Daily Inter Lake: Tester touts COVID relief during Kalispell visit

by Chad Sokol

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester visited Kalispell on Tuesday to tout the benefits of the third COVID-19 relief package that President Joe Biden signed this month.

In the taproom of the Kalispell Brewing Co. on Main Street, Tester, a Democrat, spoke alongside brewery owner Maggie Doherty, Flathead County Health Officer Joe Russell and Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Micah Hill, extolling various features of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which passed the evenly divided Senate on a party-line vote.

“The bottom line is this,” Tester said. “In order to fully reopen our economy and get folks back to work, we need to get the vaccines in as many arms of Montanans as quickly and as safely as possible. And that is exactly what the American Rescue Plan does.”

In addition to funding for vaccine distribution, the package includes $1,400 direct payments for those making less than $75,000 a year, additional support for families with children and huge amounts of funding for schools, businesses, hospitals, transit agencies and local, state and tribal governments. It also extends $300-a-week federal jobless benefits into September and extends the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses.

Doherty said a PPP loan helped Kalispell Brewing retain its seven full-time employees throughout the pandemic, even as the supply chain was disrupted and the downtown taproom – which generates about 75% of the company’s sales – was forced to close for two months and then limit capacity to mitigate the spread of the virus. The additional support from the American Rescue Plan, she said, will help keep the business financially stable.

“Businesses like ours have gone above and beyond to ensure health and safety, and we need plans like this to help us – plans to help our parents who are supporting their kids, plans to keep us rolling,” Doherty said. “And we’re really proud of what we’ve done, but we know that we’re still a long way off, so we appreciate everything that’s coming out of Washington.”

Tester said the city of Kalispell is projected to get $5.95 million in direct support. Russell said that kind of stimulus will make a big difference by fast-tracking local infrastructure and public-health projects.

“Flathead County will get about $20 million, and we’ve started to talk about the potential use of that funding for sewer projects, countywide sewer projects,” Russell said. “We have some issues around sewer in Flathead County; most of it involves septage. So we see some very big opportunities to work with our private partners and do something about a significant public-health threat.”

Hill took over as superintendent of Kalispell Public Schools, which has more than 6,000 students and about 750 employees, shortly before Flathead Valley institutions began shutting down a year ago. He said about 200 elementary students were pulled out of the district to be home-schooled at the start of the pandemic, and 700 students were learning remotely at the start of the school year. The district has used federal relief funding to adapt to the hybrid teaching model, investing in masks and other personal protective equipment for students and teachers, among other things.

“It was incredibly challenging,” Hill said.

THE SENATE also added Tester’s proposal to provide up to $166 million to reinstate furloughed Amtrak employees and restore daily service on the carrier’s long-distance passenger routes, including the Empire Builder that serves Montana’s Hi-Line communities. A massive drop in ridership due to the pandemic prompted Amtrak to cut service on most of its long-distance routes to just three days a week in October.

Congressional Republicans, including Montana Sen. Steve Daines and Montana Rep. Matt Rosendale, have denounced the American Rescue Plan as wasteful, unnecessary and jam-packed with progressive policies that go beyond immediate COVID-19 relief. In a statement earlier this month, Daines said he voted “against wasting over $1 trillion of taxpayer money on liberal wish list priorities … disguised as COVID relief.”

“Shoveling all this money into an economy that is on the rebound is deeply irresponsible and will cause our debt to soar to new heights,” Daines said.

Tester argued the additional relief is needed, noting the recovery has not been felt equally by all sectors of the economy.

“After talking to businesses and a lot of economists, national economists, they will tell you that some businesses are doing very, very well,” Tester said. “Other businesses, it’s going to take a while. It’s going to take a while to rebound and recap a big loss. I talked to a manufacturing business down in Billings not very long ago. They said they didn’t think they would rebound till 2024.”

At the state level, some Republicans in the GOP-controlled Montana Legislature, including Rep. Matt Regier of Kalispell, have pushed to block or restrict American Rescue Plan funding to cities, counties and schools that have more restrictive COVID-19 rules than the state. Those would include Lake County and the city of Whitefish, which, along with other jurisdictions, enacted local mask requirements as Gov. Greg Gianforte lifted a statewide mandate in February.

Tester called that effort ill-advised.

“I can tell you, number one, I don’t think that that’s smart from the legislative standpoint. I think the government closest to the people is the one that’s most accountable to the people,” he said. “The intent of Congress is to allow flexibility. If we would have wanted the Legislature to control these funds, we would have funded them through the state. We did not.”