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What the $2 trillion federal stimulus bill means for Montana

 


Eric Dietrich

Montana Free Press

HELENA — Wednesday, four days after President Donald Trump signed the largest emergency spending measure in U.S. history, the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, Montana-based stimulus watchers were waiting with bated breath for details about how the Act will bring aid to bear on the state economy.

While the CARES Act responds to the COVID-19 pandemic with funding allocations targeting wide swaths of society, ranging from individual Americans and small businesses to airlines, hospitals and state governments, its language leaves many details about the administration of that spending to executive branch agencies.

So while the gears of the federal government grind out administrative rules and the logistics of delivering promised stimulus checks to millions of Americans, Montana policymakers and citizens don’t yet have a complete picture of how, where, and when the state’s shuttered businesses and furloughed workers will see relief.

“How this is administered is going to be critically important and could screw it all up,” U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., told reporters in a March 25 press call as lawmakers negotiated the CARES Act through Congress. “The goal for Congress is to make these resources available immediately.”

“We’re seeing small businesses shutting their doors — Montanans need help,” said his Republican colleague, Steve Daines, the same day. “This economic recovery package is going to do just that.”

The CARES Act is actually the third coronavirus response bill to pass Congress this year, following an $8.3 billion measure March 3 and a $100 billion measure March 18. A fourth bill may also be in the works, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Based on a Montana Free Press review of the bill text, agency statements and summaries prepared by third-party groups, here’s what is currently known about how the CARES Act’s provisions affect Montanans:

Direct payments to individuals

For most households, IRS-administered stimulus payments will total $1,200 for individual taxpayers, or twice that for couples who file a joint tax return, plus $500 each for children. Individuals who reported more than $75,000 in income on their most recent tax filing will receive lower payments, and individuals who make more than $99,000 won’t receive the payments at all.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has stated a goal of getting the payments en route to taxpayers by April 6, according to the Washington Post.

Where it has direct deposit information on file from previous filings, the IRS says, it will automatically place payments in taxpayers’ bank accounts. It also says it will set up a web portal in the coming weeks where taxpayers can provide the agency with that information, allowing them to receive payments immediately instead of waiting for a mailed check.

The stimulus payments are technically a tax credit that triggers an immediate rebate from the IRS. According to the Tax Foundation, that means individual stimulus payments will not be considered taxable income.

Expanded unemployment benefits

The bill expands federal unemployment insurance benefits for workers who have lost their jobs to coronavirus disruption, providing for an additional $600 per week in temporary compensation for out-of-work Americans on top of existing unemployment benefits administered through state government.

Self-employed and gig economy workers such as full-time Uber drivers or Airbnb hosts, who generally aren’t part of the unemployment insurance system and have typically been ineligible for assistance in the past, Are expressly covered by the act’s “pandemic emergency unemployment compensation” provision. Workers with the ability to telework with pay and those receiving paid sick leave are ineligible.

The CARES Act unemployment provisions complement Gov. Steve Bullock’s March 17 announcement, that Montana will expedite unemployment claims for workers who are laid off, furloughed, or forced into quarantine as a result of the outbreak, waiving the typical one-week waiting period. Employees who intend to return to their job are also exempted from the standard requirement that they apply for new positions on an ongoing basis as a condition of receiving unemployment benefits.

In Montana, state unemployment benefits typically amount to about half a worker’s pre-job-loss income, up to $552 a week, according to a Department of Labor & Industry calculator. Montanans can apply for unemployment benefits at montanaworks.gov.

Help for small businesses and nonprofits

The CARES Act includes $349 billion targeted for small business assistance though a provision called the Paycheck Protection Program. The program lets small businesses and nonprofits access Small Business Administration-backed emergency loans through private banks in order to cover payroll, health benefits, and other ongoing business expenses.

Paycheck Protection Program loans are capped at 4 percent interest, and businesses are generally eligible to borrow two-and-a-half-times their average monthly payroll, with a limit of $10 million. In most cases, businesses and nonprofits of up to 500 employees are eligible, though some lodging and food-service businesses can qualify if they have no more than 500 employees per physical location.

A portion of Paycheck Protection Program loans can be forgiven, though the amount eligible for forgiveness is reduced if participating businesses lay off employees or cut pay.

Loans for large businesses

The bill authorizes Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to extend  as much as $500 billion in loans to certain businesses, as well as state and local governments, including up to $25 billion to passenger airlines. Language in the bill aims to restrict participation to U.S.-based companies and businesses are prohibited from paying dividends to stockholders and are subject to caps on executive compensation while benefiting from the program.

The business-relief fund was criticized by Democrats as the bill was negotiated. Tester, who cited it as a reason for his opposition to an earlier version of the stimulus package, called it a “$500 billion slush fund” in comments to reporters March 25. He also touted the inclusion of a provision in the bill creating a Special Inspector General to police the bill’s recovery spending.

Support for state, local, and tribal governments

Montana will receive $1.25 billion of a $150 billion relief fund designed to help government entities recover from unbudgeted pandemic-related expenses. In Montana, that money is likely to be directed to the state general fund, state Legislative Fiscal Division staff told lawmakers March 31. The money’s specific use hasn’t yet been determined, but could include assistance to city and county governments.

For context, $1.25 billion is about half the total general fund revenue Montana had projected to collect in 2020 when lawmakers passed a two-year budget last year.

The $150 billion figure also includes $8 billion intended to provide economic relief to tribal governments nationwide. The Secretary of Interior will determine disbursements to specific tribes.

Money for hospitals

The CARES Act includes a $100 billion allocation for grants to hospitals and other health care providers nationwide through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The money is intended to help the health care industry recover the costs of unreimbursed care and revenue lost during the crisis. 

Money for mental health services

The bill allocates $425 million to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to support behavioral health spending nationwide stemming from the pandemic. Of that amount, $250 million will go to community behavioral health clinics via grants. Another $50 million will go to suicide prevention programs, and at least $15 million will go to American Indian behavioral health efforts.

Money for other public health services

The Act also allocates $16 billion to the National Strategic Stockpile, which has been a source of masks, ventilators, and other scarce health care equipment and $3.5 billion to the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to help with vaccine production and diagnostic tools.

An additional $4.3 billion is allocated to the Centers for Disease Control to help with the agency’s coronavirus response. The CDC is asked to direct $1.5 billion of that amount to local health authorities for help with disease surveillance and other coronavirus response.

Money for colleges and K-12 schools

The bill provides for a $30.75 billion Education Stabilization Fund, including $13.5 billion for K-12 education, $14.25 billion in emergency relief for higher education institutions and $3 billion to be divided among states for governors to allocate as need-based emergency support grants to specific institutions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Of the $14.25 billion in higher education relief, half is designated for emergency financial aid grants for students. 

Money for agriculture programs

The bill allocates $14 billion for the Commodity Credit Corporation, the subdivision of the United States Department of Agriculture that has distributed trade war relief payments to farmers in Montana and other states. The bill also includes $9.5 billion in other assistance for agricultural producers affected by the pandemic, with the bill text explicitly naming dairy producers, specialty crop producers, and “producers that supply local food systems” as intended beneficiaries.

Money for election security

The act makes $400 million in election security grants available to states, with the money intended to address pandemic-caused election administration challenges during the 2020 election cycle.

Where the money is coming from

The CARES Act will be financed with deficit spending, adding to the U.S. government’s existing $23 trillion national debt. That’s a tough pill to swallow but a necessary one, said members of Montana’s congressional delegation.

“Now is not the time to worry about the debt. The time to pay that debt down is when times are good,” Tester said in the March 25 press call. “Now is the time where there needs to be an infusion of money, particularly focused on the unemployed, the sick and the small businesses in the state. So it’s borrowed money.”

“It does concern me greatly, it really does,” Daines said March 25. “I don’t like the fact that this adds to the debt of the country, but we don’t have a choice at this point in time, because we’re risking a $20 trillion economy at the moment.”

Read more:

• Full text: Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or “CARES Act” of 2020

• National Conference of State Legislatures: COVID-19 Stimulus Bill: What It Means for States 

• Foley & Lardner LLP: The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (“CARES Act”) – Summary of Bill Language and Key Takeaways

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Eric Dietrich is a journalist and data designer based in Helena. He is the lead reporter on the Long Streets Project and also covers state policy for MTFP. He has previously worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle and Solutions Journalism Network. Contact him at [email protected] or 406-544-1074.

 

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