ICYMI: Legislative Progress Related to Indian Country

In case you missed it, there has been a lot of action in the Montana legislature this week that impacts tribal communities throughout the state. Here’s a recap to get you up to date.

Tribal Colleges

There was a big victory for this week for tribal college funding. Shortly after a senate committee voted to table HB 196, Senator Jonathan Windy Boy blasted the bill on the Senate floor where it passed 26-24. It then easily passed second reading, and yesterday, it passed 3rd reading 33-17. It still needs to go back to the House, to concur with the Senate amendment that removed language that would have provided an inflationary increase each biennium. However, if it passes, the bill will provide the statutory authority to improve state support for tribal colleges to better cover costs associated with non-tribal students.

Currently, non-Indian students comprise between 10 and 30 percent of enrollment at some tribal colleges in Montana, yet the colleges receive far less state funding than do community colleges and universities, on a per-student basis. HB196 will provide a modest 8% increase to the per-student funding, raising it from $3,024 to $3,280. This will be the first increase since 2008, compared to community colleges who have seen a 95% increase in the same time period. Increased funding to non-tribal students would help tribal colleges continue to offer quality and affordable education, even as the non-tribal student population increases.

You can read our report on tribal college funding here.

American Indian Language Preservation

During the 2013 legislative session, Montana enacted the Montana Indian Language Preservation Pilot Program (MILP). HB 559, a proposal to preserve tribal languages, continues this successful and groundbreaking program. If passed, the bill provides funding to promote and preserve American Indian languages for all eight of Montana’s tribal communities. Studies show that tribal language education in the classroom improves American Indian students’ sense of identity and academic performance.

So far, HB 559 bill has been clipping along successfully. It passed the House in late March with a staggering final vote in favor, 77 to 22. Now in the Senate, the education committee will hear the bill this Monday, April 13th (watch it here).

Indian Country Economic Development 

The legislature included the Indian Country Economic Development (ICED) program in the state’s main budget proposal, HB 2; however, the battle continues to try to bring about some stability in this funding source. Yesterday, the Senate spent the day debating this bill and Senator Phillips proposed an amendment to make ICED funding a part of the base budget. Unfortunately, the amendment failed along party lines which means ICED funding will remain a one-time-only funding requiring the legislature to reapprove funding every two years. This obviously calls in to question the program’s future funding. It forces tribes to come back next session asking again to secure funding and leaves a lot of uncertainty for small businesses and tribal communities that have relied upon this funding. However, for now, ICED funding will continue to support the creation and growth of local businesses in reservation communities throughout Montana.

All in all, there are few victories and still some things we need to see improved. But it’s not over! Stay tuned.

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