Tester talks Bakken, budget, economy

Billings Gazette

by Tom Lutey

The Bakken oil boom can be a moneymaker for Eastern Montana, but the torrent of business will prove too much for the community if it isn’t ready, said Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who thinks the federal government should be helping.

“Mother Nature puts the pressures on during a natural disaster. Man is putting the pressure’s on now,” Tester, a Democrat, said while meeting with The Billings Gazette editorial board Friday. “A lot of these local communities can’t afford it. They’re going to have to come up with something, no doubt.”

Small governments and private businesses are asking for federal help. At a Billings roundtable meeting on energy last week, Tester was asked to lean on Silver Airways, the region’s lone small-community commercial flight service, to add direct flights from Billings and Bozeman to Williston, N.D.

As scarce as housing is in the oil patch, businesses such as Sanderson Stewart Engineering are forced to commute and lose hours of work time doing so. Eastern Montana’s small two-lane roads are rumbling endlessly with heavy truck traffic and looking worse for it.

The demand for skilled workers in western North Dakota and Eastern Montana is insatiable.

But requests for help come as federal lawmakers are challenged to cut $1.2 trillion from 10 years of government spending. Tester said he’s working with a coalition of 40 senators on a budget-cutting plan, which they hope will receive the bipartisan support needed to clear the 60-vote requirement to pass later this year. That plan is likely to have elements proposed by the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission, which included a grab bag of spending cuts and entitlement and tax reforms.

Chaired by former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., and Erskine Bowles, former White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, the commission in 2010 laid out a plan in less than 100 pages for dealing with the federal deficit. President Barack Obama created the commission but didn’t champion the changes proposed. Now that other attempts to rein in spending have failed and mandatory, across-the-board cuts are set to take effect in January 2013, the Simpson-Bowles outline is gaining support from Republicans and Democrats.

Spending cuts ahead will make federal support of the Bakken economy challenging, but still possible if communities are specific about what’s needed, Tester said.

“If we know about it, we can certainly try to give them some help when it’s available in, well, in austere times that we’re in right now,” Tester said.

“It’s very evident that there are some opportunities to move the Bakken along in a way that it isn’t a boom-bust cycle, and it’s going to take some good planning to do that. And there’s some good folks in town here and other areas. And there’s some blueprints that we can probably get some information from that maybe haven’t worked out so well in western North Dakota.”

Other Tester initiatives include lowering the unemployment rate for military veterans. Two months ago, the Senate unanimously passed a Tester bill that would count relevant military experience toward professional certification for medical jobs, commercial trucking, engineering or mechanics. The bill also covered job training for veterans and tax incentives for employers of vets.

Tester also said he will still pursue passage of his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, a proposal to open more U.S. forest land to logging while also expanding recreation use and designating wilderness areas. The proposal, agreed to by timber companies and some environmental groups, was inserted into the Senate version of the 2012 omnibus bill to fund the federal government but was excluded from the version in the House, where Tester’s 2012 election challenger, Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., has derided the proposal as a “wilderness bill” that won’t create jobs or shield plans to log the area from environmental lawsuits.

Environmental groups not signing off on the proposal say it’s not a wilderness bill and they’ll sue to stop logging if it ensues.

Tester said lawsuits against logging carried out under the act would face hurdles like those challenging the delisting of wolves in Montana and Idaho. In 2011, Tester successfully inserted language into a Senate budget bill that removed wolves from the endangered species list.

Tester said he was confident challenges to Forest Jobs and Recreation Act would be dismissed.