Lewistown News Argus: Senator Jon Tester talks Farm Bill, veterans’ issues as Congress begins

by Will Briggs

As the 118th United States Congress kicks off, Senator Jon Tester is focusing on a couple issues: agriculture and veteran’s affairs.

Last month, the senator held three listening sessions with constituents and local officials to hear their priorities for the Farm Bill, a legislative package that covers a dizzying range of agricultural policies from crop insurance and commodities support to export programs and rural development.

With the current Farm Bill, passed in 2018, set to expire this year, Tester said he’d received a lot of feedback so far on what to keep and what to update in the new legislation. He’s also looking for even more in subsequent stops, including in Central Montana.

“We’re planning to hold another session in Lewistown in a couple months,” the senator told the News-Argus. “There’s a big push for mandatory country of origin labeling and I’m all for that. Also, we want to ensure crop insurance covers some new crops — there are a lot of new crops that have come on the market in the last five years to add to the bill.”

In addition, Tester said farmers had urged him to keep the ability to choose between the ARC (Agriculture Risk Coverage) and PLC (Price Loss Coverage) commodity title alternatives and to boost reference prices for crops.

“Reference prices need boosting up from $5.50 [for wheat] based on inflation or some other measure,” Tester said.

There’s also the matter of fighting consolidation in agriculture, with Tester noting the grain and beef industries in particular are feeling the effects of not enough competition.

“Competition is important. Capitalism works if you have competition, it doesn’t if you have consolidation. There are basically four companies that control 80% of the beef market and that’s not good for the people raising beef or buying beef,” Tester said. “We passed the Packers and Stockyards Act 100 years ago and now things are more consolidated than ever and people are frustrated… we still feel the effects of consolidation on our farm and I’m not going to quit trying to fight it.”

Throughout the feedback process, Tester said he’s taking Montanan’s concerns to the Senate Committee on Agriculture so they can be reflected in the final bill.

“I’m sending these suggestions to the chair and the ranking member of the committee and then I’ll have followup conversations with those members,” he said.

Veterans and infrastructure

As he continues in his role as Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Tester said he has a lot of plans to improve services for military veterans. For one, he’s working on implementing the recently-signed PACT Act, which ensures veterans exposed to toxins get access to healthcare and benefits from the U.S. Veterans Administration.

For another, he’s working on different programs to improve veterans’ mental health services.

“The people who signed up to serve this country — we need to make sure we take care of them,” Tester said. “We continue to lose a veteran a day to suicide. Montana has a pilot program for alternative mental health treatment and it’s already implemented equine and recreational therapy.”

Aside from new programs, Tester said there’s the matter of communicating that there is care available for veterans’ mental health.

“There are two things necessary,” he explained. “One, we’ve got to make sure veterans know the VA has changed and that these services are available. Two, we need to make sure there isn’t a stigma around mental health. We’ve got to let them know there is access to people who can help, whether that’s VA services or just getting a cup of coffee with a neighbor.”

On top of veterans’ services, Tester said he’ll continue to prioritize rural infrastructure projects like the Musselshell-Judith Rural Water System. The project received funding through the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which Tester voted for.

“Water is literally life and it’s very much a premium for a lot of communities in Montana,” he said. “It’s a matter of making sure these water systems get in the ground.”

Along similar lines, the senator said he’d like to ensure rural broadband internet services, which also received funding through the infrastructure bill, are rolled out effectively.

“In the 1940s, the Rural Electrification Administration put in electric lines all across the state and the country and it propelled our economy to the best in the world,” Tester said. “I think broadband is as important as those power lines. If money for rural broadband is spent correctly, it can be really important for rural areas.”

This congress… and next?

Even amongst a newly-divided congress, Tester is optimistic about the chances of passing legislation on these and other issues.

“There are some chances of getting bills through,” Tester said. “We have some good committee chairs and good ranking members. We can worry if this or that is going to pass, but if we do our jobs and if we can get things out of committee and through the senate, then it’s in the House’s hands.”

Of course, there’s one question the Senator will face a lot over the next few months: with his term expiring in 2024, will he seek office again?

“I’m still talking with my wife and family. We’re still running the family farm and I want to ensure that’d be ok if I decide to run again,” Tester said before chuckling. “My brothers are getting older — fortunately I’m not — but one of them is going to be in his eighties. There’s a lot that goes into it and we’ll make a decision on running in the near future.”

Senator Jon Tester talks Farm Bill, veterans’ issues as Congress begins | News | lewistownnews.com