Havre Daily News: Tester celebrates passage of infrastructure bill

by Patrick Johnston

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester D-Mont., celebrated at a press conference Tuesday the passage of a massive infrastructure bill in the Senate which gained the support of a significant amount of Republicans.

Tester, who was one of five Democrats and five Republicans who primarily negotiated the initial version of the $1.2 trillion bill, said it’s the largest non-emergency investment in the U.S. infrastructure in history addressing both traditional infrastructure like roads and bridges as well as newer forms of public goods like high-speed internet access.

He said it also creates jobs for countless Americans while not raising taxes.

“I’m very proud of it,” he said.

The bill passed the Senate 69-30, with 19 Republicans voting for the compromise package.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., was one of the 30 Republicans voting against it, citing a Congressional Budget Office report saying it would add to the deficit.

A spokesperson for Daines said that, while he worked to make the bill better for Montana throughout the negotiation process, he believes the debt increase will hurt Montana families at a time when inflation is soaring, and it will hurt future generations.

“Montanans were told and promised that this massive, 2,700-page bill would not increase the debt,” Daines said in a statement to the Havre Daily News this morning. “Unfortunately, according to Congress’ nonpartisan budget scorekeeper, the package not only increases the debt, it increases it by $256 billion. This is absolutely unacceptable, especially at a time when Montana families are already dealing with soaring inflation and skyrocketing prices on everything from gas to groceries.”

Tester addressed that issue during his press conference, saying the CBO report doesn’t and can’t take into account a number of pay-fors that he’s been assured will make up the difference and make sure the debt isn’t increased by the bill.

A statement from Tester’s office earlier this week said these pay-fors include new savings and revenue the bill would create, some of which are reflected in the formal CBO score and some of which are reflected in other CBO and Joint Committee on Taxation estimates.

The statement said Republicans and Democrats leading negotiations on this bill have always said that there are limitations on what CBO can and will include in its official score of the legislation. It said the CBO and Joint Committee on Taxation estimate that the pay-fors not included in the official CBO score would provide $269.55 billion in revenue, $13 billion more than what the report claims the bipartisan infrastructure package will add to the deficit.

Tester said infrastructure like roads and bridges simply cannot be ignored, and without these things the distribution of goods becomes impossible, something the U.S.’s adversaries, specifically China, know well.

He said China has invested a great deal of money in their infrastructure as part of it’s ongoing effort to surpass the U.S. as the preeminent economy in the world, and if the U.S. doesn’t meet that challenge they well might accomplish that goal.

“Look to the past and it will tell you what will happen in the future if you don’t invest in infrastructure,” he said.

As for the average Montanan, Tester said, he can speak from experience about how much road repairs saved him in potential vehicle repairs and maintenance while working on his farm in Big Sandy.

“It saved me a bunch of money in tires alone,” he said.

He praised his fellow senators, including those who worked with him on the bill, as well as President Joe Biden for his aggressive push to get this done.

“I’ve been in Washington for 15 years,” Tester said. “I’ve heard a lot of people talk, I’ve heard a lot of presidents talk about how they’re going to get infrastructure done, and frankly it hasn’t happened before now.”

He said the bill is a massive leap forward for the state of Montana, which will receive, $2.8 billion over five years for roads, $225 million for bridges, $144 million for airports as well as support for water infrastructure which he hopes will provide greater certainty for local irrigators.

He said the bill addresses water related infrastructure issues like that of the St. Mary Diversion which has been in need of repairs for the last 30 years.

The St. Mary Diversion and Conveyance Works, part of the irrigation Milk River Project and one of the first projects the Bureau of Reclamation was authorized to build when it was created at the start of the last century, diverts water into the North Fork of the Milk River and supplies much – in drought years almost all – of the water flowing through the Milk River.

Irrigators pay most of the cost of operating and maintaining the system – at this point, about 75 percent of the cost – and it has been patched together for decades.

The working group was formed in 2003 after users of the Milk River warned that catastrophic failure was likely unless major repairs – much more than the irrigators could afford – were made.

That happened last spring when the last concrete drop structure on the 29-mile system of dams, dikes, canals, giant metal siphons and drop structures failed and had to be replaced.

The diversion was shut down over last summer until collaborative work got it re-opened in October.

Tester said this bill contains $100 million for the diversion’s rehabilitation project, and while that only gets them half way there, it’s $100 million dollars they didn’t have before and he hopes it will prime the pump for more funds later down the line.

He said he can’t stress enough how vital the project is. Tester said without a working diversion the population of the area will plummet.

Daines noted that he is the only Montanan on the Senate Energy Natural Resources Committee that advanced the St. Mary funding out of committee.

Tester said projects like improvements to the regional water systems of Rocky Boy’s/North Central Montana Regional Water System and Fort Peck, which have been receiving incremental annual funding far short of the total needed, are all but paid for with this bill.

Tester also talked specifically about the bill improving internet access in the state, saying it will allow small businesses to reach more customers, as well as improvements it includes for the U.S. northern ports of entry on the Canadian border.

He said the bill also includes critical funds to address wildfire seasons in Montana, this one being one of the worst in his lifetime.

He said the state will have $3.3 billion to use for wildfire prevention, the development of fire control points, the removal of flammable vegetation and more.

For ag producers like himself, Tester said, it eliminates burdensome and impractical regulations on how they transport their goods.

He said given the drought conditions, producers need all the help they can get.

He said this maybe the worst harvest his family has seen in their lifetime, and maybe one of the worst since his family first homesteaded the area generations ago.

On the subject of extreme weather, Tester said, the bill does good things for the fight against climate change, but much more needs to be done, especially in the wake of the United Nations’ recent report detailing how little time the world has to address the issue before it gets out of control.

Tester said the U.S. needs to make a serious effort to use more carbonless fuels, and bolster solar, geothermal, wind energy before the it can say it’s tackling climate change in a meaningful way.

From the perspective of a politician, he said, the bipartisan support for the bill is encouraging and a step in the right direction for a divided congress.

“When I go home I’m often asked, ‘why can’t you guys get along, why can’t you work together?,'” he said. “Well, we did.”

While Tester said he’s happy to see this bill gain the support that it did, he is concerned about the second round of funding which he hopes will be paid for by higher taxes on the rich and large corporations, something he expects little republican support on.

“We’ll make every effort to get bipartisan support, but I’m not holding my breath,” he said.

Tester said he thinks there is enough critical mass in the house to get the bill to the president’s desk sometime this fall despite objections from Republicans.