Gianforte Talks Issues with Local Leaders
In front of a rare sirloin steak (“It can’t be too rare” according to the Congressman) and a bottle of domestic beer, the U.S. Representative for Montana Greg Gianforte talked through key issues and policy priorities with local leaders that included Mayor Becky Erickson, County Commissioners John Fahlgren and Paul Tweten, Chief of Glasgow Police Brien Gault and candidate for Sheriff Tom Boyer, among others.
In a fast-paced conversation riddled with interruptions, jokes and anecdotes, Gianforte keyed in on issues to include law enforcement and border enforcement, receiving information from local law enforcement on drugs and mental health issues, listening intently to the views of local officers, deputies and community leaders. While discussing drug courts and mental health with Mayor Erickson, Gianforte injected, “We need to focus more on rehabilitation than incarceration.”
At a different point in the conversation, local Chief Gault projected a grim outlook for law enforcement once the Keystone XL pipeline construction begins. Gault contrasted the Keystone XL assessment for potential protests with the past protest encampments along the Dakota Access Pipeline saying this will be, “worse than what that was,” and he exclaimed that there was, “No possible way Valley County [Sheriff’s Office] and the city [Glasgow Police Department] can deal with any of that.” Gault finished his assessment of KXL by saying, “It’s going to be bad there is no doubt in my mind.”
Gianforte responded to Gault’s concerns discussing how he had been in contact with TransCanada (the parent company for Keystone XL) and the Fort Peck and Rocky Boy Tribal Governments. “The fact is that the Tribes, local government and TransCanada do not benefit if we have a conflict,” explained Gianforte, who went on to say that unspecified “out of state forces” wanted to create conflict with the pipeline.
When asked by Commissioner Fahlgren what measures could be taken to diffuse a possible protest, Gianforte focused on keeping dialogue going between the parties involved in the construction and governance. He responded to Fahlgren’s question directly saying, “I think conversations are really good.”
Keystone XL is a massive international oil pipeline intended to transport tar sand oil from northern Alberta to refineries in Texas. Despite recent courtroom setbacks, the pipeline is set to begin construction in Valley County in the next couple of years with road access and employee encampments already under construction. The pipe will enter the United States along the Canadian, Philips County and Valley County borders.
Briefly discussed at the meeting was the current Farm Bill, which has been passed in the House with a separate version passed in the Senate, and is currently in a bicameral conference to reconcile the bills and, hopefully, be signed into law by the time the current bill expires in October. Gianforte described the timeline for the bill saying, “We are going to try and put those [House and Senate farm bills] together in Sept. when we return after Labor Day.” Gianforte insisted that if the two bills were not reconciled in time for the expiration of the current bill, Congess would pass an extension while the issues were resolved.
Currently, the key difference between the House and Senate versions are a requirement for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit recipients to work, volunteer, or train for no less than 20 hours a week. The House bill contains the requirement and the Senate failed to pass an amendment that would have included the measure in their version. It is unclear if the SNAP benefit work requirement could pass the Senate.
Chair of the Valley County Republican Committee, Sarah Swanson bent the Congressman’s ear on issues of rural infrastructure expansion. Specifically, she railed against a federal AT&T contract to expand rural cellular coverage, claiming that AT&T was merely building competing towers exactly where current local cooperative towers already exist. She claimed that this did not help expand the cellular reception to areas currently lacking coverage, but facilitated AT&T’s expansion to the region with federal money. Another topic brought up by Swanson was the problem faced by weather forecasting in the region due to radar gaps in the National Weather Service radar coverage in the region.
Drug enforcement and border security became a key point of discussion for the group. Chief Gault lamented the narcotics situation and the trafficking of meth from Mexican cartels. Gianforte quickly responded with, “That’s why we need to secure the border,” before adding later on that, “It is so much less expensive to secure the border than to deal with these things across all our communities.”
Gianforte and company wrapped up the evening discussing the foster care crisis in Montana. Stacy Rhodes, a foster parent trainer and day care provider, lamented the current foster care system and the return of children to families just to have them come straight back to foster care. Rhodes specifically asked Gianforte about the need to fix the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA which she pronounced phonetically). In Rhodes view, ICWA has had negative consequences for permanently placing foster children with adoptive families.
In response to the question, the Congressman cited the example of a Kalispell based program called Child Bridge which he claimed places over 200 foster kids in permanent homes each year. “We have to take care of the kids,” said Gianforte adding, “If we save one child we’ve done something.”
Montana’s sole representative to the House capped off the night discussing Washington D.C.’s “spending problem” and asserting that balanced trade and growth would effectively balance the budget over time. He stated that the House was working on a bill which had been dubbed “Tax Cuts 2.0” which would make improvements to recently passed tax cut legislation. Gianforte showed his support for the new tax cut bill commenting that, “Better is always possible.”
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