With the 2019 legislative session behind us, it is time to share updates on a number of key bills that impact Indian Country.
Montana State Budget
House Bill (HB) 2, the General Appropriations Act, is the bill that provides for Montana’s state budget and includes several direct investments in Indian Country. They include the Indian Country Economic Development (ICED) Grant Program, which funds projects that strengthen Montana’s economy through the development and enhancement of business opportunities in Indian Country and for American Indian businesses, and the Montana Indian Language Preservation Program (MILP), which aims to preserve tribal languages in Montana.
Currently, both programs are funded on a one-time-only (OTO) basis, meaning their funding must be reapproved by the Legislature every two years. Despite the governor’s request to make both ICED and MILP funding permanent, the Legislature has maintained their OTO status for the biennium at $1.75 million for ICED and at $1.5 million for MILP. The funding level for both meets the amount requested in the governor’s proposed budget. However, OTO funding presents challenges for both programs. For tribal languages, it means uncertainty around future resources that support preservation efforts to curb the alarming rate of language loss. For ICED funding recipients, it means more difficulty in making long-term business plans. The bill is waiting to be signed by the governor.
Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women
The Legislature heard a number of bills that would address the high rates of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). At the center of the package of MMIW bills was HB 21, or Hanna’s Act. After the Legislature stripped the bill of its original funding and made the functions of the bill optional, the Legislature restored the bill and ultimately passed it with overwhelming bipartisan support. Hanna’s Act authorizes the Montana Department of Justice (DOJ) to assist with the investigation of all missing persons cases, creates a missing persons specialist, and appropriates just more than $200,000 to the DOJ for the biennium for this purpose. The bill is waiting to be signed by the governor.
The fate of Hanna’s Act was tied to SB 312, which legislators revived late in the session and ultimately passed. SB 312 creates the Looping in Native Communities network grant program, also known as LINC, to create a network that supports tribal efforts to identify, report, and find missing American Indian people in Montana. The grant to administer the program will be awarded to a tribal college. SB 312 also creates a missing indigenous persons task force, which will be responsible for administering the grant and for identifying and improving jurisdictional barriers and communication between law enforcement agencies investigating missing persons cases. The task force will receive $25,000 for the biennium to award as matching funds to tribes implementing LINC. The bill is waiting to be signed by the governor.
HB 599 establishes the Indian Health Service’s Community Health Aide Program (CHAP) in Montana. Although CHAP is a federal program, states must adopt it through legislation. CHAP is a proven strategy for expanding access to health and dental care in underserved communities by allowing for the use of paraprofessional health care workers, like community health aides, to perform a wide range of duties, such as health education and dental health. Differing versions of the bill passed the House and Senate, after which a Conference Committee resolved the differences. It is waiting to be signed by the governor.
SB 30 came before the Legislature at the request of the State-Tribal Relations Committee and allows peer support services to be reimbursed under Medicaid, increasing access to much-needed behavioral health services in Montana. Specifically, SB 30 allows people experiencing behavioral health disorders to receive support, mentoring, and guidance from peers with similar life experiences. After passing the Senate, the House Human Services Committee tabled the bill. The Legislature, however, revived the bill and ultimately passed it, appropriating $2.5 million for the biennium to the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) for behavioral peer support specialists. It is waiting to be signed by the governor.
HB 696 appropriates $500,000 to DPHHS to support suicide prevention efforts among groups at increased risk of suicide – American Indian youth and service members, veterans, and their families. For almost 40 years, Montana has had one of the highest suicide rates in the country; yet, the Legislature failed to pass a number of other suicide prevention bills this session. HB 696 was a last option this session for legislators to invest in efforts to address this ongoing public health issue. The Legislature made the right decision and passed HB 696. It is waiting to be signed by the governor.
HB 401 would have repealed SB 412, which the 2011 Montana Legislature passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. SB 412 created the temporary tribal property tax exemption (for up to five years) for tribal fee lands when those lands have a trust application pending with the federal government. MBPC opposed this bill because it failed to honor tribal sovereignty and recognize the political status of tribes. The House Taxation Committee tabled HB 401 in committee, after which the bill’s sponsor introduced a similar bill, HB 733. It would have allowed counties to recapture any taxes that they may have missed during the fee-to-trust application process, should the application be denied. Like HB 401, HB 733 would have undermined tribal sovereignty. The Senate Taxation Committee tabled HB 733 in committee.
Montana is stronger when Indian Country is stronger. The Legislature made the right call on a number of key bills impacting Indian Country. Despite the session being over, MBPC’s work is not done. MBPC will continue to work with tribal communities to advance reasonable tax and budget policies that work for all of Montana.