Billings Gazette: Smaller infrastructure bill still favors Montana, Tester says

by Tom Lutey

Calling Montana’s gains in a major federal infrastructure bill substantial, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester expressed confidence Thursday the legislation would pass after Republicans and Democrats settled their spending differences.

Though the bill is much smaller than what lawmakers had originally agreed to, money still remains for rural clean water projects, tribal sanitation programs and the crumbling Milk River Irrigation Project. The proposal was pared down to about $550 billion in new money to placate Republican concerns about spending. Roughly $600 billion more will come from funds repurposed from earlier commitments, like COVID unemployment subsidies.

“It will make critically needed investments in Montana’s roads and bridges, to our water systems, to our growing airports, it will expand our broadband for high-speed internet and will allow us to maintain our competitive advantage over China. And it will do so without raising taxes on hardworking Montana families,” Tester said. “It is no secret that putting this bill together, it’s been tough. There’s been many ups and downs. Like most good negotiations. Nobody left feeling like they got everything they wanted.”

Tester, Montana’s only statewide elected Democratic office holder, suggested that communities needed to speak up now about infrastructure projects that fill the bill. As with most infrastructure funding, the money from this bill will pass through the state Department of Transportation.

“I would get aggressive if I was in Dillon right now, or any town, big or small and roads were a problem,” Tester said. “This is an historic investment, a lot of money, I would be contacting Montana Transportation Department saying, ‘don’t forget about Dillon.’ As long as your city council has done the background to say, ‘alright, if we got money, this road needs to be fixed, then fix this road, then we fix this road. So the planning has been done. I think that puts you in a position to actually make a difference.”

The Milk River Project could receive up $100 million for desperately needed repairs. Problems with the irrigation system’s diversion structure caused the 339-mile system to shut down in 2020, leaving farmers and some reservoirs without critical supply. The Milk draws water from the St. Mary’s River through a 29-mile channel of chutes and pools that slow the water as it transfers. There are $60 million in repairs needed for the diversion segment alone, plus another $140 million on the rest of the irrigation system.

The Milk money, plus $211 million for critical drinking water projects across the Hi-Line won the approval of the Senate Energy Committee July 14. Republicans, including Montana Sen. Steve Daines, give the projects initial approval.

However, Daines was uncertain he would support the broad infrastructure bill when it comes up for a vote, possibly before lawmakers leave Washington D.C. for August recess.

The senator won’t decide whether to support the bill until he sees more details, said Katie Schoettler, a Daines advisor.

“It’s hard to say whether you’re going to support something or not when you haven’t seen final bill text and you have seen how it’s going to be paid for, or the” Congressional Budget Office score, Schoettler said.

The methods for covering the infrastructure cost had changed substantially over the past two weeks. Lawmakers initially proposed closing the “tax gap” to support new spending. The under-collection of taxes is at least a $1 trillion, Tester said. Records show the last time the under-collection was estimated was seven years ago and that it’s likely increased.

But Republicans objected to hiring more tax collectors to go after unpaid taxes. With that option off the table, lawmakers turned directing unspent money from previous pandemic relief bills to the infrastructure cause. There is about $550 billion in new spending.

Some of the things that didn’t appear to make the cut included spending on research and development, once thought to be a significant investment in universities, including Montana’s. Tester noted his disappointment earlier that funding for public housing was excluded.

There remained money for railways, including passenger rail service, money for airports and abandoned mine cleanup.

Democratic leadership had indicated that in order to pass the infrastructure bill it would need to have a companion “social infrastructure” package. The companion proposal focuses on things like child care subsidies, Medicare expansion and public health issues like stemming climate change. The latter proposal is estimated to spend $3.5 trillion. Democrats plan to pass it through reconciliation, a process requiring a simple majority vote and not the 60-vote majority needed for the infrastructure bill.

It will take every Democrat in the Senate to pass the companion package. Tester said he was undecided whether to support the deal. Like Daines on the infrastructure bill, Tester said he would have to see what was proposed.

“It’s too early in the process for me to say this is a good idea or a bad idea. Are there $3.5 trillion worth of needs out there? There absolutely are,” Tester said. “I intend to vote to move for the debate so that I can get my input on how I think it needs to be utilized. And who knows what the end goal is going to be? Because quite frankly, there’s too many questions.”

House Democrats have indicated the infrastructure bill will not be taken up unless the companion package is also delivered by the Senate.