Tester proposes fixes for latest jobs proposal

Senator will vote to begin debate, but ‘cannot support’ measure as written

(U.S. SENATE) – U.S. Senator Jon Tester is proposing several ideas he says will guarantee job creation through the Teachers and First Responders Back to Work Act, as the Senate considers a vote on the measure this evening.

During a speech to his colleagues, Tester said he plans to vote tonight to begin debate on the measure, but he “cannot support” final passage of the $35 billion bill as it’s currently written.

Tester praised the goal of the Teachers and First Responders Back to Work Act, which is supposed to help hire more teachers and emergency responders across the nation. But Tester, a former elementary school teacher, said he is concerned that the measure “fails to give taxpayers any guarantee” that the money would actually be used to hire teachers.

Tester noted that under the current legislation, states could use their share of the money to “balance their budgets or to build up a rainy day fund” instead of create jobs.

Tester plans to offer an amendment putting “sideboards” on the education portion of the bill by administering its funding the same way schools receive federal special education funding. Tester said that would guarantee federal resources reach the local level, where they can “create jobs in education.”

Tester’s second amendment addresses his concern that funding for emergency responders will unfairly favor urban fire departments and emergency services over those in rural states like Montana. His measure would require at least 20 percent of competitive grant funding for emergency responders go to rural communities, which make up about 20 percent of America.

“When Montana’s rural fire departments have to compete for federal grant funding, guess who often gets the short end of the stick?” Tester said. “Emergency responders in rural states like Montana—the folks who often don’t have professional grant-writers to help them secure the basic equipment they need to do their jobs safely.”

Tester also said he believes the bill should contain a long-term reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools and Payment-in-Lieu-of-Taxes initiatives. The programs have bipartisan support and are critical to supporting schools and roads in Montana’s rural counties.

Amending and debating the Teachers and First Responders Back to Work Act will require 60 votes in the U.S. Senate.

Tester’s speech as prepared for delivery appears below.


Floor Remarks
U.S. Senator Jon Tester
October 20, 2011


Mr. President, I rise today to speak about the priorities facing Montana and this nation:

Creating jobs. Responsibly cutting spending. Cutting the deficit. And rebuilding our economy.

I appreciate the proposal at hand as an attempt to create jobs. And today I will vote to have the debate. Because only then can I offer my amendments to the bill. As written, I can’t support this bill.

Having the debate will allow us an opportunity to amend it, so that it will guarantee jobs in Montana and across America.

Mr. President, the perspective I bring to the table is a little different. As someone who lives in, works in, and represents a rural state, my responsibility is to make sure that every decision I make works for this entire country.

I expect full accountability for every penny of taxpayer money we spend. I expect that when you invest in something, you had better get what you pay for.

A lot of folks know I’m a farmer. But many don’t know that I am also a former teacher. I used to teach elementary music in Big Sandy, Montana.

I fully understand the importance of making sure all of our nation’s teachers have the resources they need to do their jobs. To lead our most important resource: our kids.

As a teacher, I also know that when rural schools are asked to compete with urban schools for federal funding, rural schools often get left behind.

The same goes for emergency responders.

Their service – sometimes even as volunteers – is very important to a rural state like Montana.  Whether firefighters, police officers or EMTs, they are on call round the clock to help whenever help is needed.

In Montana as everywhere else, firefighters are respected for their courage. For their hard work. For doing whatever is expected of them to save property. And to save lives.

But when Montana’s rural fire departments and rural police departments have to compete for federal grant funding, guess who often gets the short end of the stick?

That’s right. Emergency responders in rural states like Montana. The folks who often don’t have professional grant-writers to help them secure the basic equipment they need to do their jobs safely.

That brings me to this proposal.

Again, as it’s written, I cannot support it. I’m not convinced it will create the jobs it must create.

$30 billion in this bill is meant to go to states to boost education. To hire teachers. Yes, investing in education is a powerful short-term and long-term way to create jobs.
But as written, this bill fails to give taxpayers any guarantee that this money would actually be used to hire teachers and invest in our schools.

The fact is this money could be used to supplant instead of supplement funds.

States would get loads of money with little guidance that they spend the money on teachers. But we all know what happens. 

Very smart folks who work in state budget offices can find their way around that guidance. Because money is pretty darn easy to move from one budget account to another. 

In other words, there’s no guarantee this bill will create jobs.

Mr. President, Montana is one of two states that has a budget surplus right now. We know how to live within our means.

I know other states, like Kansas, are considering broad-based tax cuts.

And that’s fine. Kansas can do that if it wants. But I’m not convinced we should be writing checks to states, so they can cut taxes. Montanans shouldn’t be paying for people in other states to get a tax cut.

Nor should we be giving precious taxpayer money to states to build up a rainy day fund.

I’m all for individual states making smart choices with their own money. But giving them federal money and just hoping they’ll use it for education and teachers. Well, that’s not good enough.

For that kind of money, we need a guarantee.

So, Mr. President, If the motion to proceed is adopted, I plan to offer two amendments to address my concerns.

One will address the $5 billion in this bill meant to provide aid to the nation’s first responders. 

My amendment requires that 20 percent of competitive grant funding go specifically to rural communities. It’s only fair. Rural communities make up 20 percent of our nation.

My other amendment puts sideboards on the remainder of the money in this bill.

To guarantee it would be used the way it’s supposed to be used: to create jobs in education. And to invest in our kids.

My amendment will prohibit states from pulling their own state money out of education programs when they take this federal money.

How? By putting the money into Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. IDEA. Special Education.

When I traveled around Montana after passage of the Recovery Act in 2009, school administrators told me that the money that made it to the ground was appreciated. But that special education was their top priority. 

IDEA funding is still one of the biggest unfunded mandates the federal government has on local school districts. When it was first enacted, the federal government promised to fund forty percent of the cost of this important law.

Today, we fund less than half of that promise. This amendment will help to bridge that gap somewhat. 

Special Education funding is not only a top priority for folks in Montana. It also guarantees that its funding gets to the local level.
If the money in this bill is supposed to be for teachers, then let’s make sure that it ends up there.

This amendment is a good way to go about doing just that.

I now ask unanimous consent that these two amendments be inserted into the record.

Finally, Mr. President, I’d like to talk about one other thing missing from this bill. That’s a reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools program and the Payment-in-Lieu of Taxes program, or PILT.

These two programs will do more to ensure that thousands of teachers stay on the job than anything else we can do around here.  And here’s the kicker – in the middle of this partisan debate, Secure Rural Schools and PILT are bipartisan programs. 

Under the leadership of Senators Bingaman, Murkowski, Baucus, Crapo, Wyden and Risch, we have a bill that could pass right now. Today.

It would keep four thousand teachers on the job at a cost of $3.5 billion over the next five years.

Small potatoes compared to the $35 billion in the bill before us today.

It’s a very reasonable bill. But because it is so reasonable, no one wants to see it appear in the middle of such a partisan debate.

Once again, too many folks in Washington are looking for ways to point fingers.

Well, I don’t have as many fingers as everyone else. So I’d rather use mine to solve some problems.

Mr. President, only after this final bill is amended to guarantee job certainty will it be able to earn my vote.

And in order to do amend it, I am going to vote for the motion to proceed.

My vote is a vote for a debate that we ought to have. So we can truly create jobs and focus on rebuilding our economy.

I look forward to that debate, and with that I yield the floor.