Billings Gazette: Tester: COVID-19 rescue bill needs transparency

by Tom Lutey

As Democrats blocked a $2 trillion coronavirus rescue bill for a second day Monday, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said he needed to see more spending accountability and more assurances Montana’s needs were being met.

The Democrat from Big Sandy told Lee Montana on Monday that only a few changes boosting accountability and transparency were needed to get to the rescue bill across the 60-vote threshold for passage. Those changes, which would make the bill more targeted, were worth the extra time, he said.

Conversely, Montana’s Republican Sen. Steve Daines took the floor with other GOP lawmakers speaking about the urgency of getting a rescue bill passed and spending started.

The big bone of contention for Democrats was $500 billion for business loans and loan guarantees issued at the discretion of the Treasury Department. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has been the Trump administration’s point man on negotiating both the rescue bill and the $100 billion health response bill brokered with House Democrats and passed through Congress last week. Tester argued that Mnuchin has too much latitude in how the $500 billion in loan aid is dealt.

“You could make it more targeted and you could put some more accountability measures in it that simply aren’t there,” Tester said. “Look, I listened to many of the speeches on the floor and nobody’s lying, neither side, nobody’s lying. There’s just a slight, misrepresentation of the truth.

“For example, the $500 billion slush fund. People say there’s plenty of oversight. Well, that could be correct except it does allow companies to lay off the same taxpayer that’s bailing them off if they get a loan. It doesn’t promise to stop stock buybacks. And a company that needs to have a loan, especially a low-interest loan, maybe a zero-interest loan from the federal government, shouldn’t be using that for pay raises, especially for their corporate executives. They should be using that money to bring back their workforce. And there’s very little accountability or transparency on this. And that’s my concern.”

A true estimate of the bill’s cost hasn’t been available, but Tester said it would most likely be $2 trillion.

There were Montana-specific issues Tester wanted to see in the bill, which weren’t yet included. In a letter to Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last Friday, Tester presented issues submitted to him by Montana state and local officials over the past week.

Among those issues was a multimillion-dollar response to universities and colleges forced by the pandemic to empty dormitories and shift to online-only classes. The Montana University System put those unexpected costs at $18 million, said Tyler Trevor, deputy commissioner for budget and planning for MUS. Students have to be reimbursed for the dormitory stays and dining hall meals, which make up the bulk of the loss for state universities.

“We know the refund on the dorms and dining hall are going to be the big-ticket item. We can see that that could go as high as $14 million for the system,” Trevor said. “I would say Bozeman is probably half of that number and then the rest of the campuses make up the other half.

The other $4 million in university costs come from a mix of things. The largest costs are related to shifting to online classes, and also online student support services. There are also pre-paid off-campus study events for which students have to be reimbursed. And there is a list of events booked at college campuses, for which money has to be returned.

Tester told McConnell that more had to be done to help local and tribal governments faced with a pandemic none had the wherewithal to deal with alone. Non-federal agencies needed access to funding, issued or borrowed. Similarly, he pushed for community block grants and small business loans, as well as an intermediary re-lending program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We need to work together. We know what needs to be done,” Tester said. “If we’re able to do that, I think we will have done our job, but in the end, there has to be transparency and accountability on this. This is a pile of money. I think it’s equal to our entire discretionary spending for an entire year. So, this is a lot of money and to not expect accountability and transparency is not doing our job here.”

Speaking on the Senate floor late Monday afternoon, Daines said the country had no time for debate.

“We can’t afford to keep squabbling and arguing here in the United States Senate. Time is not on our side. Each day matters. In fact, every hour matters,” Daines said, according to the C-SPAN broadcast. “As we look at the stats coming, in terms of those who have been affected with COVID-19, literally hour by hour this is a logarithmic kind of scale. This is a doubling-every-day kind of scale that’s going on.

“I have been talking to Montanans around the clock to get their feedback. Hospital leaders, ag groups, tribal leaders, small business leaders, construction workers. We are in a public health and economic crisis. I have not sensed fear like this from the American people any time in my life.”

Daines emphasized that the rescue plan includes $250 billion unemployment insurance for coronavirus-related job losses. There is $4 billion for medical masks, gowns, gloves and ventilators. Another $350 billion in small business assistance was included. There was another $10.5 billion available for developing a vaccine, which Daines said was crucial before the start of the next flu season this coming fall. There is $75 billion for hospitals proposed.

Daines did not address Democrat’s concerns about accountability on the $500 billion in loans to be managed by the treasury.

There hasn’t been a coronavirus bill passed that didn’t have the support of the Montana’s delegation at passage.

Friday, Rep. Greg Gianforte outlined issues important to Montana that he’s supported. Among them expanding telehealth services to improve rural patient interaction with medical professionals, as well as giving long-term authorization to critical public health programs. Earlier, he joined 22 other House lawmakers in asking that more funding be released to the Indian Health Service. A release in funding Monday totaled $80 million, twice the minimum amount required, but less than the $120 million Gianforte and other House lawmakers asked for last week.