Sen. Tester visits Billings union hall, looks for input on possible federal infrastructure bill

by Billings Gazette, Rob Rogers

Sen. Jon Tester was presented with a blue welding jacket by the Plumbers & Pipefitters Union Local 30 on Friday morning during a visit to Billings.

Tester, who grew up on a family farm and lost three fingers on his left hand to a giant meat grinder as a child, has welded before and brightened up when he put on the jacket.

“Let’s get the mitts out,” he said, referring to welding gloves. Then, lifting his maimed left hand, he asked, laughing, “You got one that’ll fit this hand?”

They did. Tester slid the gloves on his hands and laughed for the cameras. “That’s pretty cool, guys. Thanks.”

Tester was visiting the union hall to meet with Billings officials, including Mayor Bill Cole, and talk about a potential infrastructure bill that’s on the Senate’s legislative agenda for 2018. President Donald Trump campaigned on improving the nation’s aging infrastructure, and Tester is hopeful his colleagues will come together and push through an infrastructure bill this year.

Tester was recently named to the Senate’s Commerce Committee, which would shape any initial infrastructure bill.

“It feels like something may come out of this,” he told the group.

Tester took a tour of the facility; the union hall has existed in its current form since 1975. It acts as a training center for dozens of plumbing and pipe-fitting apprentices each year.

After the tour, the senator sat down with Cole and representatives from School District 2, Big Sky Economic Development and Beartooth Billings Clinic for a discussion about what the industries they represent would like to see included in an infrastructure bill.

Responses ranged from improving the area’s telecommunication grid to using funds to make sure education that aligned with the needs of the workforce in Billings.

Cole focused his remarks on ensuring that cities had some control over the dollars that would come from a federal infrastructure bill. He said cities would spend the funds more efficiently than larger government entities.

“We can do better,” Cole said.

Tester agreed that a well-trained workforce was “critical infrastructure” and said it wouldn’t matter what construction projects were ready if the region didn’t have enough trained workers to complete the job.

Tester acknowledged the deep divisions in Congress but expressed hope that a consensus could build around something like an infrastructure bill.

“Everybody understands Congress needs to act but ‘no’ is not a solution,” he said. “I think we can come up with a bill that works.”