MARK TRAHANT— Last year I expected a record number of Native legislators across the country following the elections. There were just so many really superb candidates running for Congress, state legislatures, and statewide offices. At one point my list topped 100 candidates. Of course it didn’t turn out that way. Too many of those exceptional #NativeVote16 candidates lost. But my tally to date: 66 elected representatives and senators. So the 2016 election cycle turned out to be more of a rebuilding year instead of one that broke records.
Yet it turns out there is still history to be made.
State legislatures are convening around the country this month and there is an interesting twist: There are Native legislators in key leadership positions in at least seven states. That’s impressive — and critical right now because of the types of conversations that will be going back and forth between Washington, D.C., and state capitals about Medicaid, health care and energy policy.
Alaska is a great bipartisan example.
Two years ago former Sealaska chairman Byron Mallott, Tlingit, was elected the state’s Lt. Gov. (He was the Democratic Party’s nominee for governor, but joined an independent fusion ticket along with Gov. Bill Walker.) The Walker-Mallott administration elevated Native issues to an unprecedented level of influence. One of the governor’s first appointments was Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson, an Orutsararmiut Native Council tribal member, and a long time health advocate, as the state’s commissioner for the state’s Department of Health and Social Services. She will be the one negotiating with the Trump administration about what Medicaid will look like if Congress acts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Then the state legislature and the Walker-Mallott administration have been at odds over state spending and resources. Alaska has a multibillion-dollar budget deficit largely because of the state’s reliance on taxes from oil and gas. As The Fairbanks Daily Miner put it: “Fortunately for the state, previous years when oil revenues were high allowed legislators to sock away billions of dollars in savings accounts. Unfortunately for the state, it was easier for legislators to spend from these savings accounts than make the hard decisions that would put Alaska on a path to a balanced budget.” Further complicating that budget challenge, Alaska citizens are paid a per capita distribution instead of paying income or other general taxes.
So after this election a new alliance was formed in the legislature to try and come up with solutions, three Republicans and two independents joined the Democrats to form a majority caucus. The Speaker of the House in this coalition is Bryce Edgmon, Yup’ik. He said his Native background is how he views the world. He told the Bristol Bay Times: “I know it’s not only my children and maybe their children’s future, but it’s also the future of our way of life out here in rural Alaska and a lot of our Native villages.”
There are now eight Alaska Natives in the legislature representing both parties. Rep. Sam Kito III, Tlingit, is chair of the Labor & Commerce Committee as well as the Legislative Council (a joint committee with the Senate). Neal Foster is co-chair of the Finance Committee. And Dean Westlake, Inupiaq, is chair of the Economic Development Committee and Arctic Policy. In the Senate, Lyman Hoffman, a Democrat who caucuses with Republicans, is co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee. The House Minority Leader is Charisse Millett, Inupiaq. In a previous legislature, Millett was instrumental in legislating Alaska Native languages as official state languages.
Actually I wrote “bipartisan.” That’s probably the wrong word for what’s occurring in Alaska because a few elected representatives run for election identifying with one party, only to caucus with the other after the election. (Perhaps a model for Congress?)
Oklahoma and Montana are the two states with the most Native legislators, nine. A larger group of Native legislators makes it easier to form a caucus so members can work together on issues important in Native communities. And both states have an active Native caucus.
Oklahoma legislators are leaders in both parties. In the House, Rep. Mark McBride, Potawatomi, is the Assistant Majority Floor Leader. Rep. Chuck Hoskin, Cherokee, is the Minority Whip. And in the Senate, Anastasia Pittman, Seminole, is the Assistant Democratic Leader.
Montana’s newly elected Rep. Shane Morigeau, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, will serve in leadership this session as Minority Whip. It’s a rare honor for a freshman.
Montana’s American Indian caucus was an important voice in the last legislature on issues ranging from tribal college funding to water compacts. “We’ve been literally and figuratively the minority’s minority,” Rep. Susan Webber, Blackfeet, told the Billings Gazette. “I know it looks like we have a lot of people in the Indian caucus, a lot of people were elected, but in reality it should be more. But just us getting in there, from my perspective, is a real positive.”
A critical challenge for the American Indian Caucus this session will be Medicaid. Montana came late to Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act but its impact has been swift. The state’s uninsured rate dropped from 20 percent in 2012 to 7.4 percent last year. A report by The Montana Budget and Policy Center says a repeal of the Affordable Care Act “could have disastrous impacts on Montana, putting at risk the health care coverage of more than 142,000 Montanans who have benefited from ACA measures. At the greatest risk are the more than 61,000 Montanans who gained access to affordable health care coverage through Montana’s Medicaid expansion plan.” Worse: the report found that “repeal could cause a greater number of uninsured Montanans than before the ACA was enacted.”
Montana Budget and Policy says 8,000 American Indians are enrolled in insurance through the Medicaid expansion program. Third-party insurance, such as Medicaid, has added nearly a billion dollars to the Indian Health Service budget. “Nationwide, reimbursements at IHS facilities, tribal operated facilities, and urban Indian clinics have increased 21 percent since the expansion of Medicaid,” the report said. “In 2014, nearly 40 percent of American Indians did not have health insurance, but Medicaid expansion represented one of the most significant opportunities to expand coverage for American Indians.”
This is important because if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act, it will be up to state governments to pick up the pieces (as well as the cost) or strip millions of Americans from health insurance coverage. Repeal without new resources could devastate the Indian health system.
Other states where Native legislators are included in the leadership structure: Hawaii, where Andria Tupola is Minority Floor Leader; and in Colorado, Rep. Joseph Salazar is a committee vice chair.
In Washington Sen. John McCoy, Tulalip, has been a long-time champion of issues that are important in Native communities.
McCoy sponsored legislation to close coal burning power plants and “dramatically reduce the amount of coal burned to generate energy for Washington residents, reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Colstrip by 5 million tons — the equivalent of a million cars — a year.”
The senator says Washington Republicans and dental lobbyists are blocking the creation of a mid-level dental practice along the lines of what’s been done in several states. “Indian country may not have the loudest voice in Olympia, but it still has basic needs,” McCoy wrote in The Seattle Times.
“The idea is pretty simple — allow Native communities to train and recruit dental therapists to help clear the backlog of an ongoing oral-health crisis. The research is alarming — one-quarter of Native Americans aged 35 to 44 years have fewer than 20 of their natural teeth,” he wrote. “The dentists also ignore the groundbreaking success of similar programs in other states. It’s been working for 11 years for indigenous communities in Alaska, where 45,000 people are seeing reliable providers for the first time in their lives.”
This issue is not going to go away. A new national survey reports that 45 percent of U.S. voters say they go without dental care because of cost or lack of insurance. But 8 of 10 favor adding midlevel providers as a solution. “Good oral health is critical to overall health, yet policies to expand access to dental care do not reflect this,” said Tera Bianchi, project director of the Dental Access Project at Community Catalyst. “Dental therapists offer better access to care for the most underserved populations in a cost-effective way to the system. They are a smart, effective bipartisan way to improve access to care.”
And this session McCoy will be the face of the Democratic Party, chairing the caucus where he says he will help “foster the vision and values of Senate Democrats as they navigate the 2017 session.”
In other words: Sen. McCoy has a seat at the head of the table.
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports.