Flathead Beacon: Daines Talks Health Care, Environment During Latest Tele-Townhall

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, fielded questions from Montana residents during a “tele-townhall” phone conference Wednesday night, addressing concerns about health care, his cabinet votes, and environmental regulations.

According to the senator’s staff, the evening forum marked the 14th time he’d connected with Montanans since winning the Senate seat. It came on the heels of criticism that he’d shirked constituents’ calls for a live town hall after controversial moves to confirm Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education and gavel down Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor.

But Daines was unfazed, and answered questions and criticisms with aplomb during the 90-minute session, hearing roughly a dozen constituents.

The telephone conference drew some 30,000 listeners, according to Daines’ staffers, and began with Montana’s junior senator expressing support for Judge Neil Gorsuch, who President Donald Trump tapped to fill the late Antonin Scalia’s seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, and ended with his characterization of Rob Quist, who Montana Democrats selected to run in a special election to fill the state’s at-large seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, as “too liberal.”

Sandwiched in between was a smattering of questions about the GOP’s plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, how he’ll support farmers and the state’s Agriculture industry, and calls for him to defend his support of DeVos.

Daines said the Affordable Care Act has brought rising premiums, unaffordable deductibles, fewer insurance choices and higher taxes. He said premiums for a 27-year-old in Montana have increased 76 percent, or nearly $1,896, since 2014.

During that same period, he said for a family of four, annual premiums increased 122 percent or nearly  $11,000.

And in the last year, premiums have increased between 27 and 58 percent in Montana, he said.

Defending his decision to vote to confirm DeVos, Daines addressed concerns that he had accepted $46,800 from the DeVos family in campaign contributions, saying he wasn’t even aware of the donations until news organizations reported them.

“In the future are you going to listen to us when we tell you that we don’t want you to confirm someone? You work for us,” said one caller from Anaconda.

Daines said he voted to confirm DeVos because she supports education funding, as well as charter schools and vouchers. He also pointed out that U.S. Sen. Jon Tester voted against DeVos and received campaign dollars from teachers’ unions.

“The unions didn’t buy Senator Tester’s vote and the DeVos family didn’t buy my vote,” he said.

Another caller from Libby expressed concerns about Scott Pruitt, the new administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who has pledged to rollback environmental regulations. She said that doesn’t bode well for Libby, which was designated a Superfund site after it was revealed that a now-defunct vermiculite plant owned and operated by W.R. Grace and Co. had contaminated the town with deadly asbestos.

“I am really concerned about a community like Libby that has been victimized because of a lack of environmental regulations, not only health-wise but also economically,” she said. “I’m really concerned what rolling back regulations will mean for a city like Libby and a state like Montana.”

Daines said environmental disasters like Libby and the Berkeley Pit in Butte are instances in which a lack of oversight led to devastating consequences to human health and the environment.

“The problem is [the EPA] has overreached. And it is encroaching on the states and on Montana’s ability to have primacy,” Daines said. “I think the EPA has reached too far, and has had significant impacts on Montana’s economy.”