Havre Daily News: Tester calls on Trump administration to deal with coronavirus

by Rachel Jamieson

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester D-Mont., discussed his recent successes – legislation supported by President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. – and coronavirus during a press conference call Thursday.

He started the call discussing coronavirus.

“This is serious. Congress and the administration need to be treating it that way, and I’m concerned that, quite frankly, the administration, particularly the president, hasn’t done enough to address this public health crisis,” Tester said. “That’s why I wrote a letter to the (Veterans Affairs) calling on them to take a comprehensive approach to protecting our veterans, our health care workers who care for our veterans.”

He said he is also calling on Vice President Mike Pence, who is the point person on the coronavirus, and the entire administration to make sure that Native American tribes and at-risk populations such as senior citizens, people with disabilities, nursing home residents and health care providers are receiving the proper protection and not only fast but also accurate information about the spread and the potential spread of this virus.

The Montana Department of Health and Human Services and federal agencies are working together he said, adding that he is continuing to monitor this situation.

“There is some good news, which is there are preventive measures folks can take right now to limit their exposure – common-sense measures like washing your hands thoroughly, using hand sanitizer and, if you are sick, stay home. It’ll help stop the spread of it,” Tester said. “Montanans should go to the Centers for Disease Control or Montana Department of Health and Human Services websites if you want more information. That’s the situation. Folks shouldn’t panic, use good hygiene methods, and I think we are going to be able to get through this.”

He added that this is not the time to panic, but the time to pay attention.

Last week, a top priority for Montana got a big boost with the introduction of legislation to fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, he said.

The LWCF, which was established in 1964, uses revenues from oil and gas leasing to pay for conservation efforts across the U.S. Last year, Congress permanently reauthorized the program, but it only received about half of its $900 million funding limit.

Tester said he has been fighting since his first day in the Senate to get full and permanent funding for the LWCF, which sustains a $7.1 billion outdoor recreation economy and helps protect Montana’s way of life.

“One of the best parts about this program is that the funding comes from offshore oil and gas recipient, so it doesn’t directly affect the general fund, but LWCF has been at the mercy of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s legislative graveyard and for years he has blocked action on funding this critical program, despite overwhelming bipartisan support,” Tester said, “Similarly, as recent as a month ago, President Trump proposed cutting out LWCF to $14.7 million for quick math, that is about 885 million less than what it is going to be funded at. That would’ve been catastrophic for conservation and folks who like to enjoy the outdoors across this country.”

But McConnell and Trump reversed themselves last week, he said, adding that it is now back in bipartisan legislation.

Tester said another success for him was Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos reversing a decision on funding for rural schools.

He said that, until a few weeks ago, the Department of Education allowed Montana schools to use data on free and reduced lunches to qualify for federal funding that supports rural schools.

“Suddenly, Secretary DeVos changed criteria used to allocate funding, which not only breaks a 20-year precedent, but could also cause as many as 220 Montana schools to lose more than $400,000 in funding,” he said. “Six elementary schools, for example, Havre, Butte, Anaconda, Columbia Falls, Polson and Evergreen, would have their (rural low income schools) funding zeroed out by Secretary DeVos’ decision.”

Tester sent off a letter to DeVos, he said, that this change would not only hurt students in Montana but also raise property taxes.

He added that, in a response to his letter, she announced that she would be delaying the change for one year.

“In my opinion, that is not long enough, so I’m going to be working with my colleagues on a permanent fix to make sure Secretary DeVos’s policy is not repeated,” he said.

Tester also said the Federal Communications Commission is pumping out $17 billion in rural broadband.

He also said Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue was in front of the Agriculture Appropriations Committee this week and told the committee there is potential to get a lot of broadband laid in the ground. Mapping for that was approved by the House earlier this week.

“That’s going to help on knowing where to put the resources. Once we get accurate maps, and so this is a big deal for rural America,” Tester said. “This is when you talk about precision agriculture, when you talk about business all around the world, if you don’t have good broadband, you don’t have good cell service. You don’t have good cell service and broadband you don’t have the ability to maximize the opportunity that’s out there.”

He added that he is going to continue to push the FCC because that is where the large amount of the dollars are coming from to make sure they get that money on the ground and to hold them accountable.