Billings Gazette: Montana priorities included in must-pass congressional bills

by Tom Lutey

Several Montana-specific pieces of legislation are included in must-pass bills being voted on by Congress in the next 24 hours.

A long-awaited $1.9 billion settlement for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, plus a return to tribal control of the National Bison Range, is on the schedule as House lawmakers take up a $1.4 trillion federal government funding bill and the $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill.

Steve Daines, a Republican, and Democrat Jon Tester are the original sponsor and cosponsor of the “Montana Water Rights Protection Act,” which is controversial in the Flathead among conservatives who object to concessions made to the tribes.

Daines issued a statement as bill language was being made public.

“Targeted COVID-19 relief for Montana small businesses, workers, families, healthcare workers and hospitals, farmers and ranchers, and billions of dollars for vaccine distribution, is on its way,” Daines said. “Glad to see a bipartisan compromise finally reached to help support Montanans impacted by the pandemic.”

Tester said he had spent months of urging Senate leaders to act on a COVID-19 relief bill and welcomed the legislation, though it didn’t offer everything he’d hoped for.

“No one got everything they wanted in this package, but it’s a bipartisan compromise that provides targeted support for Montana small businesses and folks who lost their jobs through no fault of their own, and will help get vaccines to folks in rural America quickly and effectively,” Tester wrote. “I will keep working across the aisle to aggressively hold the federal government accountable so that relief gets into the hands of Montana families as soon as possible.”

Gianforte in an email said the bill was crucial for Montana businesses.

“This bipartisan relief package is a win for Montana. It provides Montana water users with the certainty they need, extends the successful, job-saving Paycheck Protection Program, and provides easier loan forgiveness for our small businesses impacted by the pandemic,” Gianforte said.

Other pieces of legislation previously introduced by Montana’s delegation include:

• The “Save our Stages Act,” a $15 billion relief packages for live venues and independent movie theaters. Daines and Tester are co-sponsors of the bill. The legislation was make or break for small performance venues, said Sean Lynch of the Pub Station in Billings.

“As an industry, we say we’re the first to close and we’ll be the last to reopen,” Lynch said. Only after COVID-19 vaccinations started last week did talk of entertainment bookings begin, and only then for performances in the third quarter of 2021.

Small independent venues are crucial to traveling performers because they keep acts working between shows at big venues.

• The “Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act,” providing permanent tax relief for Montana breweries and distilleries. Daines and Tester also cosponsored this bill.

The Montana Brewers Association in a press release said the tax reform legislation would save in-state brewers $800,000 in taxes this year.

• Two tax credits important for Montana renewable energy development were also extended. The solar Investment Tax Credit, which was going to drop from 26% to 22% will remain unchanged for two years. Also, The Production Tax Credit, a 10-year, $0.015 per kilowatt hour credit on renewable production will be offered to projects started in 2021 and finished by 2024. Without the extension, 2020 would have been the cutoff to start construction.

“This really is one of the most successful tax credits as far as what it was designed to do and what it resulted in,” said Andrew Valainis of the Montana Renewable Energy Association, speaking of the investment tax credit. “It’s just driven incredible amounts of investment of renewable energy, really, at all scales.”

A 12-year tax credit for tons of carbon oxide pollution captured was also extended to 2023. The tax credit in an incentive for coal-fired power plants to capture carbon pollution.

• Language extending the Paycheck Protection Program to local organizations like the chambers of commerce, destination marketing organizations, and outdoor recreation organizations. The groups cannot have more than 150 employees.

• The “EIDL Forgiveness Act” allowing advance grants from the Economic Injury Disaster Loans to not be counted against borrowing for the Paycheck Protection Program. Daines and Tester are cosponsors of the bill.

• Easier loan forgiveness for small businesses borrowing up to $150,000 from the Paycheck Protection Program. PPP loans don’t have to be repaid, provided they’re spent proportionately on payroll, utilities and mortgage or rent.

• The “Broadband DATA Act,” commits $65 million to creating broadband funding distribution maps to ensure spending is done fairly and efficiently. Tester is a cosponsor.

• A $1 billion commitment to Indian Health Service for vaccines, testing and tracing, community health and health care provider support