Montana's slice of $2T rescue bill can't come soon enough, say state officials

Montana's slice of $2T rescue bill can't come soon enough, say state officials

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From left, Sen. Jon Tester, Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte

From left, Sen. Jon Tester, Sen. Steve Daines, and Rep. Greg Gianforte

As the Senate prepared to vote on a $2 trillion coronavirus rescue bill Wednesday, Montana lawmakers said the need at home was rapidly increasing with businesses shut down to stem the pandemic.

U.S. Senator Jon Tester described the stimulus package as fitted for the tourism and service industries, which account for $3.7 billion of the state’s economy. And, Sen. Steve Daines said new unemployment claims are rising by several thousand a day.

The bill was written by Republicans and amended throughout the week through negotiations with Democrats who were concerned their priorities were missing from the bill. 

“With the improvements made to this bill it will help provide the next phase of critical, urgent relief that Montana’s businesses, their employees, the hospitals and the communities that have been hardest hit desperately need,” Tester said in an afternoon press call. “It includes $10 billion for (Small Business Administration) emergency grants, up to $10,000 to provide immediate relief to small businesses. And it includes my legislation to cover six months of payments for small businesses with SBA loans.”

The bill includes direct payments of $1,200 to most adults and $500 per child age 17 and younger. Unemployment benefits would increase $600 a week for up to four months. 

There was also a $155 billion cash infusion for hospitals for purchasing protective equipment and supplies, patient housing construction and training, with another $1 billion specifically for the Indian Health Service. Medical research and increased Medicare payments to doctors and hospitals were also included in the appropriation.

Daines, a Bozeman Republican, said the help couldn’t come soon enough.

"In my 28 years in the private sector, I never saw anything like this,” he said.

More than 14,000 Montanans have filed for unemployment insurance over the last eight day, Daines said. “…Small businesses are literally shutting their doors.”

There was a significant enhancement of U.S. Department of Agriculture programs to assist farmers and ranchers, many of whom are seeing the top end of the market evaporate as restaurants close, eroding demand for prime cuts of U.S. beef.

Much of the support for agriculture will come from the Commodity Credit Corp., with a new program to deal with market challenges related to the coronavirus, he said. “It will be $9.5 billion for this new stand-alone Department of Ag program that provides support for producers impacted by the coronavirus. This includes our livestock producers, dairy producers, specialty crops. Those who supply the local food system, including restaurants and schools.”

Daines was also credited with making $10.5 billion available for early production of medications, both vaccines and treatments for COVID-19. There is no vaccine for coronavirus now and there is a push to produce effective drugs before the fall flu season, he said.

Small business owners

It will take a few days to make stimulus aid available locally. Brent Donnelly, director of the Montana District Office of the SBA said the best thing business owners can do now is gather up information their lenders will need to tap into SBA programs.

“Having info on payroll and salaries is probably going to be really important, paid and sick medical leave documentation, loan payments and debt obligations,” Donnelly said.

Already, the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program is available to Montana businesses, Donnelly said. The loan program became available through SBA about two weeks ago when Congress chose to qualify the pandemic as a disaster similar to hurricane. The loan program operates with an interest rate of 3.75%

Cary Hegreberg, CEO of the Montana Bankers Association, said that assistance should come quickly to businesses that were in good financial shape before the pandemic.

Borrowed money

The $2 trillion package guided by Senate Republicans is the largest stimulus ever introduced, more than double the size of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed by Congress during the presidency of Barack Obama when Democrats controlled the House and Senate.

The rescue package is funded on borrowed money.

Tester said the $1 trillion in Trump tax cuts passed by Republicans has meant the federal government hasn’t had the money to pay off the previous borrowing, let alone new stimulus.

“I have said repeatedly since 2008, when he had the financial meltdown that now is not the time to worry about the debt. The time to pay that debt down is when times are good,” Tester said. “Unfortunately, over the past three years, when times were rockin’ and rollin’ and things were going well, we increased the debt by $1 trillion a year. That was a huge mistake.

“…Now is the time, though, when there needs to be an infusion of money, particularly focused at the unemployed, the sick and the small businesses in our state,” he said.

The House will take up the stimulus bill in the coming days. Greg Gianforte, a Bozeman Republican endorsed the Senate bill in a press release.

“Montanans are worried if their businesses will close and whether they’ll see their next paycheck, which is why the federal government must step up immediately to help Montana," Gianforte said. "…I look forward to seeing the final legislation and considering it quickly in the House.”

In is press conference, Tester emphasized several measures highlighted earlier in the day by Minority Leader Charles Schumer:

• The bill includes a $150 billion coronavirus relief fund for state and tribal governments.

• Businesses with existing loans backed by the Small Business Administration will have access to six months of federal payments covered by a $17 billion fund.

• Another $10 billion has been set aside for SBA emergency grants to cover small business emergency operating costs up to $10,000.

• Universities and K-12 schools will have access to a $30 billion in emergency education funding. Another $25 billion has been set aside for emergency transit funding.

• The Indian Health Service and other tribal programs will receive $10 billion.

• Rent, mortgage and utility costs will be eligible SBA loan support and those loans could be forgiven.

• Hospitals and health agencies will receive a $155 billion cash infusion for purchasing protective equipment and supplies, patient housing construction and training, with another $1 billion specifically for the Indian Health Service. Medical research and increased Medicare payments to doctors and hospitals were also included in the appropriation.

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