Touching on a bevy of issues from banking regulations to the expired lumber agreement between the U.S. and Canada, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester unveiled his sweeping “Employ Montana” plan during an address to the state House of Representatives on Monday.
“‘Employ Montana’ will rebuild our infrastructure, create a marketplace for our products, pave the way for innovation, invest in our workforce and responsibly develop our natural resources,” said Tester, a Montana Democrat and former president of the state Senate.
Tester urged lawmakers to work together on statewide infrastructure spending to allow Montana to take advantage of federal money to repair infrastructure — one of the chief priorities outlined early in the session by state legislators from both sides of the aisle. The Montana Department of Transportation last year delayed $144 million worth of construction projects after a budget shortfall in the department left the state short of its required match to receive the federal grants.
“Montanans need you to ensure that tens of millions of dollars that Montana families pay into the Highway Trust Fund don’t get sent to New York, California or Alabama,” he said.
Lumber mills in Western Montana, already suffering from a decades-long decline in production, have expressed concerns over last year’s expiration of an agreement between the U.S. and Canada that set pricing controls on softwood lumber. The stateside lumber industry has initiated a trade complaint against Canada, alleging that the country’s government subsidizes timber cut from public land, in turn allowing their mills to out-compete U.S. producers.
Nodding to President-elect Donald Trump’s rhetoric endorsing restrictions on free trade, Tester said, “I will work with the administration to create a fair, effective and sustainable softwood lumber agreement. This will help our timber industry get the certainty they need to responsibly cut trees and help get our mills back to work.”
He added that Montana farmers would similarly benefit from an agreement with Canada that prevents wheat imported from the U.S. from being labeled “feed grade” once it crosses the border.
Tester also recognized Glacier Bank President Bob Nystuen of Kalispell, sitting in the House chamber’s gallery, as an example of a local businessman hampered by government regulations, and pledged to reform the Dodd-Frank Act to remove banking regulations that were “meant to police the big guys, not the small credit unions and community banks that serve rural America and Main Street.”
After stumping for increased investment in rural broadband, a program requiring the Department of Homeland Security to purchase textiles only from U.S. companies and measures to encourage carbon capture and storage, Tester wrapped up his remarks with an attack on U.S. Congressional Republicans’ plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act without putting replacement health-care reforms in place.
“Thanks to your good work last session, Montana expanded Medicaid to over 60,000 hardworking people,” Tester said. “… I’ve been around the state and that message is clear; people don’t want Congress taking away their health care.”
Instead, he pledged to work with Republicans to enact improvements to the health-care law.