Billings Gazette: Montana senators focus on health care, business support in 4th COVID-19 bill

by Tom Lutey

As details about a fourth round of the federal COVID-19 relief spending surface in the Senate, Montana lawmakers are putting forth what they would like to see in the bill.

U.S. Sens. Steve Daines, a Republican, and Democrat Jon Tester are focused on several proposals ranging from a replacement for the Paycheck Protection Program to getting relief to local governments.

Time is expiring on key programs created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed by Congress in late March. Better known as the CARES Act, the March bill was a $2 trillion response to a pandemic, which lawmakers optimistically assumed would be improving by the end of July. The bill delivered more than $1.8 billion to Montana businesses, mostly to cover payroll. An additional $600 a week was intended to reach Montanans who lost jobs or were furloughed because of the pandemic and qualified for unemployment.

The latest response bill, known as the HEALS Act, has been crafted by Senate Republicans and is expected to change as Democrats respond. The $1 trillion package cuts supplemental unemployment from $600 to $200 with plans to tie the supplement in the future to total unemployment payments not exceeding 70% of a person’s income. Republicans have argued the additional $600 has created unemployment checks that were better than wages for some. The $200 supplement is likely to increase.

The HEALS Act will have to be recognized with the HEROES Act passed by the House in May, which spends more than $3 trillion.

Daines and Tester were backing competing proposals to replace the Paycheck Protection Program.

Daines supports the RELIEF for Main Street Act, a proposal that gives $50 billion to local governments and states to help small businesses. The current PPP system reaches businesses through local bank lending officers.

Tester supports the RESTART Act, which is a long-term loan program for small and mid-sized businesses, including those that were a bad fit for PPP, such as concert venues short on payroll but long on overhead.

The early version of the phase four relief bill includes automatic forgiveness for PPP loans less than $150,000 regardless of whether requirements for spending on payroll and other expenses are met. Additionally, any businesses would qualify for the program if they had fewer than 300 employees and their pre-pandemic gross receipts we’re 50% higher than they are now.

“As we work to slow the spread of this virus and get folks back to work, I’ll be pushing to ensure any legislation once again makes workers and small businesses the focus of relief programs, so that Montanans whose paychecks and businesses have been hardest hit can keep the wolf away from the door,” Tester said in an email. “But as experts have repeatedly said, the economy can’t fully recover until we control the virus, which is why our rural hospitals and health care workers can’t wait another minute for critical testing supplies and personal protective equipment. After sitting on his hands for four months, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell must begin negotiations immediately – we can’t allow Washington politics to waste more time Montana families don’t have.”

Tester last week wrote President Donald Trump asking the executive to use every resource available to increase production of personal protective equipment and improve COVID-19 testing and tracing. The White House fired back calling Tester’s demands unfounded and pointing out efforts to deliver health care equipment to Montana.

Additionally, Tester is asking that Indigenous tribes receive more time and flexibility for tribal coronavirus relief funds. And, he’s asking that several billion dollars be dedicated to tribes’ COVID-19 response.

Daines announced Monday afternoon that Senate Republicans had approved an additional $26 billion to pay for early manufacturing for COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutic treatments. The funding builds on the $10 billion he secured for the same purpose in the CARES Act.

“To get back to normal, we have to stop the pandemic, and to stop the pandemic we need a vaccine,” Daines said in a press release. “That’s why I’ve made it my top priority since the start of the outbreak to secure funding to accelerate the development and manufacturing of a COVID-19 vaccine. I’m glad to have secured this additional $26 billion in vaccine funding that will help get our country back to normal and will continue working until it’s signed into law.”

Monday, Senate Republicans chose to include a Daines child care funding proposal in the package. Up to nine months of financial assistance would be available for child care providers. The point of the provision is to get child care facilities prepared for business as parents return to work.