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Governor signs bill spending billions in federal COVID-19 aid
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Governor signs bill spending billions in federal COVID-19 aid

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Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte on Friday signed a bill passed by lawmakers the day prior to spend more than $2 billion in federal aid to address the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, carried the bill through the session. Lawmakers equated the massive package to replicating the process to pass the state's budget, but on a shorter timeline and with less clarity about how the money can be spent.

Both Republicans and Democrats call the funding "transformational" for the state's future.

Congress in March passed the American Rescue Plan Act, setting off a mad scramble for lawmakers to put their fingerprints on how Montana's $2.7 billion share will be spent.

At the start of this session, Republicans were still fuming over former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock having final say, though with input from a commission, in spending the first $1.25 billion Montana got to offset the economic fallout from the pandemic. That money came when they weren't in session.

This go-round, there was broad bipartisan support for the bill that emerged. It directs hundreds of millions of dollars broadly to programs across state agencies and creates commissions that will review project proposals during the interim to decide how funding is spent.

The governor will have some power to adjust that list, too.

For example, the bill directs $112.5 million to child care block grants. People can make proposals to the commission for how to spend the money.

The bill also offsets more than $85 million in infrastructure projects statewide that would have been paid for with bonding or coal trust dollars and dedicates what could be $275 million to expanding access to broadband.

One of the biggest points of contention is a provision that reduces the amount of matching money the state will put up for some projects by 20% for municipalities that still have more restrictive public health mandates than the state's.

Republicans said the measure was important to "re-open" the state, while Democrats called it a hypocritical way to limit public health response jammed into a bill addressing the harm from the pandemic.

The commissions that will review proposals for how to spend the money generally start meeting in June and will make recommendations through the summer.

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