By Jennifer Perez University of Montana School of Journalism Junior from Fort Belknap
HELENA Twenty-four out of 43 Indian legislative bills are still alive in the Republican-controlled 57th Montana Legislature with only six weeks remaining in the session.
The state's six Indian lawmakers introduced 26. Of those bills, 13 survived and 12 are dead while one has been signed into law. Twelve pieces of Indian legislation introduced by other legislators are alive, three are dead and two have been signed into law.
Tribal lobbyist George Ochenski said any bills that are depending on the state's general fund will be hard to get passed. "There's no question the state is in a state of fiscal imbalance in revenue and spending. That imbalance is due to a faulty tax program that intended to spur economic development. So now what's left (of the general fund) has to go to maintaining government infrastructure. Now, this governor and Legislature has to deal with it."
"In the best of times, non-tribal members in the Legislature have some concern for Indian issues, but when things get tough for them, Indians come last," said Ochenski, adding that, "It is just the nature of the beast."
"We are fighting over the scraps, that's what it boils down to."
Ochenski noted that since the earlier meetings with Indian leaders, Gov. Judy Martz has really opened her heart. "She's trying to understand the nature of Indian culture and given the budget constraints, she's trying to enhance relations with the tribes," he said.
Martz' office has gone on record to support four major Indian bills, all of which are still alive.
"Some (Indian legislation) will pass, some won't," Martz said. "They will if we can afford to do it and it'll benefit the people on the reservation and the surrounding communities, but it has to first pass the Legislature."
She said tribe's need to prioritize which bills are most important to them. "I feel we have an opportunity to work together here. I'll be perfectly honest with them and they need to do the same. We're going to do some positive things if they are working with me and I'm working with them."
HB 50, by Rep. Carol Juneau, D-Browning, was signed into law to revise the title of a certified chemical dependency counselor to be named licensed addiction counselor.
Still alive is Juneau's dropout prevention bill that will allow Montana schools the option of working with local tribal colleges to offer GED programs for students. "Since it has money attached it will be tough, there is still hope though," Juneau said, adding that she might look at alternative strategies to reduce the cost so that it could pass the House appropriations hearing this week. "It cost more money to lose them (Indian students), than if you provide educational opportunities for them while they are young."
A bill sponsored by Juneau to allow tribal colleges to apply for state adult education funds unanimously passed the House and will be heard in Senate committee this week.
Despite rumors that the Indian fee waiver was cut by a legislative budget committee, the statutory funding for the university system Indian fee waiver has been untouched.
Four out of nine of Juneau's bills have been killed, including a bill aimed at increasing Indian teachers and training opportunities for schools with large Indian populations and a poll registration bill that would have allowed people to register and vote on Election Day.
Rep. Frank Smith, D-Poplar, sponsored HB 80, requiring voters to provide a street address street address to vote, was passed by Legislature on March 2 and sent to the governor March 7 for a signature.
The bill received criticism from Indian voter advocates who say it was unnecessary and will only deter voter registration efforts for the people living on Indian reservations often live outside the townships that have P.O. boxes and don't use their physical addresses.
"The law has been referred to the office of civil rights for legal interpretation to determine if its an obstacle for Indian voters, particularly on Montana's Indian reservations," said longtime voter advocate Margarett Campbell of Poplar, who oversees the Fort Peck Voter Project.
Smith said the bill was "originally requested by an election judge because of discrepancies in districting." He gave an example of a Fort Kipp resident that voted in Culbertson, but should've voted in Brockton. "There is not detection in the P.O. box information," he said.
There is a 911 log that has all of the physical addresses of the residents in Roosevelt County, which is within the Fort Peck reservation. Some argue that the election judges should have used the log when districting was questioned in lieu of the law and others argue that the 911 logs can now be used to registering voters.
HB 271 by Rep. Joey Jayne, D-Arlee, was approved by the Legislature, will extend the time in which state-tribal cooperative agreements are filed.
A bill for statutory funding for non-Indian and non-enrolled Indian students who attend tribal colleges sponsored by Rep. Norma Bixby, D-Lame Deer, wasn't approved. However, Bixby said the original funding per student has been reduced from $2400 to $1900, and the budget of the Commissioner for Higher Education will have to absorb the cost. Whether the budget receives any more funding will depend on the budgeting of the general fund appropriation bill, HB 2.
A bill by Rep. Bill Eggers, which cleans up the outdated half-century-old language of the law on the coordinator of Indian affairs, has passed the House and is in the Senate. Eggers' racial profiling bill was blocked, but would've required all law enforcement to collect data on who and why people are being stopped.
Rep. Matt McCann, D-Harlem, introduced a bill to ratify a water compact with Fort Belknap. "It's a very reasonable approach to recognizing tribal rights and trying to satisfy the irrigation concerns because it's critical to recognize that Milk River basin is a water-short basin," McCann said.
"The compact is crafted so as Fort Belknap develops their rights, the impacts to water concerns will be mitigated with the support of the Fort Belknap Tribe and the irrigation districts."
The Fort Belknap Indian Community Council recently approved the compact, which has to be approved by the Legislature and then by Congress before it is put before the people of Fort Belknap for a vote.
Rep. Joe Tropila, D-Great Falls, introduced HJ 11, a joint resolution urging the Department of the Interior to grant final recognition to the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewas. The bill was unanimously passed in the House and it is now before the Senate.
"Gov. Martz wants to sign this bill and send it on to our Congressional delegation," he said.
After 107 years of trying to regain their federal recognition status, the landless Little Shell tribe was granted preliminary federal recognition last May. Final recognition will bring long-awaited benefits and services to the Little Shell people, including health care, child welfare services, and their own court system.
Tropila reflected back to May of 1958 when he lived north of Great Falls and neighbored the Little Shell people who at one time dwelled around an area known as Hill 57. "These people who lived up there sought recognition their whole lives but have all passed on. I hope that through their children and heirs that their dreams will become a reality," he said.