Havre Daily News: Tester talks about local effects of the American Rescue Plan

by Patrick Johnston

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., held a press call Thursday with Glendive Mayor Jerry Jimison, Bear Paw Development Corp. Executive Director Paul Tuss, Montana Farmers Union President Walt Schweitzer and Montana Hospital Association President Rich Rasmussen to discuss the direct impacts of the American Rescue Plan, recently signed into law by President Joe Biden.

Tester said that, over the past year, he’s spoken with hundreds of Montanans in a range of professions from health care to agriculture about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected them.

He said in order for the crisis to finally end as many people as possible need to get vaccinated as quickly as possible, and the American Rescue Plan includes the funding necessary to make that happen, adding that Montana is already seeing the results with more and more people getting vaccinated more and more quickly.

“These vaccines are safe and effective, and, because of these vaccinations, people are returning to work, and our economy is starting to reopen,” he said.

But despite this good news, Tester said, the state is not out of the woods yet, and the plan includes funding to help the state get over the finish line.

He said it includes $8.5 billion to rural hospitals that he said have been hard hit by the pandemic and are essential to countless Montana communities.

He said it also includes Amtrak reinstating full service, which will be especially helpful for northern Montana.

Tester said Indian Country has been hit very hard by the pandemic and he hopes the plan will provide the support they need to recover.

He also touted it’s inclusion of $133 million in funding for Montana cities and towns, and $207 million to counties which will make sure civil servants will have the resources they need in the final stretch of the pandemic.

Tester also addressed recent efforts in the Montana Legislature to impose restrictions on school’s COVID-19 funding if their policies are more restrictive than the state’s for combating the pandemic.

“The state legislature can do whatever they want, but I think that is a very poor decision,” he said.

He said schools know better than he or the Legislature what is best for their students and punishing them for exercising local control is wrong.

Tuss said he was especially happy about the restoration of Amtrak’s full service which he said served 121,000 people between Montana’s 12 stations during it’s last year in full operation, operation that will be restored in early June.

He said the Empire Builder line contributes $327 million to the economies of the states in which it operates.

“Those of us that live in northern Montana know that passenger rail service through Amtrak is one of the only forms of public transportation that we really have to get people to out-of-state medical appointments, job opportunities and also family members to be with family that may not be in Montana,” he said.

Tuss also praised the plans inclusion of funds for the State Small Business Credit Initiative, which he said will make it easier for organizations like his to support economic development as well as funds for small businesses in urban and rural areas that will help many start up or expand.

Schweitzer said the inclusion of $3.6 billion to maintain and improve food and agriculture supply chains and improve local food processing is a huge win for agricultural producers and grants for small and medium size operations will also be helpful.

He said ag producers in the state have had a rough few years.

“For three years, we had a war with all of our customers driving down prices, then we were hit by the pandemic,” he said.

He said while last year’s COVID-19 relief was critical and saved some family farms, too much went to large corporations that didn’t need it, and he considers the American Rescue plan a massive improvement.

Rasmussen said the health care sector is also getting substantial relief and with the funds provided will be able to more easily address the backlog of work that built up during the surge of COVID-19 cases last year.

Like others on the call, he thanked Tester of his work getting the American Rescue Plan drafted and passed.

“Sen. Manchin gets a lot of credit, but I think that’s because we have a very humble senior senator,” he said. “He played a major role in what we were able to achieve.”

Jimison said the money his city has received will go, in part, to wrap up work on a new water treatment plant which will double the area’s water output and guarantee clean drinking water for 50 years.

He said the money couldn’t have come at a better time, especially since the pandemic has decimated a great deal of the area’s workforce.