Residents from across western Montana quizzed Sen. Jon Tester on issues ranging from climate change to Iran at a packed town hall event held on Friday in downtown Missoula.
Such events have become rare among Montana’s elected officials, as members of the state’s congressional delegation opt instead for events held over the telephone, where difficult questions can be brushed aside.
Tester faced an audience estimated at 130 people and found a mostly supportive crowd. Several in attendance, however, pushed the state’s senior senator on a number of questions and were sometimes at odds with his answers.
That included issues surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline and how the nation should address climate change.
“You’re damaging my generation by supporting that pipeline,” said one college-aged attendee. “It needs to stop.”
Tester said he didn’t disagree, but added that Congress must invest in research and development to create options for consumers that don’t include petroleum or coal. As it stands, those options aren’t widely available.
He also noted that under the Trump administration, the EPA rolled back Obama-era rules on power plant emissions and reduced the fuel requirements for vehicles from 55 miles per gallon to 35.
“When I fill my tractor up when I need to farm, you know what I fill it with? It’s not electricity. It’s fuel,” said Tester, who also drives a Prius. “I have no other options, so we need to have the research and development that precedes some of the stuff that’s going on or it can’t happen. I believe strongly in climate change, but I think we need to do more research and development on alternate fuel methods.”
While climate change surfaced several times throughout the event, other issues also came up, including the cost of education and housing affordability.
In recent months, Tester has directed more attention to what’s now seen as a statewide housing crisis. That crisis has been well documented in Missoula, where the cost of housing far outpaces the median wage.
Tester said he is organizing a team to look for Montana-based solutions, calling the state’s housing shortage an economic inhibitor.
“We don’t have the stockpile we need and it’s stopping businesses from expanding and it’s stopping businesses from moving here,” he said. “We’ve got some challenges out there. They can be fixed, but we have to work together. Any town in Montana that has more than 5,000 people has a problem right now.”
Tester’s response on education was prompted by a woman’s question on food insecurity and potential cuts to social programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Giving people an opportunity to free themselves from public subsidies starts with education, Tester said.
“I really do think we have to deal with the problem of the higher cost of education so people can go out and get trained, regardless of their income status, so they can go out and get jobs they can support their family on,” Tester said.
“Regardless of your financial status, if you’re born in the wrong place and you need food stamps and SNAP to survive, the only way you get out of the circle you’re in is education, but if it’s not affordable, then you can’t get out of it.”
Tester also promoted the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act, which he reintroduced this month, and he urged members of the audience to pressure Congress to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
He also expressed concern over U.S. tensions with Iran and fears that Trump may take unilateral action without the input of Congress. Members of the audience spoke of war.
“We’re trying to get the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed to stop exactly that, so Congress can play a role in dictating whether we go to war or not,” Tester said. “We pulled out of the Iran Nuclear Deal to limit nuclear weapons and now we’re on the cusp of doing something that’s going to cost a lot, both in terms of lives and treasury. Congress needs to have some input on this.”
Passage of Tester’s Blue Water Navy Bill giving Vietnam veterans who served offshore access to benefits for their exposure to Agent Orange won applause from the crowd. So did ongoing efforts to address murdered and missing indigenous women and to restore trust between tribes and the U.S. Marshal’s Service.
But it was climate change that circled back more times than not. Given the divide in Washington, D.C., Tester said, solutions will require a bipartisan effort.
“Congress has done nothing on climate change, and that’s not a good thing,” Tester said. “I go back to what the late Sen. John McCain said, even if you don’t think people are causing it, we should act like people are, and we should come up with common-sense solutions that don’t shut our economy down and yet deal with the issue of carbon in our atmosphere and climate change overall.”
After the event, Tester was asked for his thoughts on the public’s concerns and the issues raised by members of the audience.
“I serve in one of the most powerful bodies in the world, and it’s an incredible honor and we can do a lot of things,” he said. “But there are lot of things we don’t have any control over. I can get up and give speeches all day, but in the end, I can’t wave a magic wand and make things change. It takes a majority to do that.”