Last week Legislative Council met virtually to discuss COVID-19 and the fiscal situation for Montana. Administrative committee chairs from finance, audit, and revenue were also invited for information purposes.
Todd Everts, chief legal counsel for the Legislature, briefed members on the powers of the governor and the legislative body when there is an emergency. Throughout the years the Legislature has delegated broad authority to the governor in dealing with emergencies such as fire, flooding, drought, and energy issues. There’s never been a pandemic to deal with across the state or nation so we are all plowing new ground.
Gov. Steve Bullock has issued 22 executive directives regarding COVID-19 and declared a state of emergency across Montana March 12. The declaration cannot be longer than 30 days unless there is a continuing emergency or a declaration by President Trump, which has already happened. President Trump has given governors great leeway according to their circumstances and has directed that it be based on science with stated criteria. You can track this at WhiteHouse.gov/OpeningAmerica.
Constituents have asked about us going into a special session. If appropriating money or extending the state of emergency is required, a special session could be called by Bullock or a majority vote by the legislative members. I don’t think this will happen since the CARES Act money has some strict guidelines and cannot be used to backfill budgets that could hurt because of the lack of tax collections.
Fiscal analysts assured us that our tax collections are just fine for now. What will happen next year with the downturn in income tax, oil and gas, accommodation taxes, or corporate taxes remains to be seen. That will have to be dealt with in the 2021 session and beyond.
Each state will get an average of $300 a person to spend on COVID-19 related emergencies under the CARES Act. Because we are a small population, Montana will receive the minimum payment of $1.25 billion. This equates to about four times the spending per person of other states. It also represents half of Montana’s biennial budget.
No, I don’t think we will spend half of our normal budget on COVID-19 impacts or emergencies since this money is meant for a very limited purpose. If something “creative” comes out of the governor’s oversight committee recently appointed to backfill budgets without legislative oversight, something is fishy in Denmark.
The CARES Act money will not be intermingled with other federal funds coming to Montana agencies. This will make it easier to track and allow more accountability. Legislative Audit will be involved in how this money is spent in order for Montana to comply with federal guidelines. It will not be a free-for-all to see who can get more than the other.
It’s time to take the appropriate steps to open Montana to commerce. Our citizens deserve stability in this uncertain time.
Sen. Dee Brown (R-Hungry Horse)
Chairwoman, Legislative Audit Committee