HELENA — An advisory council appointed to help Gov. Steve Bullock decide how to spend $1.25 billion in coronavirus relief money from the federal government submitted its formal recommendations Friday, laying out a framework focused on providing additional support to pandemic-disrupted businesses and nonprofits.

“It’s critical, certainly, that this funding reaches all corners of our state, considers really all the sectors of industry and the economy,” Bullock said.

Task force chair Larry Simkins applauded the work of the 24-member committee, saying members had worked “days, nights and weekends” to quickly develop suggestions for the governor.

“I feel fortunate to have had a front-row seat to witness the tireless, unselfish effort of this group,” said Simkins, CEO of the Missoula-based Washington Companies conglomerate.

The intensive, two-week process the advisory council employed to develop its recommendations while holding virtual meetings that were inaccessible to the press and public likely violated Montana’s open meetings law, according to the state’s preeminent freedom of information attorney.

The $1.25 billion appropriation equates to $1,169 for each Montana resident, and is 39 times the size of the Montana Department of Commerce’s $32 million annual budget.

The funding was allocated to the state through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act signed into law by President Donald Trump March 27, under a provision designed to help states cover unbudgeted pandemic response expenses.

For example, Bullock announced Wednesday that a small slice of the state’s CARES Act money, $5 million, would be made available through a grant program to help local health departments with contact tracing efforts aimed at containing COVID-19 outbreaks.

But the vast majority of the money remains unspoken for, with the state facing a Dec. 30 deadline to spend it. Federal guidance issued by the U.S. Treasury Department April 22 specifies the state can use the money for coronavirus-related public health efforts or economic support, but can’t use it to backfill funding lost as fallout from the pandemic restricts revenue streams like income taxes. 

The advisory council suggests immediately funneling money into “safety net” grant support for food banks and social service facilities including homeless shelters. It also suggests providing grants to help individuals, businesses and nonprofits cover rent, mortgages and property taxes.

Over the coming weeks and months, the council says, the state should provide additional support for businesses and nonprofits, particularly those that fall in the cracks between existing coronavirus relief programs. That support could also be provided through grants or low-interest loans, possibly routed through existing local and regional economic development organizations.

The group also recommends industry-specific “jumpstart” funding for tourism and hospitality businesses, which have been hit particularly hard by COVID-sparked restrictions discouraging travel. Performing arts and live entertainment organizations whose businesses rely on crowds could also need support over time, the advisory council says.

Other suggested uses for Montana’s CARES Act money include support of public health response “strike team efforts” that can respond to COVID-19 flare-ups and support of Montana newspapers with paid advertising to communicate public health messaging.

The task force recommendations don’t specify dollar amounts for particular programs.

In preparing its recommendations, the advisory council says, it met virtually multiple times and considered more than 1,400 public comments.

“Since inception of the Council, virtual meetings were held twice a week with each meeting  including an update from Governor’s staff on issues pertinent to the Council, followed by  discussion and idea-sharing among the Council members,” the group wrote in its report to the governor. “Despite the communication challenges presented by COVID-19, the virtual meetings were a success.”

Those virtual meetings may have run afoul of Montana open meeting law, which requires that meetings of “public or governmental bodies, boards, bureaus, commissions, agencies of the state, or any political subdivision of the state or organizations or agencies supported in whole or in part by public funds or expending public funds” be open to the public.

State law also defines “meetings” as any gathering where a quorum of members are present either in person “or by means of electronic equipment to hear, discuss, or act upon a matter over which the agency has supervision, control, jurisdiction, or advisory power.”

The governor’s office has argued that open meeting law doesn’t apply to the coronavirus relief task force because the group has merely advised the governor about how to spend the CARES Act money and doesn’t have final say in how the money will be spent.

“(T)he task force does not have legal authority, is not an agency of the government, and does not exercise any decision making power over the $1.25 billion from the CARES Act,” spokeswoman Marissa Perry wrote in an email May 1. “The public had ample opportunity to provide comment and those comments have been shared publicly.”

However, Montana FOIA Hotline attorney Mike Meloy pointed to the 2002 case Bryan v. Yellowstone County Elementary School District, in which the Montana Supreme Court found that a group formed to advise the district on a school closure issue was in fact subject to open meetings law and, concluding that a parent’s right of participation had been violated, voided the school board’s ultimate decision.

“Although you are dealing with a state advisory body only making recommendations, the facts are so similar to the Bryan case, there is little doubt the rule embraced by the Court in Bryan would be applied to the Task Force,” Meloy wrote in an email to Montana Free Press.

MTFP initially requested information about accessing task force meetings April 20. Reporters were invited to join the conference call on which the advisory council formally presented its recommendations to Bullock Friday, but weren’t provided an opportunity to ask task force members or the governor questions.

The committee’s membership included the following Montanans: 

  • Larry Simkins — The Washington Companies
  • Charlie Beaton — The Big Dipper Ice Cream
  • Scott Brown — The Base Camp
  • Eric Bryson — Montana Association of Counties
  • Tim Burton — Montana League of Cities and Towns
  • Nick Checota — Logjam Presents
  • Randy Chesler — Glacier Bancorp
  • Bill Coffee — Stockman Bank
  • Colin Davis — Chico Hot Springs
  • Shalon Hastings — Fly FisHer Adventures
  • Jacquie Helt — Service Employees International Union
  • Mike Hope — Rockin R Bar
  • Llew Jones — State representative and small-business owner
  • Casey Lozar — Federal Reserve Bank
  • Jim Markel — Red Oxx Manufacturing
  • Janice Mattson — Mattson Farms
  • Liz Moore – Montana Nonprofit Association
  • Jim Peterson — Rancher and former Montana Senate president
  • Kevin Riley — First Interstate Bank
  • Mark Semmens — D.A. Davidson (retired)
  • Jon Sesso — State senator and small-business owner
  • Jason Smith — Montana Indian Affairs Office
  • Sarah Walsh — PayneWest Insurance
  • Joe Willauer — Butte Local Development Corporation

Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.