By DON COGGER Star Staff Writer
Two-thirds of Montana’s congressional delegation made a quick stop in Miles City Wednesday, participating in a roundtable discussion at Miles City Community College.
U.S. Sens. John Walsh and Jon Tester joined a handful of community members to discuss issues facing eastern Montana. In the talk hosted by the Miles City Area Chamber of Commerce, topics ranged from education funding to flood plain insurance to the rocky implementation of Obamacare, with both senators answering questions and taking notes throughout the hour-long meeting. Chamber Executive Director John Laney said he was pleased with the panel assembled as well as the concerns they raised.
“The senators’ staff asked us to come up with a cross-section of people to talk to about local and national issues as it pertains to the area,” Laney said. “I thought the people in the panel did a spectacular job. They were spot-on with the reasons they were there. It was a great mix.
“When you start thinking about our problems, it’s funny how they mirror the national problems,” he said. “It puts it more into their ballpark, the things those guys are sitting around hashing out are our problems too, and those are the guys we put there to fix them. When it’s presented to them like it was Wednesday night, they have to sit up and take notice.”
Walsh, sworn in just two weeks ago as Sen. Max Baucus’ replacement, said the information shared at the meeting will go far in giving him the groundwork to settle into his new post.
“There are a lot of important issues out there that have to be covered,” Walsh said. “A lot of theses issues affect communities all across the state of Montana. That’s what Sen. Tester and I are doing traveling around the state of Montana, more of a listening tour to find out issues and concerns so that when we’re back in Washington, D.C. when we make votes or introduce legislation, we take the input from Montanans.”
Once the information from the listening tour is disseminated, Walsh said he and Tester will sit down to discuss the most effective way to move forward in a way benefitting all Montanans. Though new to the post, Walsh isn’t content to ease into the job.
“That’s one thing I really want to do in Washington, is get things done,” he said. “I don’t want to go back there and have to worry about this being an election year, or it’s an issue we don’t want to discuss during an election year. I want to go back and focus on solving some problems that the citizens of Montana are concerned about.”
Tester, recently named chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, echoed Walsh’s sentiment about the importance of these discussions in keeping Montana issues at the forefront while in Washington, D.C.
“We have to flesh these issues out, we have to make them work,” Tester said. “There are issues in the Affordable Health Care Act, we got to make it work, we got to fix it. We got to make it so it works for regular folks and doesn’t bust the economy. I still think that moving forward it’s going to do some positive things for health care and working families and small businesses, but we have a ways to go.”
Tester also reiterated his commitment to education, as well as his support of the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline project. Asked if he thought the project, which would provide jobs in eastern Montana, would ever come to fruition, Tester said he remains cautiously optimistic.
“My crystal ball is always fuzzy. I thought after the election he’d (President Obama) approve it,” Tester said. “I thought it was going to be approved 15 months ago, and it still isn’t approved. It’s kind of crazy, from my perspective, but bottom line is, we are where we are. We’re going to keep putting pressure on. I still think it’s the right thing to do. It’s got to be done right, property rights have to be respected, it has to be built safely. We’re going to keep pushing.”
Jason Strouf, owner of Main Street Business Services, Inc. in Miles City, served as a panel member at the meeting. He praised the forum and the discussion, and was appreciative the senators took the time to visit.
“The first step in the process is getting out into the communities you are representing, take questions, and listen to their feedback; otherwise it’s really easy to start losing touch with your constituents,” Strouf said. “I also understand time is kind of a prime commodity, and it takes time to get out to those different areas. The meeting was only an hour, but it was a very productive use of 60 minutes. It was a good opportunity to meet the new senator also.”