HELENA, Mont. - Rifts between tribal legislators and state Republican leaders, including Gov. Judy Martz, are turning into chasms following a series of clashes over education and economic-development issues, reapportionment and etiquette.
Martz, a Republican elected in 2000 as Montana's first female governor, promised to improve relationships with tribes when she came into office. She fulfilled her vow to visit all seven reservations in the state early on, and promptly signed a proclamation saying she'd conduct state business with Indian leaders on a government-to-government basis. Regular and wide-ranging meetings with tribes were also common at first.
But with the January start of the 2003 Legislature, where a record seven tribal lawmakers - all Democrats - are serving, an already strained relationship with Martz has boiled over into anger. A veteran lobbyist for tribes has even been barred from entering the governor's office complex after he was deemed to be rude at a recent meeting. Tribal leaders are also dismayed that a number of their legislative initiatives have already been killed by the GOP, which holds a 53-47 majority in the House and a 29-21 edge in the Senate.
Topping off tribal frustration is a high-pitched battle over legislative redistricting. The state's pending reapportionment plan, pushed through by a 3-2 Democratic majority that included chairwoman Janine Pease Pretty on Top, a member of the Crow Tribe, calls for two new Indian-majority state Senate seats in Montana. Republicans, claiming they don't want to dilute Indian voting strength, have blasted the move as racial gerrymandering. Several GOP-sponsored bills to rewrite the plan are now pending in the Legislature.
The governor, faced with an estimated $232 million budget deficit over the next two years, proposes to strip all remaining funding from a state-tribal commission and expand massive cuts in social services programs, including many that directly affect tribes. Martz is also trying to persuade tribal lawmakers, among others, to approve a $93 million loan from the state's Coal Tax Trust Fund that she said would help blunt some of the pending cuts.
On Jan. 23, just hours after a State of the Tribal Nations address was delivered by Crow Chairman Carl Venne to a joint session of the Legislature, Martz blew up at Salish and Kootenai lobbyist and newspaper columnist George Ochenski during a meeting to discuss legislative issues with a variety of tribal leaders. Ironically, Venne centered his speech on the hope that the state and Montana tribes could work together more closely.
Ochenski said the governor began "screaming" at him after he whispered to Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council member Maggie Goode that Martz's trust fund loan "wasn't going to happen." He also contends the governor was trying to blackmail tribes into voting for the measure. Following a string of angry invective, Martz told Ochenski she wouldn't work with him anymore and that he was no longer welcome in her office.
"It bothers me that she's trying to drive a wedge between us," said House Minority Caucus Leader Carol Juneau, D-Browning. "Tribal members desperately need help in many areas. To offer something like this out of that is very unfair of her and inappropriate when supposedly working in a government-to-government relationship."
Martz spokesman Chuck Butler, who noted that he didn't attend the meeting, said Martz, who signed a no-new-taxes pledge when elected, has for weeks been tying the pending program cuts to revenue that would be garnered from the proposed trust-fund withdrawal. If the $93 million is made available, some of the rollbacks in both Indian and non-Indian services won't be needed, he said.
"Her job is to persuade people about her approach to the budget," Butler said. "The governor has said on numerous occasions that she will fight for her budget. That is her budget and how she put it together. All she was doing was asking and suggesting to tribal leaders that it would be a good idea to talk to their constituents" about the revenue exchange.
Martz's proposed 2004-05 budget calls for removing the last $154,000 from the State-Tribal Economic Development Commission and depositing the money in the state's General Fund to help combat the deficit. The commission was created by the 1999 Legislature to help reservation communities attract federal grants and other types of funding to enhance their economic standing. The panel initially was allocated $200,000 in state funds to accomplish its tasks.
However, upheaval in the state's Indian Affairs coordinator's office, which saw three coordinators come and go in recent years, and repeated problems getting busy tribal and state leaders together in a quorum, hampered the panel's progress. A shortage of support staff, exacerbated by low state wage classifications, also added to the difficulties. The last time the commission officially met was last March, and that was in a conference call.
Interim coordinator Lori Ryan, who works out of the governor's office, said she contacted a variety of tribal leaders to let them know the cut was coming. But tribal legislators said they were unaware of the plan until a bill surfaced in the House Appropriations Committee, which temporarily tabled the measure after it was lambasted in a hearing.
Ryan said it's "extremely unfortunate" that the money is at risk. She added that she hopes the commission can get rolling again, if that is what tribal leaders want to do.
"There is no one area to lay blame," Ryan said of the panel's past lack of progress. "I will work with the commission however I can to enhance economic development in Montana."
But Juneau and others noted that the governor's new economic development plan, released with fanfare in January, stated nothing about working with tribes, despite earlier promises that they would be included.
"Just not including us is wrong," Juneau said, adding that the state Department of Commerce and other agencies are required by statute to include tribes in their programs. "In many cases the mechanism is here; the law is here; but tribes are often kind of forgotten in the process unless someone is really standing up to them."
The tribal legislative caucus is also upset that Martz recently said she's "really excited" that Montana, according to state figures, currently has only a four percent unemployment rate. When it was pointed out that BIA data shows tribal unemployment soaring to more than 70 percent on some Montana reservations, Martz told Juneau she wanted those figures buried.
"We should of course be aware of this, but we don't want to include it," the governor said. "It makes Montana look bad to include that information in our statistics, and we need to look good if we are to attract businesses to the state." Department of Labor officials say the BIA rates, which use a different scoring methodology, aren't used in any state's reporting.
But in a Jan. 28 letter to Martz, the Indian caucus sharply criticized her remarks and asked her to work with them to ensure that future reporting is both accurate and fair.
"We understand the need to 'look good,' but no attempt to manufacture an image for Montana should rely on a blatant disregard for the facts," the letter said. "As the elected representatives of the American Indian population of Montana, we know the deplorable unemployment conditions that exist in our tribal homelands. For us, the statistics you seek to avoid have names and faces, they are our friends, our families, and our neighbors."
Meanwhile, Martz and other Republican leaders are also under fire for giving only lip service to Indian cultural education. In the 1999 Legislature, Juneau sponsored a successful bill to expand tribal cultural curriculums in the state's public schools. Even though Martz mentioned the program in her recent State of the State address and suggested an award be given to schools that include tribal cultural teachings, funding for the program was killed by a House subcommittee the same day she gave the speech.
"'Teaching the Tribal Nations' and our state's history isn't about Democrats or Republicans," said Rep. Norma Bixby, D-Lame Deer. "It's about honoring and understanding our state's cultural heritage and traditions. Schools need the resources to teach our ancient, diverse and vibrant history properly."
Tribal leaders say they hope the damage caused by the ongoing political fission is not permanent, but no one's holding their breath at this point.
"Things are happening fast on things we're asking for Indian people in Montana," Juneau lamented. "We're losing on a lot of that. It's not been good."