Congress got some good work done for military veterans last year, but faces lots of Montana-related issues in the next few months, Sen. Jon Tester told the Missoula Kiwanis Club on Tuesday.

The two-term Democrat who’s up for re-election in November noted he had nine bills signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2017, including one to expand the Missoula Veterans Affairs Clinic.

This year holds tougher efforts to pass the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act and the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, which has support from Montana Republicans Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte. Tester also wants to complete a bipartisan banking regulatory reform bill.

He pledged to oppose efforts to cut Social Security and Medicare.

Congress added between $1.4 trillion and $2.2 trillion to the national debt with a sweeping tax reform act passed just before Christmas. Tester opposed the 500-page bill, making national headlines when he posted a video cursing about the illegible, hand-written changes he’d received the night before the final vote was expected.

He said the new law does nothing to improve the nation’s infrastructure or access to higher education. “We can’t compete in the 21st century without those things,” Tester told the Missoula Kiwanis Club on Tuesday. “How are we going to pay for it?”

In response to a question about the Federal Communications Commission's recent decision to eliminate net neutrality and allow internet service providers to charge more for preferred access, Tester said he thought some Senate members are considering using the Congressional Review Act to reverse that move. While he thought that might earn majority support in the Senate, he was not sure how the House would stand on the matter.

The battle over President Donald Trump’s reduction of national monument acreage appears to be over for now, Tester said, but he warned that efforts to transfer federal lands to state control continue.

“I didn’t think that was a real thing for a while,” he said. “But now I think it is real. They want land out of federal hands, and that would have real negative impacts on quality of life in Montana. Stay engaged.”

After the public meeting Tester added he was concerned the Trump administration appeared intent on discouraging public support for public lands.

“That’s how this is done — you reduce access, reduce the visitor experience so people say, ‘I don’t like this anymore,’” Tester said. “If you make the (budgets to support public lands) lean enough, you get to the point where people quit supporting public lands.”

He added that an Interior Department plan to increase entry fees at many national parks appeared aimed at simply reducing visitor levels, because the expected $70 million it would raise wasn’t close to the $12 billion in maintenance backlogs the National Park Service contends with.

Asked how Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a former Montana House representative, was doing, Tester offered several criticisms.

“I think his decision-making on some of this travel stuff has not been wise,” Tester said of reports that Zinke has spent thousands of taxpayer dollars on a helicopter ride to join Vice President Mike Pence for a horseback ride, as well as other trips for fund-raising activities or personal convenience.

“The process he used on the monuments decision was flawed. And chewing out (Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa) Murkowski over her health care vote — you’ve got to say whoa.”

Zinke produced a report which Trump used in justifying shrinking the Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent and cutting the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument roughly in half.

Murkowski’s office reported that Zinke threatened to cut economic aid to Alaska after she announced opposition to the Republican replacement plan for Obamacare in July. The two later publicly shared beers to show they get along.

Many parts of the nation, including Montana, endured one of the worst wildfire seasons ever in 2017. Congress has struggled to pass either a short-term disaster relief bill or a more substantial rearrangement of how the U.S. Forest Service pays for its regular firefighting costs.

Tester said the fix for “fire-borrowing,” in which the Forest Service raids its operating funds to pay for firefighting costs, is before Congress. But, he said, it faces the challenge of spending money upfront for improved forest conditions down the road.

He said after the Kiwanis meeting that he will not support the short-term disaster relief bill pending in the Senate unless it contains specific earmarks for Montana wildfire costs.

“This is exactly why we’ve got to do something about climate change,” Tester said. “At some point in time, this is going to become unbearable. We burned 1.25 million acres in Montana alone. This is crazy stuff going on right now, every year, that we need to be paying attention to and we’re not.” 

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