My fellow legislators and I are fully engaged in supporting our healthcare and public safety officials as they complete their critical missions during this uncertain time. Only time will tell whether the current situation with the COVID-19 virus will prove to become a full-blown medical crisis. In any event, we must move quickly to contain the virus’ spread and to calm fears.
Beyond Healthcare, the COVID-19 virus is straining our economy. Businesses across Montana are struggling to find ways to stay open, while workers face the prospect of losing their jobs and of finding childcare as schools close. Our challenge is to find ways to help employers, employees, and families.
Fortunately, the state has some tools available to mitigate the economic impact of COVID-19. Below are some of the assets at the state’s disposal and some responses we are pursuing:
1) Prudent financial choices were made in the last Legislative session that put the state in solid financial shape. The Budget Stabilization Reserve Fund is full at 115 million dollars. The Fire Fund is estimated at 55 million dollars, and we have a positive General Fund Balance estimate of 295 million dollars. These surpluses can help support businesses and people in bridging that gap in the coming months.
2) Our Unemployment Insurance Fund is solid with 360 million dollars in reserves. I am working with fellow legislators, our legislative staff, and the executive branch to allow for these funds to be utilized quickly to support workers facing temporary layoffs or who must stay home to care for their children due to the impact of Covid19. In addition, we will promote temporary unemployment rules that will protect workers’ long-term jobs. We will request simplicity in the process to reduce red tape and get money in the hands of workers who are temporarily unemployed.
3) Recently passed legislation allows schools the flexibility to provide learning and school credit outside of the classroom. We are focused on partnering with schools to give them options in responding to the recommendations related to this healthcare crisis. We are also working to delay or cancel upcoming statewide test requirements to alleviate pressure on our educators, families and students.
4) We are supporting reasonable rules that will ensure bars, brew pubs, and restaurants may continue home delivery and take-out services whenever possible.
5) We will be encouraging our federal delegation to expand agricultural support to include cattle, sheep and pulse crops as these essential commodities have been and will continue to be very hard hit during this time of uncertainty.
6) We will continue to support small business liquidity proposals including rent and payment deferrals.
7) We are supporting a delay in the income tax filing deadline to further reduce pressures on individuals and businesses during this national event.
We also support and stand ready to work with our many great community-based healthcare providers and with churches and non-profit agencies as they craft local responses to this situation.
By working together with courage and resolve worthy of our forebearers, Montanans will overcome this unprecedented challenge. More to come, but for now stay strong, stay calm, and stay safe.