Tester unveils ‘Employ Montana' plan to House

by Phil Drake, Great Falls Tribune

HELENA – Sen. Jon Tester unveiled a multipronged plan on Monday he said would rebuild the state’s infrastructure, invest in the workforce, create a marketplace for Montana products and develop natural resources in a “responsible way.”

Speaking to the Montana House of Representatives, the Montana Democrat outlined his goals.

“This will let folks know Montana is open for business,” he said.

He said his Employ Montana plan includes more federal money for infrastructure and he would go to work to secure it as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Tester also said he would also work with rural carriers to increase broadband investments.

Tester said he helped to pass a longterm highway bill in which for every dollar that Montanans contribute to the federal Highway Trust Fund, the state gets about $2.50 back. This year, that’s about $424 million for our roads, bridges, and highways.

He called on lawmakers to pass an infrastructure bill and not repeat the last session when a bill was defeated.
“Our construction workers, contractors, and middle class families cannot afford to see money left on the table because their politicians can’t agree,” he said. “I’ve seen this body rise to the challenge time and time again, and I know you will not disappoint.”

Tester said he also from the appropriations committee he would seek increased investments in two-year colleges to help people get skills to find a job in their hometowns.

The Big Sandy resident also said he would focus on trade issues such as the Berry Amendment Extension Act, which would require the Department of Homeland Security to buy textiles from American companies. He said he would also work with the Trump Administration for a better softwood lumber agreement and give the timber industry the certainty it needs to responsibly cut trees and get mills back to work.

Tester said he also would work with the new president to ensure Montana farmers can compete in a global market.
He also told lawmakers now was a good opportunity for a bipartisan fix to the Affordable Care Act, which President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to repeal and replace.

“It’s a pressing issue and one that both Congress and the Montana Legislature will have to grapple with,” he said, noting that Montana expanded Medicaid to more than 60,000 people.

He said health care is a $4 billion industry and accounts for over 52,000 jobs in Montana.

He said if Congress repeals the act, Montana’s economy would lose $3.1 billion between 2019 and 2023 and would lose 8,200 jobs in 2019.
“We need to look before we leap,” he said.

“We need to be working to provide affordability to families and certainty to the rural communities that rely on our hospitals,” he said.
Tester spoke only to the House even though he was willing to address a joint session that would have included the Senate.

He said it was “disappointing” that Senate President Scott Sales “chose to abandon the smart tradition of joint addresses to the Legislature.”

Sales, R-Bozeman, said no disrespect was meant for Tester, but early on in the session it was decided after consulting with majority and minority leadership not to do the joint sessions.

“I thought we could utilize our time better,” he said.

He said past Legislatures had met in joint sessions that at some times had turned divisive. Sales said a room was made available in which Tester could meet with senators prior to his speech.

Sales said possible changes to the ACA could bring the Legislature back to Helena during the interim and the hope is to save some days off the calendar in case lawmakers had to be called back into session .

He said senators would attend Gov. Steve Bullock’s State of the State address on Jan. 24.