By Sarah Gianelli
EBS Associate Editor
BIG SKY – Prior to delivering the keynote speech at the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce Awards and Dinner on June 25, Republican Sen. Steve Daines spoke with EBS about issues prominent in the West’s political discourse.
During the interview, the nearly life-long Bozeman resident stressed his five-generations deep Montana roots, avid outdoorsmanship, and shared stories geared specifically for a Big Sky audience: skiing the resort in 1973; New Year’s Eve celebrations at Buck’s T-4 Lodge with the Mission Mountain Wood Band; and where he finds the best Big Sky powder today. His comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Explore Big Sky: What do you see as Montana’s greatest asset?
Sen. Steve Daines: Its people. … Montanans, by their instincts, have a strong work ethic; they also are service-oriented; they take care of people; they’ve grown up learning to take care of their neighbors, and the importance of that when you live in a state that has a rural thread running through it.
I think second too, in Montana, is the outdoors. And the outdoor economy. You know our largest economic driver in Montana is agriculture. So that kind of fits the culture we have in Montana, it’s founded in ag. … But then we have two national parks—Yellowstone, we’ve got Glacier, and people come from all over the world to see those parks.
EBS: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Bozeman is the second-fastest growing municipality in the United States, and the Bozeman Micropolitan area, which spans the entire county, is the fastest in terms of absolute population gain. Big Sky is clearly a part of that equation, and as EBS has reported, we have an affordable housing crisis. Can you provide any insight into the issue, or is there anything that can be done at the federal level to alleviate the problem?
S.D.: I think this a decision that rests oftentimes with local and county officials as you look at zoning and the need to set aside lands where affordable housing can be built. There are federal programs and grants that can assist, but there has to be a master plan here in looking at where are the people going to live who aren’t buying the large homes here. … You cannot have an outdoor economy in Montana, in Big Sky, without having affordable housing [for] men and women who are going to live here year-round.
EBS: What is your stance on President Donald Trump’s desire to downsize or eliminate 24 national monuments, closest to home being the Upper Missouri Breaks?
S.D.: That’s water under the bridge. I wouldn’t change the existing national monuments in Montana. If there’s a review to look at the process that is used, well you could review the process, but I would not recommend making any changes or downsizing. But I would look at the process going forward to allow the state to have a greater voice in the process.
EBS: Sen. Jon Tester said, “the GOP healthcare bill would rip away Medicaid from thousands of Montanans.” You released a statement saying you would wait to hear from your constituents before taking an official stance, but what can you tell us about where you stand on the Republican health care plan?
S.D.: When you look at where we’re at, Montana’s premiums for the individual market have gone up 133 percent since 2013—these are the Department of Health and Human Services stats. … I hear stories from Montanans all over the state where they used to pay this amount for healthcare and now they have to choose between buying healthcare or a mortgage.
One-third of the counties right now across the nation are down to one insurance provider in an individual market—one. So you no longer have choice; that’s a monopoly. There are several counties now that are down to zero providers and that’s like having a bus ticket and no bus to ride. … We’re seeing dramatic further increases right now in premiums across the country, so something has to be done.
EBS: Do you think this bill, from what you’ve read so far, will do that?
S.D.: On preexisting conditions I do, very much so, it has to. It’s important that we go back to the three important messages I’ve heard from Montanans: lower premiums, protect those with preexisting conditions, not just access but affordable healthcare, and make sure that we save Medicaid.
EBS: And you’re going to stand by that and make sure it happens?
S.D.: You bet. I will.
There are some complicated funding provisions in Medicaid, but the current Senate bill … allows Medicaid expansion to go forward in perpetuity. … One of the challenges we face right now is Medicaid expansion alone is estimated to add another [$800 billion] to $900 billion in that expansion alone over the next 10 years. Medicaid today is about $600 billion, that’s equal to our current defense budget, if you take the state and federal component, so we’ve got to take a look at how we turn the powers of Medicaid administration back to the states.
Right now it’s a very D.C.-driven solution. A state like Montana, with rural healthcare challenges, would have different thoughts about how we would administer Medicaid than a state like New York or California or Florida. So another big component of this bill is going to be turning a lot of these powers back to the state instead of the federal government.
EBS: How do we balance protecting the natural beauty of this place that draws so many people to it, while accommodating population growth and the influx of tourism?
S.D.: We’ve got to deal with infrastructure challenges. I’m the chairman of the National Parks subcommittee in the U.S. Senate. You look at Yellowstone National Park, [it] had a record visitation year last year; Glacier National Park had record visitation last year. … We’ll probably break those records again this year, depending on the fire season a bit, it always does. So we have about [an] $11 billion backlog in deferred maintenance right now in our national parks—that’s a really important issue and we’ve got to highlight it.
Also, when you look at the people coming to Montana … we’ve always been a state that has welcomed people. … Sometimes the folks who want to shut the doors of Montana are the folks who just moved here. Growing up here, if you don’t have a growing economy it’s pretty tough to keep a job; it’s pretty tough to keep food on the table.
EBS: With Trump’s proposed cuts for the Department of Interior, which will trickle down to the National Park Service, how are we going to improve the infrastructure to accommodate those numbers?
S.D.: I think there’s been frankly, a lot of media bluster about the president’s budget. … I’m quite confident that the departments you just mentioned, because I’m on those appropriation committees, will not see the cuts that President Trump proposed.
EBS: You worked with Rep. Greg Gianforte in the early years at RightNow Technologies. Were you surprised that Gianforte got into a physically aggressive altercation with a reporter on the eve of the special election?
S.D.: I was. I’ve known him for 23 years; it surprised me. … We’ve spent a lot of time in the backcountry together, hunting and fishing together, building a business together. And it was not excusable; it surprised me.
EBS: Do you prefer the steeps of Big Sky Resort or the private powder of the Yellowstone Club?
S.D.: Depends on where the best snow is [laughing]. If I’ve got a perfect day in Big Sky, I’m heading up and hitting the Dictator Chutes, to me, that’s a great morning. I love the views up there too, so you have a combination, on a bluebird day, of great snow and just the magnificent views. It’s maybe one of the best views in the world.