Havre Daily News: Tester discusses right to repair, veterans health care and more in press call

by Patrick Johnston

Jon Tester, D-Mont., held a press call Thursday where he discussed a number of bills he’s working on, as well as ongoing conflicts in Washington around new budgets and the results of the infrastructure bill’s recent passage.

Tester said it’s already shaping up to be a busy year in Washington, and, right now, his attention is fixed on his Agriculture Right to Repair Bill, which will require agriculture equipment manufacturers to make the parts, tools and software necessary to repair their equipment available so ag producers can take care of their own equipment when it breaks.

Tester has long been an advocate for Right to Repair, which has been a issue for producers like him for years.

As the technology in agriculture equipment has become more complex companies increasingly do not sell parts, tools and software necessary for producers to fix equipment when it breaks, meaning when breakages happen the producer typically has to haul the machinery to a certified dealer to get it repaired.

Often such a dealer would need to be certified by the manufacturer, as well, limiting the amount of places a producer can go to get repairs done, which can be time consuming and costly, and is something Tester said producers shouldn’t have to deal with.

“The right to repair my equipment has been something that has been passed down through generations of agriculture,” he said. “It’s very important because time is literally money on the farm, whether it’s harvest or whether it’s planting, when it’s time to do the job you can’t have equipment break down.”

He said he’s willing to listen to the concerns of manufacturers and make adjustments ant get buy-in on the bill, but he has no illusions that that they will all be happy about this.

However, he said, in the end producers need to be able to repair their own equipment and this is not incompatible with big companies continuing to make plenty of money.

“People in production agriculture are too important to turn our backs on,” he said. ” … Those big companies, they can make this work for people in production agriculture, and they can still stay in business and they can still make record profits.”

Tester’s bill drew praise from the Montana Farmers Union, which concurred with him about the importance of producers being able to repair their equipment.

“The ability of farmers and ranchers to repair their own equipment is a priority for Montana Farmers Union, which supported right to repair bills that tackled anti-competitive practices during the 2021 Montana legislative session,” a release from the union said. ” … Tester’s legislation to allow producers to make timely repairs and that takes on repair market consolidation is welcome news.”

MFU President Walter Schweitzer praised the bill in the release, as well, calling attention to the unique struggles producers have under current conditions in Montana.

“Montana has a short growing season,” Schweitzer said. “Most farmers and ranchers are in the field at the same time. Equipment breaks down when you need or use it. We are all having repair issues at the same time. During seeding, haying, spraying, harvesting, our local dealers are overwhelmed with repairs needed yesterday. The right to repair is not our dealers’ fault. The equipment manufacturers hold farmers and their dealers hostage, forcing us to use authorized equipment techs to do the timely repairs.

“Farmers and ranchers are an independent bunch. If we have a problem, we try to fix it on our own. For some it is therapeutic to repair their own equipment. We do not like being held hostage by an equipment manufacturer,” he added.

Tester, chair of the Senate Commitee on Veterans Affairs, also talked about the Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans Act, which he introduced along with committee Ranking Member Jerry Moran R-Kan., a bill Tester said would help the one-third of post-9/11 combat veterans who don’t have access to Veterans Affairs Health Care.

He said many of these men and women thought they weren’t eligible for care or didn’t think they’d need it but are now facing serious health problems and they need help.

“Without action, without this bill, post 9/11 veterans will suffer just as Vietnam veterans did and every year more toxin-exposed veterans will pay the ultimate price while waiting for treatment,” he said.

Tester said he knows many outspoken advocates for veteran care are dissatisfied with the scope of this bill and he wishes more could be done via the COST of War Act, but when crafting legislation compromises have to be reached and at this point the choices are to pass this or do nothing and the choice is obvious.

“We have the opportunity to do nothing, or get a quick win and get a lot of folks eligible for health care,” he said.

He said this bill is the first of three phases his committee is discussing to increase access to health care, with phase two focused on dealing directly with toxic exposure, and the third dealing with presumptive illness, which is the part a lot of advocates who criticized the bill are very concerned about.

However, he said, veterans health care advocates have every right to be angry about the current state of affairs and he doesn’t take any of the criticism personally.

“I’m a big boy, I can take criticism,” he said.

Tester also briefly discussed the the recent passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill which he said is already seeing projects being invested in, including the Milk River Project which received $2.5 million for planning and project design, which will chart a course for how the rest of the project will be funded.

He said the project is extremely important to northern Montana which relies on the Milk River for irrigation and other water needs.

He said he will work to hold the Bureau of Reclamation accountable for getting funding to where it’s needed as soon as possible.

Tester also talked about ongoing conflicts in Washington over appropriations bills that he said need to get passed for the sake of the American people and it’s time to stop playing politics with them.

A lot of people think if they don’t get their bills passed they will lose an advantage in coming elections, he said, the ones who certainly won’t have an advantage if it doesn’t get done, the American people.

He said a lot of people are working with budgets that are two years old and a lot has changed since then that needs to be reflected in those budgets, especially considering the evolving military situations the U.S. must address oversees.

He said the government can’t keep doing continuing resolutions, which he said could become genuinely dangerous.

Face recognition

Tester also addressed the U.S. Internal Revenue Service requiring users to use a third-party facial recognition from ID.me to access non-tax return related services, and made his opposition to this partnership very clear.

“I don’t know where that came from but it is a bad idea, and I’m being generous when I say bad idea,” he said. “This is the kind of garbage that drives me crazy.”

He said the fact that a third party is being used to do this is very alarming and he’s working with fellow legislators to shut the partnership down ASAP.

Tester also addressed the recent protests of truckers in Canada against COVID-19-related mandates.

He said they have the right to protest and he’s not overly fond of mandates either, but he said he thinks it’s wrong to block the road.

Despite his sympathy however, he said, he still 100 percent supports everyone who can getting vaccinated. He said the efficacy of the vaccine is obvious when looking at the data around who is dying from COVID-19, overwhelmingly the unvaccinated, who are at increased risk of hospitalization and death from all variants of the virus.

However, he said, eventually, people have to take personal responsibility for themselves, and if they don’t want to get the vaccine he can’t make them.

During the questions section of the press call reporters asked about issues they’ve been having with the U.S. postal service.

They said they’re constantly getting calls about papers arriving days or weeks late, and that a lot of people rely on USPS for paper delivery.

Tester thanked reporters for bringing the matter to his attention and said he’d make some calls and see if anything can be done to fix the problem.