U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-MT, made visit to eastern Montana Thursday, Aug. 8, and took time to meet with community leaders in Sidney. Almost nothing was off limits during the discussion, from the closure of the Lewis and Clark Station to thoughts on rural broadband, Keystone Pipeline and attracting young people back to rural communities. Here are some of the highlights from the meeting.
Jason Brothen, LYREC general manager: “I’m curious what your thoughts are on this rural broadband thing.”
Gianforte: “The primary program to help with the rural broadband is the Universal Service Program which collects dollars from everyone that owns a landline in the U.S. and it’s allocated to rural areas. The big issue we have is the rural telephone coops have been pretty good stewards of that money. In most of the state, they have over 80 percent penetration with high-speed broadband… Where national firms operate, they’re penetration is more like 12 percent. The dollars have been used much more effectively by these local telephone coops. What I’ve been advocating for is where we have organizations that haven’t been investing on the ground… create some kind of a jump ball with a performance clause in the statute – use it or lose it. Then it would be available either to an adjoining telephone coop that would take the money and actually invest it.”
Troy Jensen, professional land surveyor: “I was curious on your perspective of the Trans Canada, Keystone XL Pipeline. That’s a go as far as we know?”
Gianforte: “It’s a go until a judge keeps shutting it down. I’m a huge advocate for the pipeline. I went out and saw the ONEOK project today. We just need to keep pushing. The pipeline is tremendous revenue for the counties. It’s a more environmentally sensitive way to transport crude and natural gas. And it creates a bunch of jobs. We need to get it built. We just need to keep overcoming these obstacles.”
Rick Norby, mayor of Sidney: “The biggest thing in our area right now is the closing of the MDU plant here. I’ll openly say it in front of the newspaper – we’re all being lied to here… It doesn’t need to happen.. I don’t know on the federal side if there’s anything a person can do to slow this down?”
Gianforte: “I don’t know what it would be. Unfortunately there’s still a hangover from the whole war on coal… We need a level playing field in energy. We’re not at the point yet where we have battery technology that allows us to store the power from solar or wind. We get kind of used to the lights coming on when we flip the switch. Coal is the primary way to deliver a reliable form of energy.”
Katie Dasinger, Richland Economic Development: “We’re going to touch on Shopko and rural shopping. That hardship is huge on our community. We are working with the chamber to try and address it. The problem is recruiting and getting those businesses to invest in rural communities. That’s one thing we’re facing is people leaving and the tax base shrinking just based on shopping.
“In our Young Professionals group, one thing we were working with our local Legislature on is some kind of recruitment and retention plan to get people to come back to rural communities with student loan forgiveness to continue to grow and develop our tax base in a long-term way.”
Gianforte: “The biggest issue we have in Montana is we export three things: grain, beef and our kids. As a dad of four, three of which don’t live in the state anymore, I’d like to get them back.”
Dasinger: “It’s hard because we had worked with [Rep. Krautter] pretty closely and he worked with different communities across that country that have made programs like this work, Kansas being the main one. They have figured out a way to do it and it has proven financially beneficial for the entire state, not just rural communities. He met a lot of opposition up in Helena and it was seen as handouts. That divide is going to kill rural America.”
Gianforte: “I think we need a strong advocacy for it. It’s primarily state policy that will allow this to be done and not federal policy. I know you’re familiar with the program I did four years ago to try and get our young people to come back and it’s worked in some areas of the state. New York state has done some very interesting things with providing credit on state income taxes for college tuition if you stay in the state after you graduate. I am not here today advocating for that, but there are ideas out there… We need to come up with innovative ways to get people to come back home.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re in health care, education, manufacturing or high tech; you can’t the workers. I think there’s two contributing factors to that. One is most of our young people leave because there are better opportunities. Montana is 43rd in wages. It’s a consequence. We’ve got to strengthen our economy so wages go up here.
“The second issue that we haven’t talked about yet is the drug epidemic we have in the state. I was talking to a business owner in Missoula recently and he told me 50 percent of his applicants can’t pass a drug test… Law enforcement tells me over 90 percent of the crime we see is drug related. We have 4,000 kids in foster care. That money isn’t available for infrastructure, education or city parks – productive purposes. I think we really need to get to the root of that problem.”
Jennifer Doty, Sidney Health Center CEO: “I can’t speak as eloquently as you guys about broadband, but we live on an EMR, an electronic medical record system. We have been forced to do it. We live in a large state, we have one provider, which MidRivers does an excellent job, but nobody’s perfect. When that goes down, we are crippled… If we are going to continue to take care of people and help smaller areas up north with telemedicine, that is imperative.”
Gianforte: “On the point of telemedicine, I’ve been meeting with the chairwoman of the healthcare subcommittee. She’s a Democrat out of California. We’re working on a telemedicine bill together to kind of remove the friction from telemedicine. Part of it is policy related stuff… part of it is just government efficiency… We are looking at restructuring of CMS to get a single department for telemedicine.”