Uphill battle 

Indian Caucus wrestles with lack of progress on bills

Several Democrats in the Montana House of Representatives attempted March 28 to blast a trio of bills to the floor that had stalled in committee. Each of the proposals aimed at improving conditions in Indian Country—from setting up youth suicide prevention pilot programs to requesting the National Parks Service offer preferential hiring for local workers through its concessionaires. Rep. George Kipp III, D-Heart Butte, introduced the latter as a common-sense jobs resolution, one that could increase employment opportunities for college students and other youth in impoverished reservation communities.

"Let this get on the floor," Kipp pleaded. "Listen to it before you make a decision. Support your kids. We have many of them, we all do. Grandchildren and children."

Despite passionate defenses from Native and non-Native lawmakers alike, the motions failed one-by-one on predominantly party-line votes.

The failure of those March 28 blast motions speaks to a greater frustration voiced by members of the Montana Legislature's Indian Caucus during the 2015 session. Kipp and others in the caucus contend they've watched proposal after proposal tabled in committee with little or no explanation—and often without any shred of oppositional testimony. By Sen. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy's count, the total allocations tied to those measures are modest in the grand scheme.

"When we look at the entire package ... we're at about $10.5 million," says Stewart-Peregoy, D-Crow Agency. "That's less than half a percent of the entire budget of the state of Montana in what we're asking for."

The lack of progress on many bills benefiting Indian Country has both confused and infuriated Native legislators. Rep. Susan Webber, a freshman Democrat from Browning, sought early on to resolve a disparity in tribal college funding by requesting an increase in state reimbursements for non-Native students enrolled at such institutions. The bill, while still alive, was sent to the Senate Finance and Claims Committee from the Senate floor last week. Others haven't been so lucky. Rep. Rae Peppers' effort to secure $500,000 for a Native American Gap Financing Revolving Loan Program, which would help tribal members gain collateral for bank loans for business start-ups, is considered dead after the blast motion failure. Same goes for House Bill 509, the suicide prevention measure sponsored by Rep. Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, at Stewart-Peregoy's request.

click to enlarge A pair of bills from Montana’s Indian Caucus aimed at bolstering tribal language preservation have recently gained traction in the legislature. The lack of progress on other bills, however, continues to frustrate caucus members and fuel complaints of race-based devaluation. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • A pair of bills from Montana’s Indian Caucus aimed at bolstering tribal language preservation have recently gained traction in the legislature. The lack of progress on other bills, however, continues to frustrate caucus members and fuel complaints of race-based devaluation.

"No one has come up and openly said, 'We're not going to help you guys' or 'We don't care what kind of bill you pass, you're not going to get it through,'" Kipp says. "But the actions have been representative. We've got good bills, and they're stuck there in committee."

Members of the caucus attribute the hang-ups partly to the contentious and high-profile debate over the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Water Compact, which has not only divided Republican lawmakers but has prompted several racially charged correspondences. Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, received one such email from a Flathead resident calling tribal members "reservation-ghetto dwellers" and suggesting they "join the rest of us, and 'be taxed.'"

For some in the caucus, those sorts of comments bear a striking resemblance to the overtly offensive moments that dominated previous sessions. Stewart-Peregoy, by way of example, mentions the 2013 bill that would have declared the Winchester Model 1873 rifle the "gun that won the West," with no regard for the devastation it brought Native people. Most of the racial insensitivity this session has been comparatively subtle, she says. Kipp, Webber and Rep. Carolyn Pease-Lopez, D-Billings, agree. But even the inability to pass good bills out of committee leaves them feeling like their voices are "diluted" or "canceled out"an ironic situation, Stewart-Peregoy adds, when you look at some of the caucus members' resumes.

"We bring a breadth and a depth of experience and education to this body that is not valued," she says, "and it's devalued because of our Indian-ness."

Frustration aside, there are still shreds of hope for the caucus. Shortly before his preferential hiring resolution failed to make it to the House floor, Kipp's request for $1.5 million over the next biennium to fund tribal language preservation in Montana passed through committee and to the House floor. Windy Boy's measure to encourage the creation of Indian language immersion schools is also alive in the House.

"It's hard," Stewart-Peregoy says. "There are days you'd rather not get up and talk. But if we don't speak, who's going to speak for our people?"

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