Great Falls Tribune: Tester talks local effects of ARPA in Great Falls, speaks to questions on voting rights, filibuster

by Nicole Girten

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester spoke out against the Montana Legislature’s attempt to eliminate same-day voter registration and said he was still in favor of keeping the Senate filibuster during a press conference at the Celtic Cowboy pub on Monday.

HB 176, proposed by Rep. Sharon Greef of Florence, would close late voter registration the Friday before Election Day. It has passed both the Montana House and Senate and is currently in reconciliation in the House.

“I think it will impact who can vote,” Tester said of the bill. “Not everybody is thinking about Election Day, because a lot of folks are trying to figure out how to make a living.”

Tester said same-day voter registration was something he voted for during his time in the legislature.

“I think we ought to make it so that voting is accessible to everybody,” Tester said. “I think it makes our democracy work better.”

Tester is a co-sponsor for the U.S. Senate For the People Act, a voting rights bill that has already passed in the House, which would, among other things, make election day a national holiday. The future of this bill, and of lots of other legislation Democrats seek to pass, hinges on the future of the filibuster, a Senate rule used to prolong debate that has evolved to essentially block legislation. As it stands with the filibuster in place, the Senate requires 60 votes to pass legislation.

“I’m going to uphold the filibuster because I think it makes for better legislation,” Tester said. “But I didn’t go to Washington, D.C. to get nothing done.”

He said critical pieces of legislation aren’t getting passed. He hesitated to name any specific bills but cited voting rights, infrastructure and sanctions on China as examples of things being discussed right now.

“If the filibuster is going to continue to be used to stonewall, to stop, good important things from getting past, that leaves me little option to change my opinion on this,” Tester said.

Tester cited the filibuster for being the reason why there are so many Executive Orders coming out of President Joe Biden’s office right now, which he said he doesn’t like, preferring Congress to do its job.

“We need to work to come together,” Tester said. “There are people that don’t want to see anything get done.”

Local impact of ARPA
Tester was at the press event to discuss the impact of the federal COVID-19 relief funds being sent to Great Falls through the American Rescue Plan.

He was joined by City Commissioner Mary Moe, President of the Great Falls Development Authority Brett Doney and Celtic Cowboy Owner Pete Jennings to discuss their thoughts on the plan and potential uses within the city.

“This plan has $63 billion for existing and new COVID relief programs to aid a wide range of small businesses, particularly in the hospitality and entertainment industries, that have been hit incredibly hard with this pandemic,” Tester said.

When asked about when local businesses can know when and how to access these funds, Tester responded that he spoke with the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, who will have to declare the new rules for the funds dispersal within the next 30 days.

Tester said the plan included a projected $50 million for the Montana economic development organizations to provide credit to small businesses that wouldn’t otherwise receive it. He said it also has $750 million in dedicated funding for the hardest hit travel tourism and outdoor recreation businesses, $28.6 billion for a new grant program tailored for local restaurants, and fulfills former President Donald Trump’s goal of direct checks for “hard working Americans that will help them make ends meet and support the jobs in our local economies.”

Doney said that the first quarter of the year is traditionally tough, following the holidays. He said he’s concerned about small businesses going into this quarter not having the cash that they would usually have from the rest of the year.

“It’s estimated that some businesses will take five years to recover from this,” Doney said in reference to the pandemic. “Through the American rescue plan, we can provide more flexible, patient capital to help businesses through.”

He said there are several thousand fewer employed people in the Golden Triangle than there were before the pandemic began last year.

“And there are 1,000s more who are taking home less money because they don’t have the hours and they don’t have the tip wages and things like that,” Doney said.

He acknowledged that Great Falls was not the economic capital of Montana before the pandemic, but said there was a decade of economic growth and the start of progress.

“When we started out, our average wage was 63% of the national average. We’d gotten it up to 73% of the national average, but our cost of living is 93% of the national average,” Doney said. “So wouldn’t it be nice if the average wage was above the cost of living? That’s what we want to work towards in Great Falls.”

Tester was one of seven Democrats and one Independent to join Republicans to vote against a provision to add a $15 federal minimum wage to the COVID relief package.

“If that amendment was passed, the whole American rescue plan would have gone down,” Tester said.

He said businesses like the Celtic Cowboy were just getting out of a pandemic and said he wants to be thoughtful about how a wage increase would impact small businesses.

“This the first minimum wage I’ve ever voted against, and I think the minimum wage needs to be increased,” Tester said. “It will be back, and I look forward to the opportunity to debate it.”

He didn’t give a number he would be comfortable with increasing the minimum wage to, but said he thinks there’s a possibility of getting a minimum wage set and then having the metrics to have an increase as it relates to the cost of living by the middle of summer.

Jennings said government support, the development authority and community are what got the Celtic Cowboy and the adjoining Hotel Arvon through this past year with the impact from the pandemic. He said he would have been out of business if it weren’t for that assistance.

“The community has a survival instinct and people want their favorite places to stay around and thrive,” Jennings said. “We’ve definitely felt that support from the city of Great Falls in central Montana.”

Moe said the city and community have been hit hard by the pandemic but she’s grateful for the work Tester has done in working directly with the Montana league of cities and towns and with the cities directly “to hear from us what our needs are.”

“I’m so grateful, particularly for the shots in the arms, the bucks in the bank, and the ability to get back to work that is going to make such a difference in this community,” Moe said.