Following their opposing votes on the $789-billion federal stimulus plan, two members of Montana’s U.S. delegation headed to the Flathead last week to talk about the economy. The moods at the two meetings were decidedly different: At one, business and government leaders were eager to put the stimulus money to work; the other was full of citizens so angry that they asked if they could give it back.
“Jobs, jobs and more jobs – that’s what the bottom line of this bill is about,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., told the 30-plus business leaders and elected officials who packed the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce office.
The stimulus bill, Tester said, will bring at least $626 million in spending and tax breaks to Montana and should create or protect 11,000 state jobs over the next two years.
In Kalispell, there was no shortage of ideas for how to spend the money.
Suggestions from the city’s chamber members ranged from modernizing medical records keeping to creating jobs for the recently unemployed or even finishing the long-awaited U.S. 93 bypass.
Tester stressed that unlike the previous $700 billion Wall Street rescue plan, this money is aimed at reaching people on the street and encouraged people to contact his office to learn about accessing the funding. The bill could create jobs within 90 days, he added.
“There’s going to be some opportunity for you here,” he said.
The largest chunk of funding for Montana is $212 million for highway and bridge construction followed by $121 million for education, public safety and other needs.
The state can also compete for stimulus funding invested in federal agencies, including $1.1 billion to the U.S. Forest Service, 2.5 billion to tribal nations and $750 million to the National Park Service, Tester said.
Chuck Roady, manager of Stoltze Land and Lumber Co., said his business is interested in biomass energy projects and is considering building a wood-fired co-generation plant. To make that a reality, “the thing that would help us most are tax credits,” he said.
The stimulus package includes $39 billion in tax credits aimed at businesses, Tester said, as well as incentives for alternative energy projects. The bill also includes a tax credit to individuals of $400 and $800 for couples.
“This is not going to be what fixes the economy,” Tester said of the stimulus, but added that it was a necessary step to stemming the country’s economic freefall.
To hear area citizens tell it, though, the stimulus is more likely to destroy this country than help it.
More than 300 people turned out to a public meeting hosted by Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., packing a meeting room at Flathead Valley Community College.
While the outlook at the chamber meeting the day before was fairly optimistic, citizens here described themselves as “angry” and “fearful.” One speaker identified herself as a “pissed off Montanian.”
“It’s no secret I didn’t vote for the stimulus,” Rehberg said to the cheers and applause of the crowd. Congress essentially had two choices, he said: to address the crisis with an economic stimulus package or “to use the crisis to further a social agenda.”
“And they took the second approach,” he added.
The House members were given no chance to amend the compromise that came over from the Senate and no time to read the 1,000-plus pages, Rehberg said. Promises that the legislation would be posted online 48 hours before the vote were ignored.
The latest stimulus bill should have focused on tax reductions, Rehberg added to more applause, especially ones for small businesses that could have helped them create or retain jobs.
A panel of businesses representatives, including people from Plum Creek, Semitool, the retail sector and the Montana Chamber of Commerce, also updated the crowd on their respective financial situations. Rick Jore, a former conservative legislator from Kalispell, drew the most applause – and a plea from one member of the public to run against Tester – for his comments blasting the stimulus.
“Do what you can to get the federal government out of my economy and back within their constitutional boundaries,” he told Rehberg.
When they got their turn, the public – who weren’t asked to give their names – echoed those anti-stimulus sentiments and much more.
Some speakers petitioned for the end of the Federal Reserve and a return to gold and silver currency. Several others touched on immigration reform, gun control and environmental laws. One person called for an end to the United Nations.
A Kalispell woman asked Rehberg this question: “As Montanans can we turn down the stimulus package, and would other states join us?”
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