The Wyoming State Capitol is seen Thursday, April 16, 2020, in downtown Cheyenne. Legislative leaders took their first steps toward addressing the state's most pressing concerns in the wake of COVID-19 during a meeting Thursday. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – Legislative leaders finalized three bills Friday addressing a wide range of issues related COVID-19 in preparation for the Wyoming Legislature’s first special session since 2004.

Members of the Management Council had met virtually twice in recent weeks, preparing two bills to address immediate needs related to the coronavirus, and the legislators added another bill to their plate during their daylong meeting Friday.

Wyoming is receiving $1.25 billion in funding from the federal coronavirus relief bill passed in late March, though guide-lines restrict the funds from being used to fill lost revenue, to the frustrations of lawmakers and Gov. Mark Gordon.

The funding also can only be spent during this calendar year, and the new bill approved unanimously by the Management Council set a timetable for the funding to be made avail-able in three phases. The first distribution would open up $450 million for immediate use until July 15, at which point an additional $400 million would be freed up. All remaining funds from the federal relief bill would then be available starting Sept. 15.

The council also advanced a bill establishing a COVID-19 relief fund worth an initial $388 million. From that appropriation, $200 million would go to health care facilities, while $70 million would go to municipalities, counties and political subdivisions.

Before the council’s vote on the bills, Gordon joined them to present his office’s vision for a new grant program for businesses. Under Gordon’s proposal, the program would include $350 million in total, with $225 million of that available in an initial round of distributions.

Gordon said the program would prioritize assisting companies, including some in agriculture and energy industries, that did not receive loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program or other COVID-19 relief. The grant program would be run by the Wyoming Business Council.

“Since approximately 60% of our budget is energy and mining related, one of the best answers for our budget shortfall is to make sure those businesses rebound quickly and return to paying taxes as soon as they possibly can,” Gordon said.

Given the strict rules on what the funds can be used for, the federal government will likely conduct an audit on the state in the coming years, Gordon said.

“I think whatever we do needs to be simple, understandable, purposeful and traceable, so we don’t have to pay either penalties or fines or the principal back in four years time,” he said.

Betsy Anderson, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, said funding for the grant program would come through the phased distributions granted by the Legislature. Members of the council then approved a bill amendment appropriating $300 million for such a program. Under the amendment, grants to individual companies would be capped at $50,000.

In the next two weeks, the Legislature’s Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Interim Committee will work through any potential issues to get the proposed grant program stood up quickly. Any bill would then have to win approval from the full Legislature during a special session.

Lawmakers also advanced a bill that addresses a handful of specific issues. One part of the bill would establish a program to help landlords who hold off on evicting tenants unable to pay rent, while another would expand the state’s workers’ compensation program to allow employees to make claims if they contract COVID-19.

Additionally, the legislation would allow the state Department of Workforce Services to set up a work-share program that allows employees to more easily make up any loss in pay due to cut hours.

There was no announcement of an official date or setup for a potential special session, though May 15 was mentioned as a possible date for a meeting. House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, said the session, initially planned for just one day, may have to be extended by another day or two.

Tom Coulter is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at tcoulter@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3124. Follow him on Twitter at @tomcoulter_.

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