Tester asks legislators, members of Congress to find common ground

by Jayme Fraser, Billings Gazette

HELENA – U.S. Sen. Jon Tester called for unity and tapping into Montana values as legislators seek solutions to the state’s greatest challenges, including investing in infrastructure, modernizing the state’s economy and workforce, and making health care affordable.

The Democrat and Big Sandy rancher opened his address to the Montana House of Representatives Monday by commenting on the lessons to be learned from the example of Martin Luther King Jr.
“We celebrate a man who saw injustice in this country and worked to change it,” Tester said. “It’s a great reminder of the impact a citizen can have on government.”
He called for legislators to continue the tradition of a citizen legislature.
“Whether a rancher from Bloomfield or a teacher from Helena, for these 90 days … (and) despite our differences, we have a common goal: That Montana continues to be the last best place for generations to come.”
He outlined several priorities for himself and the Legislature that he saw as critical to capitalizing on Montana’s heritage for the future. He called the plan “Employ Montana.”
“In order to compete in a global market, Montana needs more than scenery and a dedicated workforce,” he said.
First, he called for investments in infrastructure: roads, bridges, sewer, water and broadband. Tester touted $100 million paid to two broadband companies, which he said he would closely monitor to make sure new cable is laid in the ground here. He also noted that for every tax dollar sent to the nation’s capital for highway funds, the state gets $2.50 back. Many programs require the state to put some money forward to unlock federal funding. Tester urged legislators not to let partisan divides get in the way.
“Our middle-class families cannot see money left on the table because the politicians can’t agree,” he said. “I’ve seen this body rise to the challenge before and I know you’ll not disappoint.”
Tester said Congress needs to do more to ensure tax dollars stayed “within our borders,” that Americans bought more products manufactured here.
“President Trump and I agree: We need to ensure Montana has fair trade,” he said. “My friends from the forested counties can agree it’s time to negotiate a new softwood lumber agreement. This will help our timber industry with the certainty they need and help get our mills back to work.”
He noted the timber industry is “not the only one suffering from unfair trade practices,” again calling out Canada for downgrading Montana wheat products when they cross the border.
Tester also listed ways to support innovation and business growth, primarily by improving access to capital with small business grants and rolling back some of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act banking reforms.
“Our community banks are hampered by regulations meant to regulate the big boys,” he said.
He cited two primary ways to improve the skills of Montana’s workforce and to match job seekers with growing employers: Increase funding for job corps programs and update education to “make sure it is creating a workforce that is meeting the needs of Montana businesses,” highlighting the role community colleges could play, in particular.
Tester said he supports an “all of the above energy strategy,” including tax credits to encourage carbon capture storage. Those goals do not, however, require ignoring the real impacts of climate change, he said, noting Montana’s constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment. “It isn’t about hugging trees,” he said. “It is about creating jobs, and it’s about food security.”
Tester applauded legislators for approving Medicaid expansion two years ago, which allowed more than 60,000 Montanans to newly qualify and enroll.
He quickly condemned many Republican colleagues in the U.S. Capitol for seeking to repeal the Affordable Care Act without a replacement plan in mind. He warned those Montanans newly enrolled in Medicaid could lose their coverage and the state’s health care industry – which employs more than 52,000 people in the state – could be hurt.
“I’ve been around this state and the message is clear: People don’t want Congress taking away their health care,” he said.
That does not mean leaving health care and insurance as is, Tester said.
“I want to be clear. I know premiums are rising. We cannot settle for any situation where middle class families cannot afford health insurance,” he said. “We cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater. I know we can find common ground.”
He also promised to hold the Veterans Administration accountable “for long times” and to fight for the funding to complete the Southwest Veterans Home proposed for Butte.
Early in his speech, Tester took a dig at Senate President Scott Sales. The Bozeman Republican declined several speaking offers from Montana members of Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court, among others. The speeches have, for years, been presented toward the beginning of each session while committee schedules are still light, in part, to help set the tone for the work ahead.
“Twelve years ago when I was Senate president, we made time for these addresses,” Tester said. “It is disappointing the current Senate leadership chose to abandon this joint address to the Legislature, especially when there is so little on the agenda.