HELENA — U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said Friday that everyone will need to sacrifice in order to balance the federal budget, but argued in a policy speech to state lawmakers it has to be done and now is the time to start.
Tester delivered the remarks to a joint session of the state Legislature where he got his start in politics before his election to federal office in 2006. Tester, a Democrat, was making his first big speech since Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg announced a challenge.
Even GOP joined in applause
Tester struck a tone of bipartisanship and even drew applause from Republicans in the audience on several occasions. The mostly GOP crowd was not as receptive to recent policy speeches from Democrats U.S. Sen. Max Baucus and Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
Earlier this week, Rehberg spoke to the state lawmakers and blasted the policies of the Obama administration. He encouraged the GOP majority to keep pushing back against the federal health care law, illegal immigration and other issues.
Tester noted his opposition to the Wall Street and auto industry bailouts, but defended the federal stimulus spending last year as necessary to fend off a full-on economic depression. He did not mention the federal health care overhaul law that has become a contentious issue.
Wants wolves under state control
Tester also noted his work trying to get wolves back under state management, saying the state "shouldn't have to ask the federal government for a hunt." State management of wolves is a general policy goal he shares with Rehberg.
Tester, who has become an outspoken advocate of veterans' services, noted the importance of improving care for the veterans and denounced a plan that came from a House Republican to cut VA funding by billions.
Rehberg's campaign countered that unemployment in Montana has increased since the federal stimulus bill and noted that Tester has backed votes that increased deficit spending.
Need to get budget under control
But Tester reserved much of his speech for addressing the federal budget and saying addressing it needs to be a priority as the country recovers from the recession.
"A decade ago, during the Clinton Administration, this country ran a surplus. It is possible," Tester said. "But over the past 10 years, some in Congress made some pretty bad choices, and it turned our economy upside down."
Tester said he has already advocated saving money by cutting $6 billion in spending from the unemployment insurance law, and wants to cut a little more there by cutting those benefits altogether for millionaires. He said he has also introduced a bill to end automatic pay raises for members of Congress.
Long-term solutions needed
But to balance the budget a lot of hard choices over a long time are going to be needed.
In an interview after the speech, Tester said he tends to agree with some economists who said it needs to be done slowly by mostly cutting the budget, such as by getting rid of waste and fraud in entitlement programs. He also said he plans to pursue the initiative despite the looming campaign battle with Rehberg.
But overall tax revenue also will need to be increased under such plans, such as by getting rid to get rid of various tax breaks — such as those used by big corporations.
Tax breaks should be brought under control
Tester said individual breaks could be on the chopping block, such as the tax exemption for second mortgages.
"We need to take a look at our tax code, to make sure it works for middle class families," Tester said. "And to make sure nobody side-steps the system."
He said budget cuts need to be done carefully, and slashing education spending will only shift the burden to local property taxpayers.
"It won't be easy. In fact, it will be pretty darn difficult," Tester said. "We're going to have to make some tough choices in the weeks, months and years ahead."