House Passes Covid-19 Aid Bill
House Bill 632, which passed a House vote on a wide bipartisan margin Tuesday, authorizes around $2 billion in federal money and creates a process for making significant investments in infrastructure, broadband connectivity, social welfare and healthcare programs — not to mention direct allocations to cities, counties and tribes and numerous, smaller one-time spends in state agencies — during the next four years.
Lawmakers added a series of amendments to provide sideboards on programs administered under ARPA, but ultimately voted down attempts by Democrats to broaden mortgage and rental assistance and offer direct payments to essential workers.
What’s in the bill?
Montana received around $2.7 billion from ARPA, the third major federal spending package targeted for COVID relief and the first of the Biden Administration. That sum can grow as project details become final and the feds issue further guidance. The key principle of the package is to support programs that can help people and their governments recover from the virus, funding mortgage and rent assistance, job development, testing and vaccine rollout and more. Some $2 billion of Montana’s allotment is in HB632, as some of the federal money can be banked and spent across multiple legislative sessions. Hundreds of millions are locked in strictly regulated government programs like food stamps; the Legislature has some direct authority over around $900 million and still must closely follow forthcoming federal rules.
“Flexibility is granted with an expectation of transparency,” said House Appropriations Chair Llew Jones, R-Conrad, the ARPA bill’s principle architect.
Local governments will receive $339 million in direct ARPA payments following a formula derived from their population, according to Jones. Lawmakers approved an amendment Tuesday allocating an additional $150 million in infrastructure funds for local governments based based on rural road mileage, which Jones said is necessary to ensure that funds get to sparsely populated communities.
Exactly how much some cities will get is a point of contention, especially for Democrats. Earlier in the process, Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, attempted to introduce language that would bar a local government from receiving aid money through the Legislature if it has COVID-19 regulations stricter than the state’s on the books.
That provision was significantly watered down, but remains ultimately intact in the bill: those cities that keep mask mandates and other restrictions in law will see their allotment cut by 20%. Republicans rebuffed an amendment by Democrats to remove that language Tuesday.
Rep. Regier, on the floor Tuesday, argued that government is the reason for economic hardship post-COVID-19.
“You look at all these allocations of dollars, it’s a clear admission by government of the aspects of society that were hurt,” he said. “If there are local Montana governments that want to continue to hurt their economies, hurt their people, those decisions, mathematically, have a cost.”
Bridges and Broadband
One of the most significant investments in the version of the bill lawmakers approved Tuesday is $250 million for an ambitious proposal to expand broadband in the country’s least connected state, where in a dozen counties less than half of the population has high-speed internet. While $100 million is more modest than a plan that the Department of Commerce brought to legislative appropriators as they were drafting the bill in subcommittees, it’s still a potentially transformative project.
No direct payments
One of the amendments the House debated Monday would have spent $200 million to send out $1,000 direct payments for essential workers who earn under $30,000 a year.
Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, who brought the amendment, described the payments as a bonus to reward Montanans who never had the opportunity to work from home.
“Just a short time ago, we passed a resolution thanking our essential workers,” said Rep. Derek Harvey, D-Butte. “But to put it frankly, those were just words on a piece of paper. Today, this amendment gives us all the opportunity to take action on these words.”
But Republicans argued against the idea and killed the amendment, in some cases because they felt the money would be better invested in career development, or because, in the words of Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, direct payments are “a clear socialist policy.”
And some Republicans, including Gov. Greg Gianforte, who decried ARPA as a “fiscally irresponsible progressive wishlist,” have bristled at the prospect of growing government and taking billions in federal funds — at least from a Democratic president.
Rep. Frank Garner (R-Kalispell) pointed out to skeptics that if the state doesn’t allocate this money, another one will. He posited: Why should Montana finance developments in Portland or Seattle?
“Today, I’m here to vote green to prove the people wrong who said that this would cause the folks in our state to become more dependent on government,” Garner said, calling the bill a winning bet on Montana citizens. “This is about transforming our state, about anticipating what is yet to come.”