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Tester: COVID-19 relief bill should fund Postal Service, extend Census deadline

Montana Sens. Jon Tester. right, and Steve Daines chat during a recent stop in Missoula. Both are pushing to ensure the U.S. Post Office continues to operate as normal. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Although Congress is headed into its August break, Congressional members will continue to work on another funding bill to provide relief from the effects of COVID-19, and Montana’s senior senator hopes it will include some money for the U.S. Post Office.

On Thursday, Sen. Jon Tester told reporters what he would like to see in the next pandemic stimulus bill and why he thinks the White House is doing the wrong thing by shortening the deadline for wrapping up the U.S. Census.

On Monday, the U.S. Census Bureau announced it would stop counting U.S. citizens a month earlier than planned in order to get the count reported by the end of the year. Currently, the Census has accounted for only about 60% of the U.S. population. Now, it has less than two months to get the rest, which constitutes the most difficult part, people who live in remote areas or poor inner-city settings or who just don’t want to cooperate.

The problem is, without an accurate count, Montana could lose out on federal money that is apportioned based upon population and could lose a chance to gain one more seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Census count was delayed because of coronavirus shutdowns in the spring, but Congress has the ability to push the deadline back so the count could continue until the end of October.

“The decision by the White House is reckless, it’s unfounded, and I’m demanding that the administration and the Senate Republicans stop playing politics and make sure that the Census is done right,” Tester said. “It was a month ago, maybe not even that long ago, they were asking for a three-month extension because of COVID, and now all the sudden – and this seems very fishy to me – they’re going to cut it off a month early. I don’t know if the people in the White House understand how important the Census is.”

Tester said some Senators were trying to put language in the relief bill to push the deadline back but others are trying to do the opposite. He expects the bill will finally be finished in the middle of August.

Regarding the pending coronavirus relief package, Tester said he had three priorities for funding. First, he wants enough funding to make more COVID-19 tests and test solution available, especially for rural hospitals and community health centers.

“These folks are getting stressed to the limit because of COVID-19,” Tester said. “That means we’ve got to make sure that testing is available. You’ve just about got to beg to get a test now – that’s ridiculous.”

Tester praised Gov. Steve Bullock’s efforts to secure contracts with other labs after the private laboratory Quest Diagnostics became overwhelmed with national demand, taking up to two weeks to return test results. Meanwhile, the state laboratory has stayed on top of its testing load – it handles tests from those who have symptoms – and now, Montana State University is contributing to the effort.

“We need to have that same kind of effort at the national level,” Tester said.

Second, Tester wants to extend the Payment Protection Program to get more money out to small businesses, particularly those in the hospitality industry.

Third, he wants to renew the unemployment payments that ran out at the end of July. That is the main sticking point in current negotiations over the stimulus, with Democrats wanting to retain the $600 a week payment while Republicans would like to pass stand-alone measures with benefits lower than $600 a week.

While those were his top three priorities, Tester said extra funding is needed for local governments and school districts as schools begin to open. In addition to all that, he was concerned about the future of the U.S. Postal Service, as he as been for several months.

Recently, Louis DeJoy, President Trump’s newly appointed postmaster general, eliminated overtime pay for postal workers and ordered that mail be kept until the next day if postal distribution centers are running late. That’s caused delays in delivery, which sometimes can be critical for people.

The Postal Service is essential for many Montanans who, being more spread out, depend on the centuries-old institution more than people in other states, Tester said. The elderly depend on it for prescription medication delivery, and people in the most remote parts of the state depend on the mail to stay connected. Not everyone has broadband Internet, especially in more rural areas, Tester said.

However, the Postal Service is projecting a $13 billion revenue loss tied to the pandemic, Postmaster General Megan J. Brennan told lawmakers in April. But a 2006 Congressional requirement to pre-fund the retirement benefits of its 630,000 employees creates a huge large financial burden.

Sen. Steve Daines introduced a bill in December that would repeal the requirement but the bill has languished in committee.

In April, the Trump administration blocked a $10-billion line of credit created for the in the COVID-19 stimulus packages because Trump insisted the Postal Service should be charging more for the delivery of Amazon packages.

So Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Jon Tester, Steve Daines, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Doug Jones, D-Ala., co-sponsored a bill in early July to put $25 billion in emergency investments into the Postal Service.

Tester has encouraged the Senate leadership to include it in the upcoming coronavirus relief package, especially since so many will be depending on mail-in ballots during the November election.

Because of the pandemic, Montana’s primary in June was the first all mail-in election for the state.

“With an election on the horizon, we’ve got to make sure folks have the opportunity to exercise their Constitutional right to vote and to do so as safely and efficiently as possible,” Tester said. “It’s not political – it’s about necessary functioning of our democracy.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.