Montana lawmakers Friday arrived at a starting point to decide how to spend roughly $3 billion in federal coronavirus relief.
After working all week, budget subcommittees on Friday delivered stimulus spending recommendations to be folded into one massive bill nicknamed “the beast” by state lawmakers.
Buffalo Republican Ryan Osmundson, chair of the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, compared appropriating relief dollars to crafting a brand-new state budget on the fly.
“Hopefully we will continue to see more and more detail as it moves through the process. It’s an odd process; I’ll say that up front. I don’t know how else to say it. It’s just weird,” Osmund says.
Though a large chunk of the federal dollars are earmarked for coronavirus-related spending, Congress provided each state broad leeway to fund water, sewer and broadband infrastructure projects.
The Montana Department of Commerce is asking for more than $350 million to aid broadband infrastructure installation, reflecting a major bipartisan priority this session.
Relief money would fund a broadband task force that would look for coverage gaps and spearhead strategies to increase access in a state that ranks nearly last in the U.S.
Missoula Republican Rep. Mike Hopkins chairs the subcommittee dealing with infrastructure.
“It won’t be solving every connectivity problem in the state of Montana, but it will 100% be changing the face of connectivity in the state of Montana, which I think is not a bad day’s work,” Hopkins says.
Lawmakers are also planning to shift federal dollars into infrastructure projects further along in the legislative process, as a substitute for state money and bonding capacity. That includes the St. Mary Canal in northern Montana, part of which collapsed last year.
During a subcommittee meeting, Hopkins said proposals will likely be added and dropped from the incoming relief bill as lawmakers get more federal guidance on permissible spending in coming weeks.
The House Appropriations Committee is expected to consider the relief bill next week. House lawmakers have until April 1 to move a proposal to the Senate.
Kevin Trevellyan is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for America statehouse reporter.