How funding will be distributed still unknown
Deborah Frandsen, Field Representative for Montana Senator Jon Tester, was in Hamilton last week looking for ideas, comments and suggestions from the Ravalli County Commissioners about the recently passed COVID-19 relief bill called the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) of 2021 and a potential bill based on President Biden’s $2.3 trillion America Jobs Plan. The commissioners responded with what Commissioner Greg Chilcott characterized at the end of the meeting as a “shot-gunning” approach that addressed both the bill and the pending bill and a lot more, like the regionalization of state services, food regulations, country of origin labels, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the 2nd Amendment, among other things.
The Commissioners did have a lot of questions about ARPA, signed into law on March 11, 2021. Questions about how it might actually be implemented went unanswered for the most part because the regulations guiding implementation of the legislation are still in the works. The deadline for adopting the regulations is May 11.
According to Frandsen, the county is looking at $8.5 million in COVID-19 relief funds to mitigate the costs to local government created by the pandemic. In addition to providing nearly $2 trillion of monetary relief nationwide for individuals and business sectors impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, ARPA contains several important provisions that specifically impact employers. These key features of ARPA include: extension of voluntary paid sick leave and family leave tax credit programs.
Frandsen said that the COVID-19 relief funds could be spent on water and wastewater infrastructure or broadband as well as on direct costs due to COVID-19 impacts. Commissioner Chilcott questioned how using the money on broadband and internet delivery would work.
“That’s a private sector function,” he said, “and if you want to fund NGOs or non-profits then it should be done directly and not through the local government.”
Commissioner Jeff Burrows asked whether, since it was presented in ARPA as an infrastructure bill, the county could use the money on roads and bridges. He said that he read the ARPA plan and couldn’t find any mention of roads and bridges. He said it was clear in the President’s plan that the infrastructure funds can be spent on infrastructure like roads and bridges, but can’t find it even mentioned in ARPA.
Roads and bridges are mentioned almost immediately in the White House’s introduction to the America Jobs Plan. It states:
“The United States of America is the wealthiest country in the world, yet we rank 13th when it comes to the overall quality of our infrastructure. After decades of disinvestment, our roads, bridges, and water systems are crumbling. Our electric grid is vulnerable to catastrophic outages. Too many lack access to affordable, high-speed Internet and to quality housing. The past year has led to job losses and threatened economic
security, eroding more than 30 years of progress in women’s labor force participation. It has unmasked the fragility of our caregiving infrastructure. And, our nation is falling behind its biggest competitors on research and development (R&D), manufacturing, and training. It has never been more important for us to invest in strengthening our infrastructure and competitiveness, and in creating the good-paying, union jobs of the future.”
Burrows wondered wondered why ARPA didn’t mention it.
Frandsen said she thought it was included under the category “transportation resilience.” But after looking at the document again, she said, “I guess I just assumed that when it said infrastructure that it meant roads.” She said it was a good question and she would take it to the Senator.
Frandsen also cautioned that the money could not be used to lower taxes.
“You can’t use it to lower taxes,” she said, “but it can be used to backfill for providing services if it can be shown that COVID-19 affected your tax base.” She also said the legislature was also looking at re-configuring the tax structure.
Chilcott said, as for helping businesses, it is the timber industry that really needs help. He said the recreation industry produces a bunch of low paying minimum wage jobs whereas loggers make a lot more money.
“I’m not interested in replacing the timber industry in order to have low paying recreation jobs,” said Chilcott. He said a good healthy forest would provide for carbon sequestration needs but it will take long term contracts that will help support a mill to do it.
Burrows said that pulling in the reins on the National Environmental Policy Act would help. He also said every time they ask for help on roads and bridges they are told there is not enough money. He said that’s not exactly true. He said they claim there is no money to make Payments in Lieu of Taxes to the counties but they can find $300 to give to Pakistan for gender studies.
Commissioner Dan Huls said that public access was a big issue, too, and he would like to see some good roads and trails put in. He said the standoff over the Wilderness Study Areas needs to just be resolved “so we can move on.”
All the commissioners mentioned that they would like to see federal funding come straight to local government and not pass through the state. Chilcott said that there is no reason for the state to take a cut for administration and then delay the distribution while they figure out how they want to distribute it.