By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
A bill adopted by the Montana Legislature is intended to increase communication and cooperation between the state and tribal governments.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Rocky Boy, passed the state House by a final vote 86-14 on Friday. It had passed the Senate earlier.
"My hope is this will in many areas help state and tribal relations, also (with governments) on the local level," Windy Boy said Thursday.
The bill will be sent to Gov. Judy Martz for her signature. Windy Boy said Martz has supported the bill from the beginning.
Democrats Reps. Bob Bergren and John Musgrove, both of Havre, and Sen. Ken Hansen, Harlem, and Senate Minority Leader Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, voted in favor of the bill.
The other member of the Havre-area delegation, Republican Rep. John Witt of Carter, voted against the bill.
The bill formalizes proclamations issued by both Martz and her predecessor, Gov. Marc Racicot, calling for consultations between the state government and Indian leaders, including tribal governments and the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council. Windy Boy formerly chaired that council, resigning after he announced his candidacy in House District 92 in 2002.
"The proclamation was on the order of a feel-good proclamation without anything to support it," Windy Boy said. "This is more specific and detailed."
The bill lists meetings, training and reports suggested or required to improve communication, understanding and cooperation on actions impacting tribes and tribal governments.
Windy Boy said his bill and others are attracting national attention to the relations between state governments and Indian Country and on the Montana Legislature and its seven Native American members.
"(It's) been under watch as a focal point as far as what's going on with legislation," he said.
The relationship between state and tribal governments is complex, he said.
"We're talking two sovereigns here, between the state and the tribe," Windy Boy said, adding that with the seven Montana reservations and the Little Shell Tribe there are actually eight sovereign nations within the state.
Initially the bill will help educate people in state government about the needs and concerns of the tribes, he said.
It also will influence the process the governor has every year to plan the state budget, he added.
"Since the budget crunch and budget situation occurred, with the deficit, that kind of put our red flags up on a local level," he said.
The Legislature had to address a $230 million deficit, and ended its session Saturday. It used a combination of about $70 million in budget cuts and $75 million in sales tax increases to balance the budget.
The state administers many programs funded both on the state and federal level that affect members of Native American tribes, Windy Boy said. If funding is cut for programs like Meals on Wheels, low-income energy assistance, foster care and Medicaid, the tribal governments have to make up the difference, he said.
The 2000 census reports that about 6.1 percent of Montana's population is Native American. Of that, almost 40 percent live below the poverty level.
The bill allows the governor to hold meetings at least once a year with tribal leaders and state agency managers for a full day to review policies affecting tribal governments and tribal members. Those who attend also will discuss and find solutions to issues of concern to the state and tribes.
The bill requires that state agencies submit a detailed report of their activities in relation to tribes and tribal governments each year.
It requires that at least once a year, training and field experience will be conducted for agency managers and employees who have regular communications with tribes. The training will deal with the legal status of tribes, the legal rights of tribal members, and social, economic and cultural issues of concern to the tribes.
The bill also requires state agencies formulating or implementing policies that impact tribes to consider the need to preserve tribal-state relations and accountability, cooperation, collaboration, communication and mutual understanding and respect.
Chuck Butler, the governor's director of communications, said today there is communication between the governments and that the bill just increases that communication.
"There is an office of Indian affairs and there are ongoing dialogues between the governor's office and the tribal leaders," he said.