Daily Inter Lake: Tester calls infrastructure bill 'urgently needed'

by Chad Sokol

Capping a swing through western Montana, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester stopped in Kalispell on Friday to promote an agreement for a major infrastructure package recently hatched between the Biden administration and a bipartisan group of senators.

The text of the bill was still being finalized on Friday, but the envisioned package would pour $1.2 trillion into roads, bridges, airports, broadband, water infrastructure and the nation’s electrical grid – all without raising taxes. Tester, D-Mont., and nine other centrist senators brought the plan to the White House late last month and President Joe Biden said he would sign it.

“We’re in the 21st century now, and we’ve been living off our parents’ and grandparents’ infrastructure for far too long,” Tester said during Friday’s visit to Flathead Valley Community College. “This framework is a once-in-a-century investment in America’s infrastructure. It is going to be one of the most impactful pieces of legislation in our nation’s history, and it couldn’t be more urgently needed.”

In addition to fixing crumbling roads and bridges, the White House says the package would cover the replacement of lead pipes that carry drinking water to communities across the country; upgrade and prepare infrastructure for cyberattacks, climate change and extreme weather events; and invest in electric buses and vehicle-charging stations along the nation’s highways.

“It will also make badly needed investments in broadband, which is particularly important to folks across Montana, where we lag far behind the rest of the country when it comes to internet connectivity,” Tester said. “It will allow us to maintain our competitive edge over China in the 21st century. And most importantly, it will create good-paying jobs, not only here in the Flathead but across the state and across our country.”

THE PARED-DOWN package is significantly smaller than earlier proposals from the White House. It promises to disappoint progressives who have called for a broad definition of infrastructure that includes things like child care, while the price tag could steer away the most fiscally conservative Republicans and those unwilling to let Biden claim a legislative victory.

Biden had proposed rolling back some of the 2017 corporate tax cuts enacted by congressional Republicans and then-President Donald Trump. The bipartisan infrastructure deal would make no changes to the tax code, but it would provide more funding to the IRS to enforce existing tax laws on the nation’s wealthiest people. Tester said the package also would use billions of dollars of unspent pandemic relief funds.

The other senators who worked out the deal with Biden are Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Mark Warner of Virginia and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Republicans Rob Portman of Ohio, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Mitt Romney of Utah.

The White House and Senate Democratic leaders are pushing for a vote on the infrastructure package as early as July 19. It needs 60 votes to pass the evenly divided Senate, and its chances seem good as at least 11 Republicans have voiced support for it. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has not said whether he supports it.

Some Democrats, meanwhile, are eager to pursue a larger, separate bill that would include components of Biden’s American Families Plan. That bill could pass through the process known as budget reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority of votes.

“Child care and housing I hear a ton about wherever I go. It’s a big issue,” Tester said. “And if we want to be competitive with China … we have to solve these issues some way. If it’s not in an infrastructure package, they still have to be solved.”

TESTER SPOKE Friday alongside FVCC President Jane Karas, Columbia Falls City Councilman Mike Shepard and Jess Cerra, a business owner and professional cyclist from Whitefish.

Karas said it’s important to expand access to high-speed internet because students who don’t have internet are at an educational disadvantage.

“The focus on funding broadband internet is critical to building a strong foundation for economic growth in northwest Montana, especially in rural areas. It will provide access to education and training opportunities,” she said. “During the pandemic, we learned that many of our students did not have access to any type of internet, thereby really impinging on their ability to get an education and to complete their programs.”

Cerra, who launched a line of energy bars called JoJé Bars, also emphasized the need for better broadband, saying she works from home and internet outages frequently disrupt her business.

“This package would just be so important to small business owners like me, so I can run my business smoothly, and then hopefully continue to grow it in Montana and potentially create more jobs here through my business,” she said.

Shepard, the longest-serving member of the Columbia Falls City Council, stressed that local tax revenue does not always compensate for the pressures of rapid population growth like the Flathead Valley is experiencing. Federal assistance like the proposed infrastructure package, he said, is needed to complete big projects such as upgrading the city’s sewer plant.

“Growth does not pay for everything like a lot of taxpayers believe. Growth compounds things. In a city like Columbia Falls, we save and scrimp money so that we have a nest egg to use as leverage when there’s grants available for matching funds,” Shepard said. “When you have the federal government looking to assist, you’d be a fool to not take advantage of the funds.”