Some $1.25 billion in CARES Act money has been earmarked for Montana.
That's good. Now, let's make sure it goes to the best use possible.
Some of the initial signs across the country are not all that reassuring. When the federal government opens the money spigot to this almost unprecedented level, there are inevitably issues of concern — like the SBA's Paycheck Protection Act running out of money in literally hours the first time around while large corporations scooped up billions intended for small business.
The first 10 percent of the funds aimed at Montana will be distributed in the form of emergency grants, and Gov. Steve Bullock broke that down Friday: $50 million for grants to Montana businesses with 50 employees or less; $50 million in rent, mortgage, deposit and hazard insurance assistance for individuals who have lost income due to COVID; $10 million in grants to Montana-based nonprofits; $5 million for county and tribal health departments; $5 million in grants to companies producing supplies like hand sanitizer needed in the COVID fight; $2 million to food pantries and food banks; $400,000 to support social interaction for senior citizens; $650,000 to support communication for Montanans with disabilities; and $500,000 for grants to food and agriculture businesses.
While all these are worthwhile on the surface, much will be determined by the way the grants are administered. And 90 percent of the CARES ACT funds are still to be allocated.
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Within hours of the establishment of the grant programs listed, thousands of applications had been received.
We understand the need to aim the lion's share of these funds toward small business and housing support. But we are particularly concerned for health operations; for seniors and those with disabilities; for food banks and food pantries; and for those in agriculture.
Our state government must be a responsible steward of these funds. History will judge harshly if government programs result in largesse aimed at healthy corporations, or grants that dwarf individual need.
We have more faith in the state to administer these funds fairly and logically than we do the federal bureaucracy. A perfect example is the tiny Yellowstone Regional Airport in Cody, Wyo., which had expected perhaps $1 million in federal COVID funds to help it meet its $3 million annual budget.
Instead, for reasons utterly unknown, the feds tossed $18 million at the little airport.
Post-9/11, we saw some utterly outsized federal grants to local first responders — not that they didn't deserve help, but some received far more gear than needed, much of it still unused nearly two decades later.
We are not advocating for leaving these funds unused. Let's make sure, though, that they go to the truly needy. For those who are hurting the most, these funds will be a lifeline. Let's not line the pockets of those in the private sector who aren't in true need, or build needless bureaucracy within the ranks of government.
The Billings Gazette
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