With a record seven Indian legislators elected to serve in the 2003 session, the Indian caucus expected to have more power than ever. Instead, the caucus accomplished less than it had in either the 2001 or 1999 sessions, says Rep. Carol Juneau (D-Browning).
“Maybe there was too much offered and too much introduced for American Indians to be successful,” says Juneau. “For example, [Rep.] Norma Bixby (D-Lame Deer) had only one resolution pass, and it was right toward the end, and it wasn’t even really Indian-related.”
Two resolutions sponsored by Juneau did pass, but as she points out, resolutions aren’t laws, but “only letters of support.” None of the bills sponsored by Juneau went anywhere, and her peers didn’t fare much better—not a single bill passed this session that offered any state funding specific to Indian issues.
On the Republican party’s post-session tour of the state, Rep. Dick Haines (R-Missoula) said he sympathized, and often supported Indian bills, but wondered where the money would come from to pay for the expensive programs contained in the proposed legislation. Speaking of Juneau’s bill that would have raised the compulsory school attendance age from 16 to 18—a program that would certainly cost the state millions, but may have begun to reverse the dismal Indian dropout rate—Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas (R-Stevensville) said that the bill addresses a problem that can’t be solved with money or legislation. Juneau insists that her bill would keep kids in school, and that the majority just doesn’t want to devote the money to it.
Indian lawmaker Rep. Joey Jayne (D-Arlee) disagrees with the charge that it’s pure economics that leaves Indian legislation on the table. Jayne points to Republican bills like House Speaker Doug Mood’s (R-Seeley Lake) last-minute amendment to the state budget to provide $10,000 to study the need for a community college in his district in Philipsburg.
“If they want to, they can always find the money,” says Jayne.
With all the Indian legislators being Democrats—the minority party in both houses for the last decade—it seems to make sense that Indian legislation wouldn’t fare well. But Juneau doesn’t think party affiliation should play into how lawmakers vote on Indian bills.
“Many of the American Indian issues aren’t partisan issues,” she says. “Things like dropout rates and water rights shouldn’t be partisan.”
But being Democrats, the Indians legislators have alienated some Republicans from their causes—Gov. Judy Martz being possibly the biggest example. Early in her term, Martz said she was making Indian issues a priority and visited all seven of Montana’s reservations. But this session, the Indian caucus met with Martz only once. In that meeting, Juneau says that Martz was unreceptive to the idea of pitching in.
“She basically said, ‘I supported ten of your issues last session and you didn’t support any of mine,’” says Juneau. “We had a much stronger disconnect [with the governor’s office] this session than in the previous two sessions.”