Montana’s senior senator will return from the Memorial Day congressional holiday on Monday with legislation to save Job Corps Centers under his arm.

Sen. Jon Tester spoke with reporters on a conference call Thursday about his bill opposing the Trump administration’s efforts to shut down nine Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers, including the Anaconda CCC, and privatize another 16, including Trapper Creek CCC near Darby.

“I think this decision is reckless, I think it is clueless,” Tester said. “Last Friday, when I got the news, I immediately urged USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue and Labor Secretary Alex Acosta to reverse course. But in the week since, it’s been nothing but crickets from both agencies.”

Tester said his bill would do two things: prohibit the use of funds appropriated in 2019 and 2020 for the closure of any CCC, and stop the transfer of CCC management from the U.S. Forest Service to the Department of Labor.

Last Friday, the Labor Department said it was closing the nine CCCs and privatizing the others because the USDA had sent a letter saying the U.S. Forest Service would no longer oversee the CCCs because of budget cuts.

Tester said he asked the assistant secretary of agriculture “point-blank” why they were transferring the CCCs to the Department of Labor. The answer was “so we can close it,” Tester said.

“The only reason I can think of is they don’t want to spend the money that was appropriated to them,” Tester said.

Tester said that if the administration thought the CCCs were underperforming, it should have given the Forest Service guidance and held it accountable. Simply shuttering the program removes the benefit it’s provided to rural communities, Tester said.

“If you want to save money in government, if that’s what this is about, I’ll sit down and find $700 million pretty fast without having to cut opportunity off for young people and cut opportunity off for businesses or growth," he said. "I hope we can get people up in arms about this.”

The Anaconda Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center (File photo)
The Anaconda Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center (File photo)

Tester called on Mike Robbins to tell what the Anaconda Job Corps has done for his business.

Robbins’ father started a welding business in Butte that Robbins expanded into two branches of Seacast in Butte and Anaconda.

Tester introduced Robbins to the Anaconda Job Corps eight years ago, and Robbins hired 15 skilled welders from the CCC. Since then, he’s hired more than 50 CCC students to be part-time welders and truck mechanics and painters for another business, International Truck Body.

“We’ve just begun to hire full-time Job Corps graduates,” Robbins said. “We can’t allow these critical programs to be shut down, privatized or repurposed.”

Recent Anaconda Job Corps graduate Zoe Hough said the CCC program changed her life. She graduated in 2018 with a commercial drivers license, forklift certification, and can operate a dozen pieces of heavy equipment.

“But Job Corps didn’t just give me a trade – it taught me out how to work with people,” Hough said. “It taught me how to be a productive member of society.”

Tester said the Job Corps program has always had bipartisan support in Congress, and he plans to reach out for support of his bill from senators representing other rural states where CCCs are slated to close, such as Wisconsin, Arkansas and Kentucky.

He called on Montana’s Republican delegation to do more.

“Steve Daines is up for reelection in 2020, and it sounds like Greg Gianforte might be running for governor. Workforce development is pretty important in both of those positions,” Tester said. “Hopefully, they’ll call the president, grab his ear and talk to him. Steve always talks about talking to the president.”