Billings Gazette: Ready to vote for a COVID-19 relief bill, Montana lawmakers have seen few details

by Tom Lutey

Aside from its $900 billion price tag, there weren’t many known details about a COVID-19 relief package emerging from the Senate this week, but Montana lawmakers welcomed the news.

U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, a week away from becoming Montana governor, said in an email that the House appeared ready to move beyond the relief bills of $3 trillion and $2 trillion passed by the Democratic majority earlier this year. Those bills were never taken up by the Republican Senate.

Gianforte, who opposed the earlier bills, said he would vote for the $900 billion proposal expected to be introduced in the Senate late Wednesday or Thursday.

“After months of needless, partisan delays from Nancy Pelosi, we’re on the brink of delivering relief to hardworking Montanans who have struggled because of this pandemic,” Gianforte said. “I look forward to voting for a much-needed and long-overdue relief package that supports Montanans.”

U.S. Sen Jon Tester supported the direction of the proposal, but like other lawmakers, he hadn’t seen the details. He said in a statement there was still work to do. Earlier this month, Tester wrote both Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Minority Leader Charles Schumer about the urgency in Montana for follow-up aid to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which was passed in March.

CARES Act provisions have been expiring since July, when the $600 a week unemployment subsidy ended. In August, the Paycheck Protection Program expired. PPP delivered $1.8 billion in aid to Montana businesses, mostly in the form of grants plus some minimal-interest loans.

But the pace of Montana’s economic recovery started to slow in October and November as COVID-19 cases and deaths surged. Business restrictions were subsequently reimposed.

The Montana Association of Bankers said Dec. 1 that 42% of its executives surveyed thought that roughly 20% of their business customers would fail without additional federal subsidies.

The end of year will see additional CARES Act benefits expire. Extra weeks of eligibility for unemployment will end, as will student loan deferments and deferred rent. Delayed payment on federally-backed home loans will expire in the spring.

“For months, I’ve been pushing leadership on both sides of the aisle to come together and negotiate an economic relief package, so I’m encouraged that they are listening to Montana commonsense,” Tester said. “Montana families can’t wait another minute for this critical relief, and I’m going to keep pushing until we have a package that supports our workers and small businesses so we can get our economy back up and running as soon as possible.”

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines did not respond to requests by phone and email for a response. He did tell CNBC news early Wednesday that he was optimistic there would be a relief package announced late Wednesday. It wasn’t clear whether Daines had a role in crafting the relief bill, of which Montana lawmakers played no role initially.

Because of the way these last-minute relief packages come together, negotiated behind closed doors without committee hearings and legislative review, lawmakers on the outside know very little until a proposal is brought forward for a vote.

Two weeks ago, when a small group of lawmakers proposed a $900 billion pandemic response bill to get the country through the next four months, Montana’s delegation was skeptical the proposal had merit, simply because neither McConnell, nor Schumer, were part of the rollout. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, soon indicated the Senate lawmakers’ proposal could be a starting point for a year-end deal.

Congress must pass a government funding bill by Friday to keep the government from shutting down. The bill is needed because lawmakers ended the federal fiscal year in September without passing a budget. It’s possible the COVID-19 relief package could be amended in the legislation. If the work can’t be finalized this week, Montana’s lawmakers said a short funding extension would be likely to move the larger funding bill and relief package into next week.