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Tester Questioned On Impeachment, Healthcare, Vets At Billings Town Hall

About two dozen people peppered Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) with questions at a town hall event in Billings September 3.
Nicky Ouellet
Yellowstone Public Radio
About two dozen people peppered Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) with questions at a town hall event in Billings September 3.

Montanans posed questions about the impeachment inquiry, improving rural healthcare and the latest news on trade negotiations to Democratic Senator Jon Tester at a face-to-face town hall in Billings Thursday.

More than 100 people showed up to Montana State University-Billings’ Petro Theater for Tester’s third town hall of the year.

"These are important meetings," Tester said in his opening remarks. "They are a bit of mental gymnastics for me because I don't know exactly what you're going to ask."

About two dozen people asked questions during the hour-long event.

"The first one has to do with our president, soliciting dirt from a foreign government," one man, who didn't identify himself, asked. "I don't hear very much about what's going on in the Senate. That's my first question in terms of how you view this particular problem and how being a member of the Senate you're going to address it."

"If in fact this comes to fruition and what's claimed to have happened and what I kind of read in the transcript happened, then we’ve got a problem. And we’ve got to hold people accountable. On the other side of the coin, I think there’s still more information that has to be brought up before you get a situation of a quid pro quo. I sound like a lawyer but I'm not," Tester said.

In a press scrum after the town hall Tester said the House investigation should be narrowly focused and shouldn’t bar Congress from addressing other legislation like government spending, trade agreements and infrastructure.

"What legislation you might sponsor or support that would fall within the framework of the Green New Deal?" Barbara Gulick from Billings asked.

"There were extracurricular things, we'll call them, put into the bill that have nothing to do with climate change," Tester responded. "They were taken out later but nonetheless they were put in. For example, we're gonna garauntee a job for everybody. That takes the eye off the ball and, quite frankly, was in my opinion, I'm not always right but in my opinion, was not a smart thing to do. I will tell you there are proposals from cap and trade to taxes on carbon to credits for wind and solar, which I have traditionally been in favor of. I would rather approach it from a carrot than a stick of dynamite."

"What I really want to know is in terms of legislation, in terms of policy what do you think would be most important in confronting hte problem of suicide in montana?" Joy Honea, a sociology professor at MSU-B, asked.

"The bill that I've got is not going to solve everybody's problems. It's not going to solve the mental health crisis among farmers or any other group. But I think it's a step," Tester responded.

Tester recently introduced a bill that would funnel $3 million toward a public awareness campaign aimed at destigmatizing mental healthcare among farmers.

"I was told some years ago that mental health is going to be the biggest healthcare issue this country is going to face over the next 50 years. And I agree with that," he continued. "We just need to get more folks on the ground. So what's that mean? You've got to make college affordable for those folks that want to go into those areas. We should make college for anybody that wants to go into any area but specifically if you want more folks to go into phsychiatry, physchology, social work, family therapy and all that stuff, and then make it if they get the benefit that they have to contribute some time in the rural areas of our state."

"Glad you're here Senator Tester. My question is what's the latest on tariffs?" asked Albert Hill.

"There's probably not a person in this room who doesn't think China needs to be held accountable. The problem is that if you’re going to hold China accountable you can't do it alone. Not this day and age. You got to have your allies with you, and we don't. I don’t know how this is going to end up as a good story in the end. USMCA is going to get passed, I have no doubt about that, but it's not that much different unless you're a dairy farmer or you manufacture a few auto parts, it's not that much different than NAFTA. Are we going to end up going through all this misery for nothing? I'm concerned that that might end up being the case," Tester responded.

"I'd like to know your thoughts on the long term challenges of VA Montana in attracting and keeping qualified medical health providers for Montana's Veterans," asked Ed Saunders from Laurel.

"Recruitment is important and I don’t think it’s nuclear physics. I think it's just a matter of making sure you've got the right people at the table when you're doing the recruitment. Go to the school and get the superintendent, get the banker and get the guy the head of the medical center and get them to be part of the recruitment team. Takes a little additional work but you end up with somebody who knows the community and is talking to people who are sold on that community," Tester responded.

About two dozen people questioned Tester. Town halls have become a contentious issue in recent years as voters demand access to their representatives in Congress. While Tester has held several in person, his Republican colleagues, Senator Steve Daines and Congressman Greg Gianforte, often hold them on the phone. Daines and Gianforte say this allows them to hear from more people. Detractors say the teletownhalls lack transparency.