Native Sun News: Indian lawmakers achieve goals in Montana
The following story was written and reported by Clara Caufield, Native Sun News Correspondent. All content © Native Sun News.


Montana Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy (D), a member of the Chippewa Cree Tribe, represents Senate District 16 in the Montana Legislature. Still image from Celia Xavier / YouTube

New ground broken in Montana legislature
By Clara Caufield
Native Sun News Correspondent

HELENA, Mont. –– During the bi-annual session of the Montana Legislature, seven laws benefiting Montana Tribes and tribal members, sponsored by nine Native American legislators, were actively supported by Governor Steve Bullock.

Some like the Language Preservation Act and support for language immersion schools broke new ground in Indian Country, establishing a model for national legislation since introduced by Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana).

The Montana Budget and Policy Center recently released the 2015 State Legislative summary, highlighting legislation to benefit Montana Tribes and tribal members. That report, approved by Senator Jonathan Windy Boy, Chair of the State Tribal Relations Committee notes: “State and federal budgets both play a significant role in relieving poverty and building economic opportunity in Indian Country and have a significant impact on the lives of American Indians living both on and off reservations in Montana.”

Windy Boy, D-Rocky Boy Reservation, Chippewa/Cree/Assiniboine has served nine years in the Montana Legislature, first as a Representative, now in a second Senatorial term considered the senior member of the Native American Caucus. He also serves as Chair of the Montana State Tribal Relations Committee.

Windy Boy said it was very challenging to get legislation and funding favorable to Montana Natives in the 2015 Republican dominated legislature.

“The language preservation was first introduced in 2013 session. I couldn’t get any money anywhere to support language preservation. I got two million from the OPI budget to start it. Later, we were able to get authorizing legislation for the language preservation act and language immersion schools” said the bilingual elected official.

Windy Boy, who once served as a tribal official, speaks eloquently during legislative sessions, as does his colleague, George Kipp, elected Representative from Browning, Blackfeet Reservation.

“As always, in the 2015 Legislative session, we were the minorities of the minorities,” Windy Boy noted. “But we stuck together, had allies and in a free-floating caucus leadership, managed to get some things done. Yet, there is much to do. The State under the leadership of Democratic Governor Bullock is to be commended for supporting our 2015 Native American objectives.”

A summary of the 2015 legislation enacted by the 2015 Montana Legislature for Native Americans within the State follows:
HEALTH CARE
The Health and Economic Livelihood Partnership (HELP) expands Montana’s Medicaid program providing new federal dollars to Indian Health Service facilities, helping to address funding shortages and improve access to quality health care. This bill will expand health care coverage to adults making less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level (for an individual with an income of $16,000 or about $7.75/hour).

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
Indian Country Economic Development (ICED) Program was funded at $1.6 million for the 2017 biennium. ICED provides grants to individual tribal members and tribes to start or expand businesses. Since 2005, funding must be reapproved by the Legislature every two years, making it difficult for Indian Country to formulate long-term economic development strategies and sustainable projects. Governor Bullock asked state legislators to move the ICED program from this one-time-only funding status into the base budget, which would provide financial stability and allow for long-term planning, not approved.

TRIBAL COLLEGES
Tribal College Reimbursement Program sponsored by Rep. Webber, D-Browning, aimed to increase the funding for non-tribal students who attend tribal colleges using a formula that would provide an initial 8 percent per-student increase, followed by an inflationary increase every two years. The legislature amended HB 196 to remove any provisions for future inflationary adjustments to the funding rates and retained the provision that per-student funding will be “limited to a maximum annual amount.” The increase in funding was not included in the 2015 state budget and therefore must be revisited in 2017.

NATIVE LANGUAGES
Promote Montana Indian Languages sponsored by Rep. Kip, D-Heart Butte, continues $1.5 million in funding for the Montana Indian Language Preservation (MILP) program providing each of Montana’s tribes with support to revitalize their tribal languages. This is a reduction from the $2 million appropriated during the 2013 legislative session. This program assists in the preservation efforts and curricular goals associated with the Indian Education for All statute and the more recently established tribal language preservation efforts.

IMMERSION SCHOOLS
Encourage Indian language immersion schools introduced by Sen. Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, encourages language immersion classes in public schools. Funding in the amount of $45,000 will be provided to the Office of Public Instruction to distribute to a select number of schools that implement a tribal language immersion-style program. Funding eligibility has been designated for schools that have a 10 percent American Indian student population. This program is intended to put to use the material and curriculums created under the MILP program. Tribal language in schools has been shown to be a protective factor for American Indian children.

BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT
Provide for recognition of tribally organized business entities; sponsored by Sen. Stewart-Pergo, D-Crow Agency, this bill changes current law to recognize tribal businesses as foreign corporations, which means a corporation can be organized under the laws of a federally recognized Indian tribe. Prior to the passing of this bill businesses incorporated under tribal law were forced to seek additional incorporation under Montana state law, which is a time-consuming and expensive requirement. Businesses organized under tribal law in Montana were previously registered under the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which resulted in complicated dealings with banks and other financial institutions, who couldn’t find the businesses listed in the Montana Secretary of State’s office. It will now be easier for tribal businesses to operate outside of reservation boundaries, have easier access to bank loans, and have greater access to economic viability.

ENERGY ASSISTANCE
Revise Universal System Benefits funds for low-income energy and weatherization assistance; sponsored by Windy Boy increased the percentage of funding that is provided to Low Income Energy Assistance Programs (LIEAP) through a tax collected from utility companies and added tribal LIEAP programs as eligible recipients this funding has traditionally been split three ways through LIEAP programs, conservation efforts, and renewable energy demonstration projects. This increase can now provide 50 percent of this funding to tribal LIEAP programs, which could provide weatherization to approximately 120 more homes.

Other legislative initiatives sponsored by Native Montanan legislators and supported by the Native American Caucus failed. Those included: Revising laws related to national park concessions, Native American Gap Financing Revolving Loan Program, Expand Montana Schools of Promise Initiative and the Native American and Rural Youth Suicide Prevention Pilot Program.

“We still have much work to do,” said Windy Boy. “And you can count on us to give it our best try.”

(Clara Caufield can be reached @ acheyennevoice.com)

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