Senate OKs amendments that protect Montana post offices from closure

Lee State Bureau

by Mike Dennison

HELENA — Montana’s rural post offices will be protected from closure for at least a year, and likely longer, under U.S. Senate amendments attached Tuesday to a bill aimed at solving the U.S. Postal Service’s financial problems.

Montana’s two U.S. senators, Democrats Jon Tester and Max Baucus, supported the amendments and said they’ll now support the bill, which faces a possible final vote Wednesday.

“Let’s hope this bill ends up in good enough shape to get it out of the Senate,” Tester told the Gazette State Bureau on Tuesday afternoon. “Hopefully we can get to the point where this (bill) is going to work for everyone, rural and urban alike.”

If the Senate approves the measure, it goes to the U.S. House for consideration.

Baucus, who earlier had withheld his support from the bill, said the changes “make sure we can move forward with meaningful solutions for the Postal Service in a way that works for Montana.”

The Postal Service is losing several billion dollars a year, in large part because of a continuing decline in first-class mail, more of which is shifting to electronic communication over the Internet.

The Senate bill would ease the financial burden on the Postal Service by halting its multibillion-dollar prepayments into employee retirement plans and giving it more freedom to adjust its services so it can cut costs and increase revenue.

To cut costs, the Postal Service also has proposed closing 3,700 small, mostly rural post offices, including 85 in Montana, and hundreds of mail-processing centers.

Baucus and Tester have argued that closing rural post offices won’t save that much money and will harm rural America.

Amendments passed Tuesday do the following:

Prohibit closure of rural post offices for one year and create specific criteria that would have to be met before closing a rural post office after the one-year moratorium.

Prohibit closure of post offices unless another post office is within 10 miles. Baucus said this language will protect 90 percent of the 85 Montana offices slated for possible closure, because they’re more than 10 miles from the nearest post office.

Ensure that postal facility closures won’t affect mail voting in states like Montana. It places a moratorium until Nov. 13, 2012, on any postal-facility closures in states with mail balloting.

Tuesday’s votes came after the measure had been derailed last week by parliamentary maneuvering by opponents of the bill.

Tester said it appears much of that opposition has been cleared, with votes Tuesday surpassing the 60-vote supermajority on favorable amendments and getting the same majority against amendments that would dilute the bill.

“The bad (amendments) are getting beat and the ones that are important to rural Montana are passing,” he said. “I think there is pretty strong support for the Postal Service overall. …

“Sometimes the pot just has to simmer a bit in Washington. … This has to be a congressional solution and let’s hope the House does something with it.”