Bernie in Billings

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks to a full house during a rally at MetraPark in Billings

BOB ZELLAR/Gazette Staff

Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke frankly with The Gazette about a number of Montana issues before taking the stage in Billings on Wednesday.

On the future of coal, Sanders said America needs to stop burning coal and other fossil fuels in order to reverse climate change.

"I believe we have a moral responsibility, and custodial responsibility, to leave the planet in a way that is healthy and habitable for our children and grandchildren," Sanders said. "Having said that, I am sure there are people economically hurt as a result of this transformation. That means we have got to make sure that people who are hurt in this transformation get the support they need."

Sanders has proposed spending $41 billion on education, unemployment and economic development to help coal communities adjust.

In the Senate, he’s also pushed for an increase in the royalties companies pay for oil and gas taken from public land. The Department of Interior has suspended new coal leases so it can determine whether the public is receiving its money’s worth from coal sales.

Despite opposing coal, Sanders won coal state West Virginia’s primary Tuesday.

On the federal government's relationship with American Indians, Sanders said respect of tribal sovereignty is due, but help is also needed.

"On reservations across this country, the poverty rate, the unemployment rate, the rate of youth suicide are often off the charts," Sanders said. "The Indian Health Service is failing to provide the quality health care people need in many cases. The education system is inadequate. Corporations are now coming into land, land that has belonged to the Native American people that is precious to the Native American people, to excavate.

"I think in a fundamental way, we've got to change our relationship with the Native American people and give them the respect they're certainly due."

On military veterans, Sanders has said that veterans in rural areas shouldn't have to drive long distances for medical care are at Veterans' Affairs facilities.

"In a large rural state like Montana, It is absurd that if somebody is sick they have to travel 200 miles or more to a VA facility and come back," Sanders said. "When people are living a distance away from a VA facility, they should be able to get care in a private facility."

As the chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee from 2013 to 2015, Sanders said he worked with Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., on the challenges facing veterans in rural areas.

On his cornerstone issue of government funded college tuition at public colleges and universities, Sanders extended the need beyond traditional college students and included working adults.

"It's not just for young people. It is also true for people who need to get updated training in order to compete in the job market," he said.

Sanders came out strongly against hydro fracturing or "fracking," the process of cracking the earth and filling it with fluid and sand to free oil and gas trapped in shale. His home state of Vermont, has banned fracking.

"We would ban fracking. We have got to make a decision. One of the crisis that is looming and already happening, but will only get worse in years to come is the question of whether our country, and in fact all countries all over the world, will have the drinking water they need," Sanders said.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.