Montana Public Radio

State Advisory Council Identifies Priorities For COVID-19 Relief Funds

May 4, 2020
Originally published on May 4, 2020 5:26 pm

A council of city, county and business leaders appointed by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is recommending the state allocate its $1.25 billion in federal relief money into three categories of state and local governments, economic assistance and unforeseen impacts.

Montana’s Coronavirus Relief Fund Advisory Council is giving a framework, but not specifics, for how the state should spend money coming from the federal CARES Act relief funds.

Much of that money will go to individuals, businesses and nonprofits to patch an economy stunted by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Larry Simkins with The Washington Companies chaired the council.

"The state has an obligation to ensure the funds are spent in accordance with the federal guidelines, rules and regulations. The state must be accountable for the expenditure for every taxpayer dollar. And our report does not focus on the level of detail as specific as the state must ensure when it distributes these funds," Simkins said.

Simkins says the council recommends deploying funds within weeks to create an immediate broader safety net for food security, social services and people and organizations needing rental or mortgage assistance.

It’s also recommending a mix of grants, forgivable and low interest loans and state backed lines of credit guarantees to stabilize businesses and jumpstart the hospitality, entertainment and tourism industries.

Simkins says comments from some 1,400 Montanans shaped the recommendations.

"We heard from people all over the state. We developed those recommendations based on hundreds of conversations and phone calls and e-mail exchanges from all over the state. So there really is transparency and the ability to support the things that are in the report," Simkins said.

The council also recommends using the funds to coordinate testing, tracing, distribution of personal protective equipment and strike team efforts to address local or regional flare ups of the COVID-19 illness.

The 24 member advisory council was appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock on Apr. 15. It’s comprised of county and city officials, a range of business owners, nonprofits and state lawmakers.

The council says it still lacks federal guidance on financial reporting, matching relief funds to other federal funds and whether the satte can loan funds directly to entities.

Bullock on Wednesday announced CARES Act dollars will fund a $5 million grant program for county health departments, tribal public health and urban Indian clinics to bolster contact tracing programs, help develop business reopening plans and increase education or enforcement activity.

He says he’ll be reading the council’s recommendations this weekend.

"I’ll be consulting these recommendations as well as my budget staff and other state and local agencies as we get some of the money out thoughtfully and to address the immediate needs," Bullock says.

The federal funds must be used by the end of the year.

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