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Tribal-impact measures face Montana solons

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HELENA, Mont. - The Montana Legislature, which convened its biennial session Jan. 3, already is considering four bills that would directly impact tribal members across the state.

At least 11 more related bills are in the drafting stage.

Rep. Bill Eggers, D-Crow Agency, introduced a measure that would extend the life of the State-Tribal Economic Development Commission by four years. The panel, created by the Legislature in 1999, is designed to improve economic conditions on the state's seven reservations.

Part of the commission mandate is to conduct a statewide study of the contributions Montana tribes make to the state's economy. Among other functions, the panel helps find additional private and public funding for reservation development projects.

The commission, initiated by Eggers, received $200,000 in state funding to begin its work in the current biennium. The new legislation calls for another $400,000 in state funding to be allocated over the next four years.

Under House Bill 21, the commission also would be expanded from nine to 10 members, a move that would allow the Little Shell Band of Chippewa, which doesn't have its own reservation, to participate. To help attain continuity on the panel, which at times had difficulties gathering a quorum, the bill proposes that appointments be for the life of the commission, rather than by terms.

Eggers, a two-term legislator and a member of the Crow tribe, also is sponsoring HB 107, which would require the state to earmark a portion of some federal excise tax revenue for fish and wildlife programs on Montana reservations. Figures from 1999 show the state receives about $10.8 million a year through the Pittman-Robertson Act and other assessments on the sale of selected sporting goods.

Under the bill, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks would be required to spend at least 7 percent of the excise revenue it receives from the federal government on tribal management programs. It would create a new, nine-member tribal natural resources council to decide on projects and provide oversight.

Eggers reasons that tribal members pay a part of the tax when they purchase sporting gear, so they should benefit when proceeds are given back to states. A similar proposal, also sponsored by Eggers, died in the 1999 Legislature.

Rep. Gail Gutsche, D-Missoula, introduced the Montana Repatriation Act, which spells out a process for handling human skeletal remains and related objects found on state and private lands. She says the act is designed to comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, approved by Congress in 1990.

HB 165 allows Native remains to be returned to tribes, lineal descendants or "other persons establishing cultural affiliation" with the remains and funerary objects taken from unprotected burial sites prior to July 1, 1991. Some remains and objects are in custody of museums and private parties, she says. The act would set up an inventory process, as well as a framework for repatriation.

Rep. Carol Juneau, D-Browning, is sponsoring a bill to increase the number of tribal teachers and training opportunities in reservation and off-reservation school districts with more than 50 percent Indian enrollment.

HB 53 codifies current federal law that allows a hiring preference for Indian applicants in districts which receive federal funding under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. The preferred applicant can be an enrolled tribal member or a "lineal descendant" of an enrolled member. Juneau, a Mandan-Hidatsa member from North Dakota, sponsored a similar proposal in the 1999 Legislature.

Legislative records show Sen. Ken Toole, D-Helena, requested a bill requiring sellers of property within Indian reservations to provide written notice to buyers that the property "may be subject to the jurisdiction of a tribal government." Toole, founder and program director of the Montana Human Rights Network, contends the notice would help stem misunderstandings among future non-Indian reservation residents.

Other draft measures include bills to codify tribal member and military exemptions from the state's newly revised vehicle registration assessments; allow tribal colleges to apply for state adult education funds and receive funding for non-beneficiary students; authorize Indian-made license plates; approve a pending water compact on the Fort Belknap Reservation, and allocate a portion of the state's beef check-off revenue to help Indian ranchers. The Montana Legislative Council also wants to revise the state's tribal cooperative agreements act, records show.