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Tester believes job help is on way

by Brad Fuqua & Western News
| March 2, 2009 11:00 PM

While a heavy cloud of unemployment continues to hover over Lincoln County, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester believes help is on the way.

But are those just positive, press release words from a politician or will the recently-approved stimulus package realistically create job opportunities in Libby-Troy region? It’s a real issue impacting many lives in Lincoln County.

The most recent figures from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry show a 12.8-percent unemployment rate in Lincoln County. The statewide average is 5.5 percent and Lincoln County trails only Sanders County to the south (13.9 percent) for highest unemployment.

“I think the big issue is finding a way first of all to have it so the timber industry has a safety net so they can stay in business through this difficult time,” Tester said via phone interview this past Thursday. “Once that happens, they’re off and running.”

With passage of the stimulus package, also referred to as the “Jobs Bill,” some are clinging to the hope that employment opportunities will spring up around northwestern Montana. Jobs in the forest could be an option, or maybe positions will materialize on road crews. Tester said the idea is investing in infrastructure and re-building America’s economy from the ground up.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to get housing starts going again so the timber industry can get going and sell 2-by-4’s again,” Tester said.

But is it all wishful thinking?

“Here’s how it helps the guy who runs the hardware store in your town. If someone is weatherizing a home and working on a highway crew … there’s going to be some money in their pocket and they’ll buy that piece of lumber. You get the economy rolling in that way.”

Tester called the current economic crisis the biggest public policy challenge he’s ever faced. And it’s even hit home in his own family.

“My son-in-law is an electrician and got laid off about a month ago now,” Tester said. “And his prospects to come back and work are not unlike conditions in your neck of the woods. Paying bills becomes an issue … it affects you straight up and right between the eyes.”

Tester said work needs to be done to sort through the oversupply and bad mortgage issues.

“Once we get those issues settled, we’ll start moving again, which will help you all tremendously,” Tester said about the timber industry and Lincoln County.