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MT Legislature preps to divvy up flood of federal money

More than $1 billion likely available
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Posted at 4:50 PM, Mar 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-12 18:50:57-05

HELENA — The small group of legislators who craft Montana’s state budget thought their hardest work was behind them – but, next week, they’re going back to the grind, to determine how to spend a $1 billion-plus windfall of federal Covid-19 money.

“We’ll be swamped, but we just have to power through it,” said Sen. Ryan Osmundson, R-Buffalo, who chairs the Senate Finance and Claims Committee.

A group of six House-Senate budget subcommittees completed their usual work two weeks ago, finishing the first draft of the state’s two-year, $10 billion budget. That bill is headed to the House floor in a week or so.

But, this week, Congress passed and President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion aid package that contains an estimated $2.7 billion for Montana.

Much of Montana’s share is going directly to citizens, through things such as direct payments or enhanced unemployment benefits, or to schools and cities.

Yet Osmundson said it’s estimated that $900 million to $1.3 billion of Montana’s share will be authorized by the Legislature – so the budget subcommittees will convene again, starting next week, to sort out where the money can and should go.

“The Legislature wants to make sure that whatever money is spent here is spent in a way that does benefit Montanans for years to come,” he said. “The money is here; if we turn it back, it will go somewhere else.”

Federal rules will dictate how some of the money must be spent, such as health needs related to the pandemic: Vaccines, testing, hospital aid. Some of it also may be used to replace revenue in the state treasury.

But the Legislature will have more discretion on deciding things like economic-impact programs, infrastructure and broadband, Osmundson said.

“That’s going to be pretty much directed to plowing fiber into the ground,” he said of the latter category. “We’re excited about that; we think that will be pretty helpful for Montana.”

The budget subcommittees already have been working on a pair of bills, whose first draft may be hammered out in the next couple of weeks and passed through the House, to meet a transmittal deadline.

Then, as federal rules on the money are written, changes will be made in the Senate and perhaps in conference committees during the closing days of the Legislature, Osmundson said.

This week, legislative leaders decided to extend the schedule final day of the session 10 days to May 11, by not meeting as originally scheduled on Saturdays for the duration of the session.

“We’re trying to make sure we don’t have to change (the schedule) that much,” Osmundson said. “It depends on how quickly the federal government comes out with guidelines.”