Whitefish Pilot: Whitefish business owner says federal infrastructure bill vitally important

by Chris Peterson

One Columbia Falls official and a Whitefish business owner said last week that a federal infrastructure bill is necessary for local governments and business operations during a stop by Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in Kalispell.

Columbia Falls City Councilor Mike Shepard told of how federal funding would help the city potentially upgrade its sewage treatment plant and improve some of its streets.

JoJé Bars founder and CEO Jess Cerra of Whitefish spoke of how vitally important reliable broadband and reliable internet access are to her energy bar business.

Both locals and Flathead Valley Community College President Jane Karas said they back a bipartisan infrastructure package that was recently brokered by Tester, a Democrat, and nine other Senate colleagues, split between Democrats and Republicans.

The Senate is expected to begin debate on the $579 billion bill in the coming weeks.

“We’ve been living off our parent’s infrastructure for too long,” Tester as he stumped for the package at FVCC last week. He said the bill would also make the U.S. more competitive with China.

He said the Senate package would shore up the nation’s ailing infrastructure and would create a system whereby everyone who wanted high-speed Internet could get it.

Karas said the internet was a huge concern locally, noting that during the pandemic, some students simply didn’t have adequate access.

“Many students didn’t have any type of access,” she said.

Shepard said the growth the city is seeing compounds infrastructure problems. The city has done good planning over the years, looking 15 to 20 years into the future as it adds wells and improves its sewage treatment plant.

But in years gone by the city could rely on federal grants or loans to help fund those projects. But today and for quite a while, not so much.

He said noted that simple things like sewage treatment plants are good for the environment, lessening the odds of algae blooms in places like Flathead Lake.

For Cerra, she said reliable Internet is very important. She said on more than one occasion she’s been on a Zoom meeting or other important connection only to have the internet fail.

In addition to the energy bar business, she also created the mountain bike race The Last Best Ride slated for late August on gravel roads around Whitefish.

Tester clarified some aspects of the package, which includes $200 billion in revolving loan funds for projects.

He said it does not repeal any corporate tax cuts that were passed in 2017. Instead, it uses funds that were not spent in previous federal coronavirus relief bills. It also tightens federal income tax enforcement to pay for the measure.

He said Senate leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, hopes to bring it to the floor by July 19.

If it passes, it would have to be reconciled and passed in the House as well.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, also expressed doubts, according to a Washington Post story on Monday.

“The era of bipartisanship on this stuff is over… This is not going to be done on a bipartisan basis. This is going to be a hell of a fight over what this country ought to look like in the future and it’s going to unfold here in the next few weeks. I don’t think we’ve had a bigger difference of opinion between the two parties,” McConnell said about Democrats’ plans to pass an infrastructure along party lines, the Post reported.