Improving economic conditions on Montana’s seven Indian reservations will be the top priority of a new statewide panel that will convene this week in Helena.
The State-Tribal Economic Development Commission was created by a bill introduced into the 1999 Legislature by Rep. Bill Eggers (D-Crow Agency). The proposal, seen as a way to address exceedingly high unemployment and poverty levels faced by Indian people across the state, was backed by top legislative leaders.
Gov. Marc Racicot recently named the members of the new panel, which will meet for the first time on Oct. 28, including Jami Hamel of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Velma Pretty on Top-Holeman from the Crow Tribe, Emorie Davis Bird of the Blackfeet Tribe, and state Department of Commerce Director Peter Blouke.
Eggers’ House Bill 670 initially called for $400,000 to be allocated from state coffers to help tribes sort out their economic needs, create a panel to help allocate federal funds directed toward Native Americans, and increase tribal representation on several other state boards. Eggers also wanted seven percent of all federal funding given to the state to be earmarked for tribal programs. The number represents the approximate percentage of enrolled American Indians who currently live in Montana.
Eggers argued that legislation was needed, in part, because the state Department of Commerce hasn’t been fulfilling its legal obligation to include tribes in economic development programs around the state. Adding Indian appointees to other boards, such as the Agricultural Development Council, would also help tribes expand their economic bases, he reasoned.
While lawmakers sharply trimmed back the proposal, they did appropriate $200,000 over the next two years to fire up the new panel and hire a full-time grant writer, as well as a development specialist to help improve reservation economies.
Under the amended bill, the commission will work with government agencies and private organizations to find ways to expand financing for economic-development projects, as well as track down new potential sources for grants, loans and donations. The commission will also complete a comprehensive assessment of economic conditions on each Montana reservation. Factors to be considered are demographics, the availability of natural and human resources, current infrastructure, and existing training opportunities. In addition, Eggers’ bill calls on the Commerce Department to expand its existing microbusiness-finance program, so tribes are given more opportunity to participate and obtain funding.