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The latest Montana politics, elections and Legislature news.

Tester, Daines Support More COVID Relief — But The Devil's In The Details

Montana Sen. Jon Tester (L) and Sen. Steve Daines (R)

After a months-long impasse, Montana senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines both say Congress should broker a deal on a new coronavirus relief package, but it’s not yet clear if they’ll agree on what a final package should look like. Renewed calls for a deal come as Montana assigns its final dollars from the last federal aid package. 

Lawmakers haven’t passed a major relief bill since March when the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed with bipartisan support.

Gov. Steve Bullock announced Wednesday that Montana will exhaust its entire pot of money it received through the CARES Act by Dec. 30. 

“While a billion and a quarter dollars is a significant sum of money the pandemic and its related financial impacts have drawn on these funds for nearly nine months now.” 

Growing calls for another round of aid from Congress come as CARES Act dollars expire at the end of the year and COVID-19 spreads unchecked around the nation. 

The Montana Bankers Association said Monday that employers are looking for financial help to deal with recent restrictions on businesses put in place by state and local authorities due to the pandemic. The association surveyed 58 Montana bankers, around half believe that at least 20 percent of the businesses they lend to will go under without a second relief package. More than 80 percent of those surveyed said further financial assistance from Congress is needed. 

On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers released a $900 billion framework for a bill, but it’s not yet clear how much traction that will get. 

The price tag of the proposal has support from Democratic U.S. Sen. Tester. But Tester told MTPR he’s holding off on a full endorsement of the package until he sees details of the plan. Tester says passing another stimulus package is critical. 

"Quite frankly, if we don’t do that, the economy will perform so poorly that it will be a long time before we can get back to a point where we have economic growth."

Tester said he’d like the next stimulus package to include money for the Paycheck Protection Program, local and tribal governments, unemployment benefits, health care and education. 

Tester blamed the gridlock over a stimulus deal on poor leadership from Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Republican U.S. Senator Daines earlier this fall backed a $500 billion aid package and blamed Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic lawmakers for not compromising on an aid deal. 

Daines was unavailable for an interview for this story and did not provide comment on the $900 billion framework proposed this week. 

A spokesperson for Daines said in an email that "what's critical is having a bipartisan compromise that provides targeted relief for Montana families, workers and small businesses — and one that can be passed and signed into law."

University of Montana economist Patrick Barkey said the CARES stimulus package from this spring had major positive impacts on the U.S. economy.

"It didn’t fix everything, but it did a lot of good."

Barkey said that some sectors of the economy have rebounded better than expected, and that could offset the negative impacts of Congress forgoing another stimulus package this year. 

He said the effectiveness of another possible stimulus package will depend on what’s in it.

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