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$5 Million In COVID-19 Relief Recommended For Approval For Mortgage Assistance

Montana Public Affairs Network
Scott Eychner with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry provides an update on return-to-work bonuses during an ARPA Economic Transformation and Stabilization and Workforce Development Advisory Commission meeting on July 21, 2021.

Correction: The economic advisory commission only recommended approval for an initial $5 million pilot project. The state must submit a full draft plan to the federal government to allocate another $45 million. YPR News regrets the error.

A special Montana legislative commission Wednesday approved the state spending of federal coronavirus relief dollars for mortgage assistance and unemployment insurance.

The economic advisory commission, made up of state lawmakers and governor’s office officials, approved up to $5 million for a pilot program to prevent mortgage foreclosures for homeowners impacted by COVID-19.

Cheryl Cohen with the Montana Department of Commerce said officials still need to map out specifics for the program, which is the state’s first specifically focused on homeowner coronavirus relief.

“And that’s just to get their mortgage current. It’s not including future payments,” Cohen says.

Cohen said officials are still waiting for federal guidance on what happens to the loans after they’re repaid to the state.

The commission’s two Democrats, including Minority House Leader Kim Abbott, voted against the measure, wishing the state would instead provide homeowners grants that don’t need to be repaid.

“We’re having folks take out another loan when it sounds like we could just make them whole and let them get a fresh start,” Abbott says.

The commission did unanimously approve spending up to $5.2 million on administering unemployment benefits.

Natalie Smitham with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry said the money can be spent on system-wide infrastructure upgrades, fraud prevention and speeding up the process of getting benefits to applicants. But, she said it’s unclear exactly how much relief will actually come to Montana from the federal government for unemployment administration.

“To date, all we’ve gotten from them is that $275,000,” Smithman says.

The commission also approved spending up to $5.5 million on community service and Americorps support grants.

Patrick Barkey, director of the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, told the commission that the Treasure State is in relatively good shape compared to other states impacted by the pandemic.

“The economy roaring back after the pandemic shutdowns has largely erased the enormous pain of labor market disruption,” Barkey says.

Barkey said the state still must work to curb widespread labor and housing shortages, issues that lawmakers will try to address with federal coronavirus aid in coming months.

Kevin Trevellyan is Yellowstone Public Radio’s Report for America statehouse reporter.