Democracy is being tested, Tester says at Helena town hall

by Tom Kuglin, Missoulian

Democracy in the United States is being tested right now, Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said during a town hall in Helena Friday, as he encouraged constituents to contact elected officials on issues of importance including public lands, health care and the federal budget.

Tester took questions for more than an hour at a town hall geared toward public land issues but including topics from the U.S. Supreme Court to the upcoming special election for Montana’s lone U.S. House seat. In what was a majority pro-Tester crowd, including multiple compliments and thanks for his in-person appearance, the civil tenor of the discussion was a far cry from some of the heated GOP town halls held across the country in recent weeks.
Tester opened the town hall at Helena Middle School touting public lands as an economic driver and major reason many choose to call Montana home. He explained his recent introduction of a bill to permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which offers grant programs for recreation and conservation, as a contrast to a proposed budget released by President Donald Trump on Thursday. The President’s budget cuts funding for LWCF in half.
“That budget is going to do some things to the Land and Water Conservation Fund that I’m certainly not going to like and I have a notion many folks in this room aren’t going to like,” he said.
The first questioner asked Tester about former Montana Congressman and current Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a Republican who campaigned on his support for public lands and said he supports LWCF and full funding for Interior, but offered support for a 12 percent agency cut under the Trump budget.
“Congressman Zinke was confirmed a couple of weeks ago so I’m not going to put it all on him yet,” Tester said.
Tester said he believes the Interior budget was driven by higher ups in the administration, and based on conversations with Zinke, he believes the secretary will and should push for needed funding.
“If (Zinke) comes back with a different point of view, I can tell you I will be very disappointed,” Tester said.
Funding dovetailed into another question about the continued slashing of the Forest Service budget and additional proposed cuts. The questioner asked whether the Forest Service is being made dysfunctional to give fodder to those who would like to see federal lands transferred to states or sold.
Tester agreed, and added one solution that has gained bipartisan support but has yet to pass Congress, which would essentially fund wildfires as natural disasters and free up funding for land management.
“You’re exactly right. If you deplete these agencies enough … then pretty soon folks are saying the federal government isn’t doing their job so let’s get rid of them. We can’t let that happen,” he said.
Tester echoed concerns about the Forest Service budget to questions about motorized access. The senator said he would work with motorized advocates where he could, but funding for trail maintenance is a major obstacle.
On the subject of the Endangered Species Act, Tester said he will advocate for the law if it is based on science and management is allowed.
Tester has had a somewhat tenuous relationship with hardline conservation groups, as he has criticized certain environmental lawsuits and pushed collaborative-based management policies those groups largely oppose.
“It is critically important and there has been some great advances with different species moving forward, and it has really put some pressure on local and private entities to really step up to the plate and find a solution,” Tester said of the ESA.
When asked about his controversial support of repealing a ban on lead ammunition for federal wildlife refuges, Tester said he thought the ban would keep people from recreating outdoors.
The current political climate, concerns about the proposed budget and health care brought frank responses from Tester.
“Democracy gets tested on occasion, and the country’s been around for a while, and I’m going to tell you it’s being tested right now,” he said. “Checks and balances are being tested. The budgetary process is being tested. The amount of money flowing into campaigns around this country, people are starting to get an awareness of what the hell that really means. I will tell you there are many nights that I go to bed that I don’t sleep too well.”
What Tester says has put him somewhat at ease is that issues have not gone away and people continue to be outspoken.
“That’s the key to how a democracy needs to work, people need to be involved,” he said.
At several points during the town hall, Tester encouraged contacting elected officials including himself and making concerns or support known.
When asked about the May 25 U.S. House special election between Republican Greg Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist, Tester predicted that Quist will be substantially outspent in the race.
“The bottom line is if Rob Quist is your person, get 10 people to go out and vote that didn’t vote last time,” Tester said.
Tester indicated he was not necessarily opposed to an increase in Defense spending as the Trump budget proposes, but disagreed with cutting popular programs to fund it.
“Taking Meals on Wheels away from people to pay for military, that’s a problem,” he said.
Tester was more measured in responding to a question about Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. While he criticized the refusal of Republicans to engage with Obama nominee Merrick Garland, Tester says he has not made up his mind on Gorsuch and will wait until after confirmation hearings to do so.
The actions surrounding Garland show the need for campaign finance reform, he said.
Washington, D.C. is a long way from a serious discussion on single payer health care, he said to one question, and he blasted the proposed GOP replacement for the Affordable Care Act, saying it would have “disastrous” consequences for rural health programs.