Montana legislature inconsistent on Indian bills

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HELENA, Mont. - With Democrats' majority control of the Montana Senate and
50 - 50 count in the state House of Representatives, the governor's office
now in Democratic hands and other legislators willing to please, one would
think legislation favorable to the state's American Indian population and
the tribes would move smoothly through the system.

That's not the case, said Carol Juneau, Blackfeet, legislator and vice
chairman of the Montana Democratic Party: "In terms of the number of pieces
of legislation that have an impact on Indian country, we have not had too
much success. Bills are getting tied up in committee."

The Montana Legislature has nearly 20 bills that could have some impact on
Indian country.

With an even split in the House, the committees are alternately chaired by
members of each party. In some cases, the committee chairmen fail to bring
the bill to the committee. Time is running out for some bills to make it
into the system.

Proposed legislation containing expenditures will have a very hard time
this year; and if the bills are American Indian-specific, Juneau said, they
will also have trouble.

"The Indian preference bill that I introduced has been carried for four or
five sessions," she said.

That bill would require American Indian hiring preference in certain
schools, specifically those on reservations.

"It seems [that] a policy issue or bill that's not too much money or no
money will get a better look; if it has American Indian significance, it
will be difficult," Juneau said.

Jonathan Windy Boy, who represents the Rocky Boys and Fort Belknap
reservations' home district, has a different take on this year's session. A
number of his bills have either moved on or are still alive.

"It's been an excellent year: I'm batting 1,000 percent," Windy Boy said.
Every bill he's introduced is moving through the House, including one in
particular that would clean up water contaminated by gold mining.

That bill calls for $1.5 million per year to be placed in a trust fund that
would provide the revenue necessary to maintain clean and healthy water
that was contaminated by gold mining; after 2018, interest from the fund
would be used to maintain quality water. The bill's funds would be
transferred from federal funds Montana receives for royalties on mineral
production on federal lands that usually end up in the general fund.

This is the bill's second time around.

Abandoned in the late 1990s, the Zortman and Landusky mines are located on
the southern border of the Fort Belknap Reservation, home to the Gros Vente
and Assiniboine tribes. The mines have not been cleaned up to the tribes'
satisfaction, as was required of the owner, Pegasus Gold Corp. The company
filed for bankruptcy in 1998 after posting a bond for long-term water
treatment. The bond, however, was inadequate to maintain quality water.

Proponents of the bill, also from Fort Belknap, said the state ignored
their concerns about water problems while the mining took place.

The annual fund will add to the trust fund until 2018, when the interest
can be used for maintaining and construction of water quality systems. The
bond posted by Pegasus would maintain water treatment until 2018.

State Environmental Management Bureau Chief Warren McCullough told the
Associated Press the amount collected by 2018 - $34 million - will be
needed for future water treatment.

The bill is now in the House Natural Resources Committee.

Approval of this bill would complete a long-term battle with the federal
government over promises made regarding the site's cleanup that were never
met, tribal leaders assert. The tribes went to federal court to have the
court enforce the cleanup plan that the state and the BLM agreed to in
2002. The tribes said there was inadequate consultation with the BLM before
it changed the cleanup procedures.

A bill that would set up a dropout prevention program in schools is tied up
in committee; another bill that would restore Temporary Assistance for
Needy Families (TANF) cuts and a third that would restore Medicaid cuts
might never see the light of day, Juneau said.

Juneau said a State-Tribal Economic Development Commission bill would not
have survived had she not taken money out of the bill. "They had some
carryover money I let them use in order to get the committee to support
it."

The problem is with the state budget, according to Juneau, a member of the
joint budget committee. She said the governor, Democrat Brian Schweitzer,
would have to add extra money to the budget, but he has not approved nor
supported any additional revenues, she said.

Juneau said Schweitzer put $2 million in his budget for American Indian
education for all students. This would go to the Office of Public
Instruction. An additional $1 million would be allocated to the tribal
colleges to allow the writing of tribal history for American Indian
education.

"This amount does not meet what we believe is adequate funding to implement
this 33-year-old constitutional promise. We came to this session with a
request for $23 million," she said.

That figure was much too high, so the request was cut back to $10 million -
meaning an additional $8 million will have to be secured to meet the plan's
objectives. In a year when money bills are not received well, it may be a
hard sell.

The Montana Constitution dictates that cultural curriculum be afforded to
all students from kindergarten through college.

The Supreme Court affirmed a district court's decision that the existing
funding system violates the state constitution. The state, the court said,
failed to recognize the distinct and unique cultural heritage of American
Indians and has shown no commitment in its educational goals to the
preservation of Indian cultural identity.