Gov. Bullock

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock on March 12 announced an executive order declaring a state of emergency in Montana in response to the coronavirus.

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Gov. Steve Bullock has created a task force to help determine how to spend the $1.25 billion Montana will receive from the $2 trillion stimulus package that Congress approved last month.

The Coronavirus Relief Fund Task Force will meet over the next two weeks to discuss ideas for using the money. The federal government has said it will also guide states on spending the relief dollars.

The task force is expected to provide recommendations to Bullock by April 30, which is shortly after the U.S. Treasury Department plans to distribute the money.

Public comment about spending federal relief money can be submitted on the Montana Department of Commerce website.

“While we continue to prioritize the health and safety of Montanans, we know many residents are financially impacted by this crisis and need assistance now,” Bullock said in a news release.

The task force will work to ensure the $1.25 billion doesn’t duplicate other relief initiatives that are part of the federal coronavirus aid bill, such as money for schools, airports and health care facilities.

Colin Davis, owner of Chico Hot Springs and one of the 26 Montanans on Bullock’s task force, said he is confident the members’ diverse backgrounds, as well as the governor’s leadership, will enable them to identify the best ways to provide economic relief.

“We need to find a smart way to spend this money fairly,” Davis said. “It’s not about picking winners and losers but about doing what we can to jump-start the economy.”

Chico Hot Springs is closed per Bullock’s stay-at-home order, which is set to end April 24. Davis had to lay off 155 employees, leaving only 15 people at the resort to perform essential services like maintenance and answering the phones.

“It’s painful. We’re doing everything we can to stop the bleeding,” he said. “But it isn’t just about us. We are a major employer in this valley, and all these other businesses — food service, linens, contractors — they ping off us. We have to find a way to help them because we’re all in this together.”

Larry Simkins, CEO of the Washington Companies, which owns several businesses including Montana Rail Link and Montana Resources LLP, is leading the task force.

“The governor reaching out to the business sectors of the state is a smart move and one that will help to ensure this funding from the CARES Act is best invested in our communities,” Simkins said.

At a Legislative Audit Committee meeting Thursday, chairwoman Rep. Dee Brown, R-Billings, said she doubted Montana would be able to justify spending all $1.25 billion from the federal coronavirus relief bill. The money equals nearly half of the state’s general fund spending for the current budget year, which ends June 30.

“There’s big bucks coming down with COVID-19, but it is not going to be a free-for-all,” Brown told the committee. “All federal funding will be subject to Legislative Audit Committee oversight. It will have accountability.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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Perrin Stein can be reached at pstein@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2648.