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MT needs fed approval to obligate Covid funds in 2022

Posted at 3:16 PM, Jul 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-28 18:00:11-04

HELENA — Montana is “way ahead” of other states on deciding how to spend its $900 million of discretionary federal Covid-19 relief funds, even though it’s allocated just 5 percent of the money so far, state officials said Monday.

But despite the state’s progress in setting up a process, Montana officials still are unsure whether they can obligate funds now that won’t be available until next year, said Mike Foster, who’s directing the programs.

“We feel like we’re in a little bit of an awkward position, to get this money out,” he told one of the commissions recommending how to spend the money. “(We want to) get this money out to deserving entities, but we can’t over-allocate.”

Foster said the state has received $453 million from the feds this year – half of its $906 million in discretionary funds, which the state will decide how to spend, in certain allowable areas.

The remaining half of the money won’t be available until next June. Foster said the state has asked the U.S. Treasury Department whether Montana can obligate funds for next year, before the money actually arrives. That approval has yet to occur, he said.

Meanwhile, four commissions created by the 2021 Legislature are continuing to meet, accepting proposals and making recommendations on the spending.

The Health Advisory Commission met Monday and voted on several proposals, including funds to prevent child abuse, help schools reopen this fall and assist early-intervention programs for special-needs kids.

As of Monday, the state had allocated only $43 million of State Fiscal Recovery Funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), to be spent through state agencies, said Amy Sassano, deputy director of the governor’s budget office. Those funds include $15 million for nursing home costs, $15 million in back-to-work bonuses for people and $8 million for water-and-sewer infrastructure.

The main sectors of money to be distributed include:

· About $460 million for infrastructure, including $250 million for competitive grants to local governments for water-and-sewer projects.

· $275 million for expansion of broadband infrastructure, to bring high-speed Internet service to unserved and underserved areas.

· $150 million for workforce development and economic stabilization.

Sassano said about $86 million will be passed through the state to go to local cities and towns, for use in dealing with impacts from the Covid-19 pandemic. Three cities – Missoula, Great Falls and Billings – are getting direct payments from the federal bill.

The commission advising on infrastructure spending meets Tuesday in Helena, at the Capitol.