BILLINGS — With federal funding in doubt for key services in rural Montana, Congressional candidates Greg Gianforte and Rob Quist are talking about what each will fight for.
Clean water projects, Essential Air Service and rural health care have all been mentioned for funding cuts or elimination since the start of the year. President Donald Trump’s budget recommendations target air service and water projects specifically. Rural hospitals have been outspoken about the small-town consequences of repealing the Affordable Care Act.
Gianforte, a Republican, and Quist, a Democrat, say they will advocate for rural Montana if elected to replace former Rep. Ryan Zinke as the state’s only congressman. The two laid out support for mail service in rural areas, as well.
Zinke resigned his seat in March to lead the U.S. Department of the Interior. Gianforte, Quist and Libertarian Mark Wicks are vying to replace Zinke in a spring special election. Absentee ballots will be mailed out April 28. Voting ends Thursday, May 25.
“No community can survive without access to clean water, and I will make sure that rural water projects get the support they need so that rural Montana can thrive,” Quist said. “I will steadfastly oppose any plans that would take away essential infrastructure that protects Montana’s quality of life.”
Gianforte committed to clean water for rural communities, as well, but identified two different federal clean water challenges facing small Montana towns: project funding and the increasing federal water standards that small towns struggle to afford.
“We shouldn’t be making cuts to our rural water projects, but we also have to look at excessive regulations from the EPA that make water projects more expensive for rural communities,” Gianforte said.
Congress committed to funding potable rural water projects more than a decade ago. The price, estimated to be in the billions of dollars nationally, was quickly determined to be too much for one lump payment.
The funding has been doled out a few million dollars a year per project ever since, and always with debate, starting with the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee. The money comes from the Energy and Water Appropriations Bill, with most of the money being spent on energy, not water.
Projects in Montana and North Dakota were estimated to cost $1.5 billion to complete, but the prices naturally increase with inflation the longer the projects stay on the books. That’s the funding challenge.
The Bureau of Reclamation, now overseen by Zinke, is the pipeline through which the water project money passes.
The second problem Gianforte cites, Environmental Protection Agency regulations, is about the rising expectations for municipal drinking water. When the standards are raised, they’re raised for communities of all sizes, but small towns with few water customers often struggle to spread costs around. The cost to remove naturally occurring fluoride from a town water system can be several thousand dollars per customer in a small town.
Essential Air Service
Rural Montana communities are also at risk of losing Essential Air Service. EAS is a 30-year-old program that assures far-flung rural areas aren’t completely cut off from air service when commercial airlines pass them by. The program has been a lifesaver for Montana communities more than a three-hour drive from commercial air service. One-way flights to Billings from towns like Sidney and Havre cost less than $60.
Talks of killing EAS start every spring, usually in the House, where lawmakers suggest killing the airline-funded program created during the Reagan era when commercial air service was deregulated.
“EAS plays a critical role in providing access and connecting our rural communities with commercial air services,” Gianforte said. “Without this program, rural Montanans would lose accessibility to critical health care services and see diminished opportunities for jobs and economic growth. With a $20 trillion debt, it’s clear we need to get our spending in order, but rural America should not be the sacrificial lamb.”
Quist said protecting EAS is a reason he should be the first Democrat in 21 years to represent Montana in the U.S. House. There should be a check on urban lawmakers who overlook rural issues.
“I will be a voice for rural Montanans and fight to keep these critical flights flying,” Quist said. “This is why we need someone in Congress who will be an independent check and balance to leaders who don’t understand rural America, and I’m going to be that check for Montanans.”
When Trump suggested Congress cut EAS, he became the first president to suggest eliminating it, though former President George W. Bush did propose offering the service to fewer communities as a way of cutting costs.
Health care in rural Montana was one of the early concerns raised by hospitals when congressional Republicans laid out plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Programs like Medicaid expansion made health care more affordable for rural residents and increased the number of people visiting small town medical centers for treatment, which helped keep those services around.
“I’ve been very clear about this, I won’t rip the carpet out from Montanans who have access to health care through the Medicaid program," Gianforte said. "Now, I do have concerns about the long-term fiscal impact this program has on our budget, but I’m committed to finding solutions to address rising health care costs and provide better and more affordable health care to all Montanans. My support for any health care reform bill is conditioned on lowering premiums and preserving rural access.”
Gianforte supports repealing the Affordable Care Act and replacing it with something cheaper, but not at the expense of rural health care, he said.
Quist said rural Montanans deserve the same care as people living in cities.
“Thousands of Montanans rely on community health centers and critical access hospitals for primary care. We need to keep these facilities open and fully staffed so that rural Montanans can access the same quality care as the rest of the country,” Quist said. “These clinics and hospitals keep Montanans healthy and support good-paying jobs in rural communities, and maintaining them is a priority, but the health care proposals coming from Congress these days threaten critical access.”
Quist has called for prescription drug reform and supports single-payer health care, where the government picks up the bill. He’s doesn’t think single-payer has the congressional support needed to pass.
Frequent rural mail service is another federal issue that comes up every year. The U.S. Postal Service has been mandated for several years to fund its worker benefits program 40 years into the future. USPS has said it cannot meet the mandate without cutting costs, including service to rural America.
“Rural Montanans rely on their local post office for everything from mail and packages to receiving election ballots to prescription drugs,” Quist said. “We can’t continue to slash standards in rural America to pay for delivery in places like New Jersey and California."
No matter where Montanans live, mail service should be reliable, Gianforte said, but mail service is deteriorating and needs correcting.
“Our rural communities deserve better access, improved services, and faster delivery. No matter where your home is located, you deserve to have reliable mail service,” Gianforte said. “I spent my life in business building companies and I know how important is to balance the budget. The USPS needs to come up with a plan to remain solvent in a way that doesn’t threaten the services they provide to our rural communities. I will always fight to ensure our rural communities have reliable and timely delivery of their mail.”