Opinion: Partisan bickering threatens tribal progress in Montana

The following is the opinion of Montana Lt. Gov. Angela McLean (D), Sen. Sharon Stewart-PeregoySen. Mike Phillips (D), Sen. Lea Whitford (D), Rep. Kelly McCarthy (D), and Rep. Susan Webber (D).

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) and Lt. Gov. Angela McLean (D). Photo from Facebook

Montana is fortunate to be home to eight tribal nations that have played an important role in our state’s heritage and culture. When the framers drafted our state’s constitution, they recognized the importance of these sovereign nations. What they likely did not foresee was the important economic role they would play in our state today.

It’s estimated that Tribal Nations create more than a billion dollars annually in economic activity. This important impact comes from job creation, business development and tourism activity. It has an impact far beyond reservation boundaries, and supports the economy statewide.

However, we know that Tribal Nations lag behind the rest of the state economically. The unemployment rate in tribal communities is often two to three times higher than the state average. One key reason for this is the struggle Native owned businesses face in accessing capital. Entrepreneurs in these communities are unable to gain the funds to make their dream a reality.

It is with this in mind, that the Bullock Administration, the Montana American Indian Caucus, and other members of the legislature put together a package of bills to improve tribal economies, expand health access, improve educational opportunities, and preserve Native culture. The impact of this legislation would go far beyond reservation boundaries, and would support a growing economy across Montana.

Working together, we introduced legislation that would make Montana the first state in the nation to recognize tribally incorporated business entities. Our state recognizes foreign business entities; why doesn’t it recognize businesses established in the sovereign tribal nations within Montana’s borders? This will create new opportunities for economic development between Montana and tribal businesses.

We’ve brought forward proposals to improve access to capital in tribal communities, so entrepreneurs have the opportunity to make their dream a reality while improve economic and job opportunities for themselves and their communities.

We’re moving forward on improving educational opportunities in tribal communities as well. Currently, Tribal Colleges in Montana struggle to provide services for nontribal students. Through our proposal, we’ll increase the funding these schools get for educating these students. This will ensure that all students in the all students in the area can get a quality education. In addition, we’re working to make permanent, funding for the Tribal Language Preservation Program.

Unfortunately, while these proposals have seen bipartisan support, several other important education, economic, and health improvement initiatives still have hurdles to overcome.

Governor Bullock’s proposal to make permanent important Indian Country Economic Development funds was stripped down. This critical program creates business opportunities in tribal communities, creating jobs in areas that need them most.

We’ve seen partisan attempts to stifle health care expansion in the state. Fortunately, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers recognize that by bringing our federal tax dollars back to Montana to expand health care to 70,000 Montanans—including 20,000 Native Americans—we’ll improve health outcomes for residents, while boosting our economy and throwing a lifeline to rural hospitals. This is something the legislature must act on this year.

And finally, the legislature must pass the CSKT water compact. This compact, which is the last in the state to be approved, will provide certainty to businesses, landowners and water users. It was negotiated in a bipartisan, transparent process, and has the support of both Governor Steve Bullock and Attorney General Fox. And it provides a fair agreement for all Montanans.

As we enter the closing weeks of this legislative session, legislators will have a choice in how Native Americans in Montana reflect on the work of their lawmakers. Will they see this session as one of missed opportunities and partisan obstruction? Or will they end this session as one where a bipartisan majority of legislators found common ground, and acknowledged that when Indians in our state does well, Montana does well.

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