At Baucus Town Hall, a Distinct Lack of Screaming

By Beacon Staff

COLUMBIA FALLS – Here are two ways in which the summer of 2010 differs from the summer of 2009: First, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., spent close to three hours here last week at a public meeting where he took questions from all comers on everything from federal spending to veterans’ benefits – something he did not do last year. Second, far from the raucous town hall-style meetings of 2009 that nearly derailed the Democrats’ efforts to overhaul the American health care system, Baucus, a key author of that bill, encountered a crowd that was cordial, thoughtful and probing in its questions – but certainly not hostile.

Talking to a crowd of about 50 Friday afternoon at Glacier Discovery Square, Baucus acknowledged the dismal state of the Flathead economy, noting the loss of timber and construction jobs, particularly in Columbia Falls.

“It’s tough here and I know that,” he said. “The real question is, what’s the answer?”

Baucus went on to describe federal programs he believes have made modest improvements to the Flathead economy, like the first-time homeowners tax credit, which gave the homebuilding industry a bump, and the stimulus, which put approximately $82 million into the Flathead economy, much of it going to Glacier National Park and the Kalispell bypass construction.

“We’re doing a few things, clearly a lot more has got to be done,” he said. “Like everything else in life, you’re faced with a problem, you’ve got two choices: You either do nothing or we try.”

Baucus touted a “Small Business Jobs Bill” he said would pass Congress in November with programs to facilitate lending, among other measures. Then he opened it up to questions, and the discussion veered from the local – as when residents asked for help converting the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company plant into an industrial park – to the national, as when Mac Bledsoe, the president of a Kalispell parent counseling business, questioned him on federal spending.

“How is it that you believe the government you’re running is somehow exempt from the cash in before the cash out?” Bledsoe asked. “Why do you keep running up the national deficit?”

Baucus replied that the federal government must cut spending, but figuring out where to do so is difficult, and suggested cutting defense spending and closing certain overseas bases.

“America spends more on defense than all the rest of the countries in the world combined,” Baucus said. “Do we want to keep doing that? I don’t know.”

He went on to ask how many people in the room thought the entire $1.6 trillion federal deficit should be cut solely by spending cuts, or by spending cuts and revenue increases. Each option drew hand-raises from roughly half the audience.

The next question came from a man who identified himself as a real estate appraiser and asked if there were any plans to establish programs discouraging foreclosures by banks. Baucus responded by bringing the topic back to the deficit.

“This gentleman here wants a little bit of assistance and a lot of you here don’t want to give him assistance,” Baucus said. “That’s quite a fundamental question we all face.”

The only tense exchange occurred before that question, when a woman sitting the front row began interjecting questions about new federal agencies created by the health care bill and Baucus asked her to stop interrupting him. Then he continued describing how the legislation would not force 97 percent of Montana businesses to provide health care, since businesses with 50 or fewer employees were exempt from the requirement.

He also objected to critics of the bill describing its cost as $1 trillion.

“It doesn’t add one thin dime to the deficit and no one disputes that,” Baucus said. “This bill will reduce budget deficits.”

Some audience members exchanged skeptical looks.

On the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), Baucus said taxpayers were likely to recoup most of the costs from the bailouts. On the so-called Bush tax cuts, set to expire at the end of this year, Baucus suggested they should be extended for the middle class but allowed to expire on the wealthy. And on the Justice Department suit against Arizona over the state’s strict immigration law, Baucus was noncommittal, saying, “I have a lot of sympathy for what Arizona is trying to do.”

But if there was a theme to his remarks, it may have been a plea by Baucus to Montanans not to get swept up in the divisive, partisan fervor of the moment.

“There’s a lot of information out there, a lot of which just isn’t true,” Baucus said. “I’m just asking everybody, take everything you hear with more than a few grains of salt.”

“I’m asking us to kind of listen to the other guy’s point of view,” he added.

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