On March 5-6, the State-Tribal Relations Committee (STRC) met in Helena to discuss a wide variety of topics.

To quickly recap the importance of STRC, the 2001 Montana Legislature passed Senate Bill (SB) 10, which established the STRC to:

  1. Act as a liaison with tribal governments,
  2. Encourage state-tribal and local government-tribal cooperation,
  3. Conduct interim studies, and
  4. Report its activities, findings, recommendations, and any proposed legislation.

In August 2019, the STRC adopted its work plan for the interim and outlined how it will carry out its statutory duties and assigned study. It also identified the topics the committee, as well as the tribal governments which the committee visits over the interim, has prioritized for discussion.

Last week, the STRC’s agenda covered a lot of territory. Highlights include:

  • Barriers to voting by American Indians in Montana. HJ 10 requests the STRC to study barriers to voting for American Indians in Montana. While voters have been able to register using their tribal ID, the Secretary of State (SOS) only just recently updated its voter registration form to communicate that information. It is also notable that if registering with a tribal ID, the registrant must attach a copy of their ID. This is not required of registrants using a driver’s license or state ID card.
  • The Rural Utah Project, an organization that does nonpartisan voter registration, presented its work of using plus codes to assign addresses for free to homes in rural communities and Indian Country. Plus codes are like street addresses for people or places that do not have one. They give addresses to everyone, everywhere, allowing them to receive deliveries, access emergency services, and register to vote. Voters in Utah have used plus codes to register. As an added benefit, plus codes are free to use, are permanent, do not require special programs or licenses (e.g., Google Maps builds in this feature), and do not require cell service or Wi-Fi. The STRC requested information about how the SOS might incorporate plus codes into Montana’s voter registration database.
  • Require the Office of Public Instruction (OPI) to create and maintain electronic directory photograph repository. SB 40 requires OPI to create and maintain an electronic directory of individual students, complete with student photographs. Photographs may be used only to support law enforcement authorities with missing children cases. If a child is reported missing and is included in the photograph repository, law enforcement authorities must include the photograph in the missing child report. Parents or guardians will be the given the option each year to choose to include a child in the repository. The Department of Justice will have continuous access to the repository. SB 40 came before the Legislature at the request of the STRC. OPI is using $30,000 of its $45,000 for implementation. OPI will use the remaining $15,000 for maintenance across the next three years.
  • Missing persons legislation implementation. SB 312 created the Looping in Native Communities (LINC) network grant program to create a network that supports tribal efforts to identify, report, and find missing American Indian people in Montana. SB 312 also created the Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force to administer the grant program. The task force awarded the $25,000 grant to Blackfeet Community College as matching funds for the tribal college to implement LINC.
  • Maintenance of highways within reservation boundaries. In 2019, Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy sponsored HB 426, which would have required certain public agencies responsible for roads or highways wholly or partially within a reservation to enter into or attempt to enter into an agreement regarding snow removal and other winter maintenance with the tribal government located on the reservation. It also would have allowed tribal governments to receive funds for highway maintenance. Even though this legislation did not pass, the STRC adopted the issue as part of its work plan. The committee received an overview of federal funding for and state, county, and local maintenance of roads within reservation boundaries and requested more information for future meetings.
  • Improving communication between tribal nations and the state in Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) cases. American Indian children in Montana are overrepresented in the foster care system. As of February 4, 2020, there are 676 ICWA cases in Montana. Under current Montana law, from the point of child removal from the home, families may wait as long as 20 days before they appear before a judge. Nearby states have significantly shorter turnarounds. North Dakota is the next longest wait time of only four days. Two Yellowstone County District Court judges are piloting a project to expedite the time a family waits for a hearing from 20 days to three to five days. The STRC asked to receive an update on the pilot in August to determine whether the statutory timeline could be shortened.

MBPC’s team will continue to attend meetings, track STRC activity, and provide updates. It is our hope that the STRC take the information it continues to gather this interim to inform proposed legislation that works for Indian Country for the 2021 session.

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