Billings Gazette: Tester fields questions on climate change, gun control and more at town hall meeting in Billings

by Tom Lutey

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester took questions from the public for an hour at a Thursday town hall meeting in Billings.

The questions from a crowd of roughly 75 people ranged from public lands to cattle markets and climate change. Anyone who raised a hand to talk was handed a microphone to address the third-term Democratic senator directly.

“You have talked about climate change and I’m interested in knowing what legislation you might sponsor or support that would fall within the framework of the Green New Deal,” said Barbara Gulick, of Billings.

The Green New Deal, an ambitious plan to eliminate U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, is backed by freshman Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who’s become a political celebrity among left-leaning Democrats for challenging the party’s centrist leaders whom progressives consider overly cautious.

Tester said the Green New Deal presented an opportunity to have a debate about climate change, but that there were details within the proposal that made it difficult to support without scrutiny.

Tester said “there were extracurricular things” in the Green New Deal that had nothing to do with climate change and that those things cost the proposal support. However, he does support promoting renewable energy projects and practices like carbon capture to fix greenhouse gas pollution in the soil.

“I will tell you there are proposals for cap and trade, taxes on carbon, to credits for wind and solar for which I have traditionally been in favor of,” Tester said. “I would rather approach it from a carrot than a stick of dynamite, but nonetheless I think the bigger issue here is one of the major problems we have in this world and in this country, is climate change … The longer this goes on without any movement – and we are the leader of the world, so I think it’s incumbent upon us to do something – the longer it goes on, the more Draconian the measures are going to have to be moving forward.”

Asked about gun control legislation, Tester reiterated his support for a bill by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. and Pat Toomey, R-Penn., for criminal and mental background checks for firearms purchases at gun shows and online.

“I support background checks. I think if you’re concerned about background checks, you maybe shouldn’t have a gun,” Tester said drawing applause.

Several members of Montana rural electric cooperatives stood to ask Tester to support changes to the 2017 Trump tax cuts, which threatened to hurt cooperatives’ nonprofit tax status if they used federal emergency disaster aid. The 2017 tax cuts required cooperatives receiving federal aid to declare the aid as revenue and pay taxes on it. Cooperatives by nonprofit definition are allowed to have only 15% revenue from non-member sources. Federal aid to replace power poles and other infrastructure damaged in a storm could easily put too much revenue on cooperatives’ balance sheets, causing them to surrender their nonprofit status.

Tester said he was aware of the tax cut consequences now faced by cooperatives. He said the change was an intentional move to recoup money from the cooperatives in order to make up for federal money lost through other cuts. The cooperatives asked the senator to become a cosponsor of a bill to fix the problem.