Tough to swallow 

Legislature misses chance to make real difference

Last week, the Montana Senate burnished our image at home and abroad by approving House Bill 247, to "create permit for salvage of game killed by vehicles." Informally known as the Make Your Uncle Send You Humorous Emails Act of 2013, HB 247 will allow Montanans to harvest meat from roadkill at the discretion of highway patrol officers.

Clearly, our legislature is getting down to the fine strokes. It's easy to make fun of a statewide law declaring it okay to eat roadkill, but the fact is a lot of good meat is being wasted. I would say that wasting wasted deer is among Montana's biggest problems, provided you do not spend even one second thinking about other problems facing the state.

Consider, for example, the federal budget sequestration that took effect March 1. Those across-the-board cuts to domestic and military spending arrived with a conspicuous absence of disaster. After months of dire warnings from the national press, the post-sequester landscape looks much as it did on February 28. But the bill is in the mail.

Montana ranks 41st among the states in its ratio of federal taxes rendered to federal funding received. For every dollar we send to Washington, we get nearly two dollars back. That means sequestration will hit us hard, economically and socially.

The state's Indian reservations are already feeling the pinch. Last week, the Washington Post ran a story on the Poplar School District, located on the Fort Peck Reservation about 50 miles west of the North Dakota border. As a result of sequestration, Poplar schools are facing a 5 percent reduction in federal funding. It doesn't sound like much, until you consider that reservation schools do not receive property tax funding from private landowners and therefore rely heavily on federal dollars.

You might remember Poplar from 2009, when five students at the town's middle school committed suicide and 20 more attempted, prompting outcry in the national media. Like many reservation towns in Montana, Poplar is a small community struggling with a depressed economy and high crime rates. Its schools provide not just education but valuable social services to students and their families. In this environment, a 5 percent reduction in funding can change lives, and not for the better.

Meanwhile, Helena continues to argue over what to do with Montana's $427 million budget surplus, now projected to reach $480 million by 2015. Democrats and Republicans are at loggerheads over whether to return some of that money to property owners now or a lot of it over the next four decades.

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Both plans enjoy broad taxpayer support, and both ignore an opportunity to help the Montanans who need it most. As our elected representatives argue over how best to return property taxes, they might consider the thousands of Montana children at risk of receiving sub-par educations this year because their schools get no property tax money at all.

In Poplar, the district is looking for ways to cut $1.2 million from its budget. Elementary schools will no longer provide students with paper workbooks to take home. The same middle school where 25 out of 200 students attempted suicide in 2009 has scrapped plans to hire a second guidance counselor.

That's 12 percent of the children in fifth, sixth and seventh grade—12 percent of pre-adolescents in Poplar—who thought killing themselves was a better option than the life that Fort Peck had to offer. And now their school is scrambling to make up for budget cuts that amount to 0.25 percent of Montana's state budget surplus.

At this moment, I'm not sure roadside venison is the most valuable resource Montana is wasting. The kids in Poplar and at reservation schools across the state are Montanans, even if their education is underwritten by federal money. They will grow up to run this state, to work Montana jobs and vote for Montana legislators, even if they are not the constituency our representatives in Helena are most concerned with pleasing.

The state already provides about 70 percent of the funding for Montana's reservation schools. In this time of sequestration, when our federal representatives have failed us so disappointingly, our state representatives have an opportunity to pick up the slack. Helena should provide emergency funding for reservation school districts to make up for lost federal dollars. We have the surplus to do it, and kids need an education more than homeowners need a few hundred bucks.

As political ideas go, helping reservation schools would be less popular than free money from the government. Probably, it would be less popular than HB 247. A lot of state legislators might have to confront the fact that their constituents would rather eat roadkill than help Indians.

But using some of our surplus to cover the loss of federal funding to reservation schools would be the right thing to do. So far, the 2013 legislature has proven itself reluctant to tackle big issues. The sequestration crisis offers an opportunity for our representatives to do something serious and good for the state—something a generation of young Montanans will remember.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, consumer culture and lying at combatblog.net.

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