After detouring through Canada, the Milk River re-enters the U.S. in Hill County, north of Havre. The river flows into Fresno Reservoir, where a dam (shown above) releases water back into the Milk River, the water lifeline irrigators from Havre to Glasgow depend on. The St. Mary's diversion is one of many infrastructure projects in Montana that could benefit from a new $579 billion infrastructure spending plan now before the U.S. Senate. Credit: Teresa Getten / MTFP

Following a meeting with President Joe Biden this week, a bipartisan coalition of congressional lawmakers including U.S. Sen. Jon Tester unveiled the framework for a massive infrastructure agreement. The deal would inject $579 billion nationally into a range of projects including road, bridge, airport, water system and broadband improvements.

During a call Thursday with members of the Montana press, Tester called the proposal a “once-in-a-century investment in America’s infrastructure” hatched by a group of 10 Senate Democrats and Republicans over weeks of negotiation. Tester’s role in those negotiations was spotlighted Thursday by Politico shortly after Biden signed off on the latest version, which includes $312 billion for transportation projects and $55 billion for water projects. Tester told Montana media that the deal, which has yet to be crafted into a bill, will spur job creation statewide and help shore up Montana’s aging infrastructure.

“It will be one of the most impactful non-emergency bills in our nation’s history,” he said, “and it couldn’t be more urgently needed.”

If successful, the deal would also commit $65 billion nationally for broadband access — money Tester said would stack on top of recent broadband funding provided to states by the American Rescue Plan Act. The state Legislature this spring allocated $275 million of Montana’s share of ARPA funds to filling broadband connectivity gaps. Montana Department of Commerce Director Scott Osterman has said it would take $700 million to bring internet service across the state up to a 1-gigabit standard.

Tester said the COVID-19 pandemic underscored that Montana is “very, very behind the curve” when it comes to broadband service for health care, education and business. How much of the $65 billion the state stands to get remains unknown, along with scores of other details about the deal, including how it might impact municipal wastewater projects and wildland firefighting. But Tester said he is confident the new infrastructure plan, combined with spending from COVID-19 relief packages, would be enough to “change the landscape” for broadband in Montana.

“I think it’s going to put us in really good shape as far as broadband in our state goes,” Tester said.

“It will be one of the most impactful non-emergency bills in our nation’s history, and it couldn’t be more urgently needed.”

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester

A spokesperson for Sen. Steve Daines cast doubt on the plan’s potential for success, however, stating in an emailed comment that President Biden has “made it clear” he would not sign the deal unless his $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, which includes investments in education and paid family leave, is passed alongside it.

“With a 50-50 split Senate and each senator having the power to stop any legislation from moving forward, Sen. Daines hopes that Sen. Tester would not allow President Biden to hold any true infrastructure compromise hostage and refuse to support a multi-trillion-dollar social welfare package with massive tax increases,” the spokesperson said.

As the plan takes on more definition in coming weeks, Tester said, Montanans should get more clarity on whether specific water infrastructure projects such as the Milk River’s St. Mary diversion system will receive a share of the funding, and how money for wildfire resilience will end up impacting the firefighting community. He added that the infrastructure investments will likely be distributed through existing channels — via the Federal Aviation Administration in the case of airport projects, for example, or via Amtrak in the case of passenger rail improvements. The state government will likely be a part of the distribution process as well, Tester said.

One concession Tester said he wished hadn’t been made during negotiations was a decision to exclude housing from the infrastructure investments eligible for funding under the plan. He said that with many details still left to be hashed out, he hasn’t abandoned the prospect of addressing that issue.

“It’s really important we get more affordable workforce housing, and that may be addressed later in a reconciliation bill,” Tester said. “I hope it does. I think there’s going to be some opportunities to do that.”

Regarding where the $579 billion will come from, Tester listed several likely sources identified by the bipartisan group. Those include redirecting unused unemployment relief funds from ARPA and enhancing tax enforcement by the Internal Revenue Service. Again, the debate over those details will now pass to the full Senate, where opposition to portions of the plan is likely to materialize on both sides of the aisle. But Tester assured members of the media that “we didn’t have to raise any taxes to pay for it.”

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.