Daily Montanan: Tester talks veteran’s healthcare, elections and OPEC at Helena town hall

by Nicole Girten

Thirteen year-old Bode Doud skipped school Friday to ask U.S. Sen. Jon Tester about the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, and President Joe Biden reconsidering the nation’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.

The seventh grader asked for Tester’s thoughts on the issue during a town hall hosted in Helena, the senator’s second in-person town hall since the COVID-19 pandemic. Rows of attendees filled the student center at Helena College- Montana State University.

The senator responded to Doud’s question saying that OPEC has determined what he’s paid for gas all of his adult life. Tester said that the way to minimize OPEC is to get as much affordable energy as possible, from petroleum to renewables.

The senator answered 20 questions in a public forum, something Tester’s Republican congressional colleagues received critique for not hosting.

One attendee asked about the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law last November.

“Your fellow senators and representatives, especially in the West, who didn’t support it, but now they’re glad to get it, what do you say to ‘em?” the attendee asked.

“Shame, shame, shame,” Tester said with a smile.

Tester spoke about the long negotiations that took place across the aisle to get the $1.2 trillion bill passed.

“If we don’t start investing in infrastructure, how do we expect our economy to continue to grow?” Tester said. “As far as who’s taking credit for it, you know, maybe that’s all they have to take credit for.”

There were several questions surrounding health care for veterans, as Tester is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

One attendee said bureaucracy was getting in the way of veterans receiving physical therapy and audiology as expansion efforts to locations across the state have been hampered, he said because the leasing of spaces stopped.

Tester said that Dr. Shereef Elnahal would be visiting the area in November and that this issue would be a topic of discussion.

“These folks served this country and they ought to be given physical therapy and the ability to hear as part of the deal,” Tester said.

Another question to the Senator surrounded the crisis long term care facilities are facing in Montana and asked what Tester could do, if anything, to help.

“Medicaid reimbursement rates don’t seem to match up to what the nursing homes need to operate,” the attendee said. “Some families now have to travel 200 miles to see their loved ones.”

As Medicaid is administered by the state, Tester recommended advocating for the issue during the upcoming session.

“Once they close, the chances of reopening are slim to none and so it’s important we do what we can do to keep them open,” Tester said.

The last question from the afternoon surrounded whether Tester supported ranked choice voting and changing the electoral college, with the attendee speaking to a “system that is broken” with a “two-party monopoly” with influences from “dark money.”

Tester said that with technology today it would be possible to go by popular vote, but that there were still advantages to the Electoral College system. He said he was unsure about ranked choice voting, but pointed to Independent Gary Buchanan as an example of someone in the state that was challenging the two-party system.

Tester said he didn’t think there was a bill to ban dark money that he hasn’t voted for.

“I think it’s a scourge. I think all this money is going into campaigns, take a look at this last Senate race and it was over $100 million,” Tester said. “Let’s do something functional with it.”

A woman in the audience who said she worked with Montana Women Vote and League of Women Voters Helena and said she didn’t see Montana’s Secretary of State’s Office putting out information on same-day voter registration, after the issue went through the courts and a bill signed into law last year to stop the practice was recently found unconstitutional.

Tester said there should be a Public Service Announcement on the topic and said that citizens should be registered.

“That’s what this country is about,” Tester said. “Rich, poor, regardless of the color of skin, doesn’t matter, if you’re a citizen, vote.”

The form to register to vote can be found on the Secretary of State’s website.

Tester talks veteran’s healthcare, elections and OPEC at Helena town hall – Daily Montanan