavirus pandemic, with a focus on business stabilization, rebooting the beleaguered tourism, hospitality and entertainment industries, and by bolstering food security and other social service programs.

Gov. Steve Bullock appointed the 24-member Coronavirus Relief Fund Task Force to advise him on how to spend the money responsibly and quickly to help those financially impacted by the statewide effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The money is part of the $2.1 trillion federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which Congress passed in late March and allocated funds to each state to cover pandemic-related expenses, with spending authority delegated to Bullock’s administration.

The money should also be used to pay for expenses related to public health and the health care system, according to the council’s recommendations, such as protective equipment and additional testing and tracing of the virus.

Bullock’s staff says the Democratic governor will announce how he intends to allocate the spending in the coming days.

Eligible uses for the relief package include COVID-19 related expenditures for specific items including, but not limited to: medical expenses; public health expenses; payroll expenses for public safety, public health, health care, human services, and similar employees whose services are substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency; expenses to facilitate compliance with COVID-19 related public health measures; and expenses associated with the provision of economic support such as grants to businesses experiencing impacts from business interruption or closure.

On Friday, the Coronavirus Relief Advisory Council presented its recommendations, which the council’s chair, Larry Simkins, president and CEO of the Washington Companies, said were the product of two weeks of collaborative work among business owners, bankers, lawmakers, ranchers, event promoters, and representatives of the hospitality industry.

The report broke down spending priorities into three main spending categories: Immediate Safety Net; Business Stabilization; and Tourism, Hospitality and Entertainment Jumpstart.

Each recommendation sets a timeframe for the spending allocations, ranging from the coming days and weeks to months ahead.

The council’s “Immediate Safety Net Recommendations” would deploy funds over the coming days and weeks to those that are negatively impacted as a result of COVID-19, with particular attention to “people, businesses, nonprofits and other entities that have fallen through the cracks with limited or no access to existing programs or to funding contained in the CARES Act.” The money would be used to enhance support of food banks, homeless shelters, mental health providers, childcare providers, and through rental and mortgage assistance to individuals and businesses.

The council’s “Business Stabilization Recommendations” would deploy funds over the coming weeks and months, with particular attention to businesses and nonprofits, ranging from sole-proprietors and independent contractors to larger Montana businesses.

The council recommended direct grant assistance for Montana businesses, with priority given to businesses that are or have been subject to statewide closure. Eligible uses of assistance could include general inventory, personnel costs, and operating costs associated with utilities, supplies, property and other taxes, and fees, according to the report.

The “Tourism, Hospitality, and Entertainment Jumpstart” section recommends deploying funds in the coming weeks and months, with an emphasis on helping businesses once they can safely reopen to Montana consumers as well as both in-state and out-of-state tourists.

For instance, providing grants to make up for lost lodging taxes or concession shortfalls at live entertainment events would provide a measure of support, while other specific uses of funds could include sustaining reduced payrolls, distressed inventory from refunded ticket or event sales, costs associated with evolving health guideline compliance, or other costs associated with sustaining operations through mandatory closures, up to and through the reopening phase.

Follow this link for detailed information about Bullock’s plan for the phased reopening of Montana that is currently underway.

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