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Government & Politics

Daines, Tester Weigh In On Senate Coronavirus Relief Package

Jackie Yamanaka

The U.S. Senate is negotiating another round of coronavirus relief as expanded unemployment benefits expire this week. Kevin Trevellyan with Yellowstone Public Radio news looked into where Montana’s senators stand on several key issues under consideration. He shares his reporting with Nicky Ouellet.

NICKY OUELLET: Kevin, Senate Republicans unveiled their $1 trillion virus relief proposal Monday. Where do Montana’s senators stand on the GOP’s HEALS Act?

KEVIN TREVELLYAN: So first off, that stands for the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools Act. Republican Sen. Steve Daines hasn’t announced how he would vote on the HEALS Act, and his staff told me he wasn’t available for an interview this week. But his team put out a news release praising the bill’s inclusion of what they say are major Montana priorities. I did speak with Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, who doesn’t support the Republican plan as written.

“If this bill was put in front of me now I’d vote ‘no,’ because it doesn’t do what it needed to do," Tester said.

NO: And yet, isn’t there some urgency to pass new legislation?

KT: There is. A ban on evictions for people living in federally subsidized housing expired last week. Enhanced federal unemployment benefits providing an extra $600 per week are basically finished too, though unemployment remains high.

NO: Where do Montana’s senators stand on those safety net issues?

KT: A Daines news release celebrates the new Republican proposal to provide $200 per week on top of regular unemployment benefits, while eventually transitioning to paying out 70 percent of an unemployed person’s previous wages.

NO: What does Tester think about that?

KT: Tester is following other Democrats and saying it would be difficult to do in a timely manner. He supports extending expanded unemployment benefits for three to four months, though he didn’t have a specific figure in mind.

“I think the key is finding the sweet spot where folks will go back to work when those jobs become available, but yet have enough money when those jobs aren’t available to be able to pay the bills,” Tester said.

Tester and Daines also both support extending the moratorium on evictions from federally subsidized housing.

NO: What else do these lawmakers want in the bill?

KT: At the top of both senators’ wishlists: funding for vaccine research and hospital supplies, like testing kits and personal protective equipment.

“Anything we pass has to deal with the health care issue first. If we’re going to get the economy back on track, we have to get our arms around the COVID-19 virus. That’s first, then the economy is right behind that," Tester said.

The new Republican bill also includes a liability shield to protect businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits, which Daines supports. Tester says there simply haven’t been many cases to show why businesses would need immunity.

NO: Speaking of businesses, many have been heavily impacted by the pandemic. Will they see more relief?

KT: A Daines news release touts Republicans’ proposed expansion of the Paycheck Protection Program, created in June to loan businesses money to keep employees on payroll. Tester hasn’t shut the door on additional PPP funding. But Daines and Tester also support other bills intended to help businesses. Daines backs the RELIEF for Main Street Act, which would provide new money for very small rural and minority-owned businesses. And Tester supports the RESTART Act, which provides longer-term, more flexible loans for small- and medium-sized businesses.

As far as where that money should go, Tester says hospitality businesses, like hotels, bars and breweries, need some help, along with a few other industries.

“Maybe there’s not a lot of gyms, but those gyms have been impacted, so that’s a problem. I know music venues have been impacted and a lot of folks in that business are unemployed. Cattle industry has been impacted negatively with COVID," Tester said.

Meanwhile, Daines is urging support for restaurants, agricultural producers and other businesses that have suffered losses due to a drop in perishable food and beverage sales because of the virus.

NO: State governments received emergency funds from the last coronavirus relief package. Are they expected to get more this time around?

KT: The Republican HEALS Act leaves out funding for state and local governments. Daines hasn’t included that priority in recent messaging, and Tester says states already received a strong infusion from federal legislation passed in March. At this point, Montana hasn’t spent the vast majority of it’s $1.25 billion in CARES Act funding, though Gov. Steve Bullock has said most of it is allocated.

Tester says he’s mainly been hearing from towns and cities worried about continuing to provide basic services, like trash pick up, with less tax revenue due to the virus.

Fire departments, police departments--they’ve got to make sure those folks have the dollars to continue their work," Tester said.

NO: What about tribal governments?

KT: Tester says there should be more tribal government funding, while a Daines news release says the senator wants Indigenous communities treated equally in relation to state and local funding. The HEALS Act includes about $1.6 billion for Native American health initiatives.

NO: The beginning of the school year is right around the corner, and a lot of people are wondering how schools will fund coronavirus safety precautions. Where do Tester and Daines stand on that?

KT: Daines wants to provide funding for K-12 schools to reopen in the fall, according to a news release. Tester, a former teacher, says schools will need extra money to properly distance students and if they have to adopt other strategies, like teaching kids off-campus or hiring extra aides.

The HEALS Act reportedly earmarks about $70 billion for K-12 education. But Tester slammed a provision that reserves two-thirds of that money for schools that physically reopen.

“What if they reopen virtually? And in some cases they may have to do that for some of their students or maybe even all of their students. It’s a local school board decision. And I think the school boards are going to make the best decision to do that," Tester said.

NO: It’s also an election year. What are other Senate candidates saying about further coronavirus relief?

KT: As Daines seeks reelection to the Senate, Bullock is considered his main challenger. On a press call this week Bullock said he wants the option to use existing aid dollars to cover revenue shortfalls for the state government. Bullock also says additional appropriations would allow the state to take care of local government costs, and send more aid to businesses and nonprofits. I haven’t heard anything from Green Party candidate Wendie Fredrickson on the virus relief issue, and the Libertarian Party is in the process of nominating a replacement candidate after the initial pick dropped out of the race. To my knowledge, Republican U.S. House Rep. and gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte hasn’t released a statement on the new Senate bill, though he voted ‘no’ on the Democrat’s $3 trillion stimulus package in May.

NO: Is there anything else people should know?

KT: A Senate recess is scheduled at the end of next week. Tester says they’ll either work out a viable bill by then, or possibly stay through the break.

NO: Kevin, thanks for bringing this information to us.

KT: No problem.

Kevin Trevellyan is YPR’s Report for America statehouse reporter.