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Legislature continues attempts to change state's COVID-19 response
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Legislature continues attempts to change state's COVID-19 response

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The House State Administration Committee

The House State Administration Committee hears testimony.

The Montana Legislature on Tuesday continued its push to change the way the state responds to the the pandemic, with two more bills debated out of a slew of legislation around the actions taken by state government over the last 11 months.

Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, is carrying a bill that would have the Legislature be more involved in a situation like the state determining how to spend the $1.25 billion in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security funding. Rep. Caleb Hinkle, R-Belgrade, has legislation that would create a commission to review rules and regulations temporarily suspended during the pandemic to see if any of the changes would be beneficial long term.

Lawmakers have already debated bills that create liability shields for businesses that take health precautions, and would impose more limits on a governor's or local health officer's abilities to respond to an emergency and more.

Jones' bill would require that the spending of any unexpected money coming from the federal government have more legislative oversight if the amount exceeds more than 5% of the state's general fund. Jones said that scenario has only happened once in the last 30 years, when the state received the $1.25 billion in CARES funding in March 2020.

Former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock created a panel, that included Jones, to help determine how to spend the money, but Jones said Tuesday state law indicates the Legislature should have more of a say in the process. Republicans clashed with Bullock over his approach through last year.

"The Legislature was ceding too much of its appropriation authority to the executive," Jones said Tuesday.

The process in his bill would kick in if the state received an amount of unexpected federal funding of 5% of more of the general fund, which would have been $118.3 million based on the last state budget. In that case, the Legislative Fiscal Committee would have input and take public comment on the governor's spending plans. 

That committee will also request the secretary of state poll the full Legislature, if not in session, to determine if a majority favor a legislative declaration approving the governor's spending plan. If the plan isn't approved, the governor can submit a new plan and call a special session.

Jones said he had met with Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte and discussed the proposal. "Of course executives are not comfortable ceding power, (but) we're not trying to make it so he can't respond," Jones said.

The CARES money came with limitations on how it could be spent, but let the governor have broad authority to set up programs to distribute the money. Bullock created about 30 grant programs and also directed the money toward response efforts at schools and other places. The state is expecting about $800 million from the most recent aid package passed in Congress, though it has more stringent rules about how it can be spent than the first round of funding.

Rep. Denise Hayman, D-Bozeman, said Tuesday she worried involving the Legislature as Jones proposes "bogs down the whole process" of a governor to respond in an emergency.

Jones countered that a governor still has access to state emergency funds outside the federal appropriation without legislative input.

The bill from Hinkle would create a commission to review regulations lifted by directives during the pandemic that allowed for things like increased access to telehealth services and home delivery of alcohol. Hinkle questioned if regulations were waived in an emergency, were they really necessary to begin with?

He said the commission would evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of the changes. The commission would prepare a report with its findings and recommendations for the next Legislature in 2023.

Ronda Wiggers, a lobbyist for the Montana Coin Machine Operators Association, said that organization supported the change because some of the adaptations might help businesses that believe it won't be a flip of a switch to return to pre-pandemic operations.

"We're fairly confident this is going to be a slow process," Wiggers said. "Some rules might need to stay in place to help small businesses, even if directives lift."

The House State Administration Committee, which heard the bills, did not take immediate action.

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