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Strict COVID-19 guidelines could mean less stimulus money

by AMY BETH HANSON and IRIS SAMUELS
| March 30, 2021 7:00 AM

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — As Montana lawmakers decide how to allocate millions of dollars in American Rescue Plan Act money, some Republicans are looking at ways to reduce the federal stimulus funds awarded to local governments, Native American tribes and schools that have stricter COVID-19 guidelines than the state.

A "significant portion" of Republican lawmakers "are concerned that part of the challenge will be a resistance to open up the economy fast enough," Republican Rep. Llew Jones of Conrad, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said Friday.

The bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Frank Garner of Kalispell, requested an amendment to reduce funding to local governments with stricter directives by 20 percent.

"It'll put some pressure if some area holds out," Jones said of the amendment.

The reduction would apply to infrastructure grants and other funds allocated by the legislature, he said.

State law allows counties and cities to have stricter health guidelines, and several have continued to require face coverings after Gov. Greg Gianforte lifted the statewide mask mandate on Feb. 12. Tribes have also had stricter guidelines, and some school districts have enacted mask requirements.

"It's still a local choice," Jones said. "It's in the state's interest that these folks are economically stable, and folks are rarely economically stable if they're not working."

The proposal to allocate the money, which will continue to be discussed by the House Appropriations Committee on Monday, defines "local governments" as any tribe, city, town, county, consolidated city-county or school district.

The measure could affect Gallatin and Missoula counties, which still require face coverings and limit gathering sizes and capacities for restaurants, bars and casinos.

Gallatin County leads the state with 234 active cases of COVID-19, almost a quarter of the state's 979 active cases, according to the state's dashboard. Missoula County had 121 active cases Friday, defined as someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 within the past two weeks.

Lewis and Clark County has lifted all of its COVID-19 related restrictions with the exception of its mask mandate while Cascade and Butte-Silver Bow counties recent recently lifted all of their health restrictions with regard to COVID-19.

Eryn Hurley, an associate legislative director with the National Association of Counties, said about $65.1 billion in federal aid will go directly to counties across the country without state oversight. Larger cities and tribes are also receiving direct funding.