As Montanans, American Indians, and members of the Montana Legislature, we share the frustration of people all across Montana. As the potentially devastating effects of these cuts have become clear over the past few weeks, Montana’s elected leaders must continue working to ensure that critical government services remain available and effective, eliminate unnecessary spending, and discuss ways to increase revenue. We stand ready to join our colleagues from both parties to do our job.
However, some of our colleagues in the Republican majority continue to insist that the only way forward is to cut essential services. Recently, members of the Republican leadership authored the column “Montana has a spending problem,” in which they callously attacked essential services that benefit working Montanans as “government bloat.”
As Indian legislators, we are intimately familiar with how many of these cuts will devastate Montana Indians. We cannot allow tax giveaways to the wealthy and out-of-state corporations to harm so many families who are trying to make better lives for themselves. We know Montanans want their leaders to move past empty political slogans, and so we would like to invite the authors of “Montana has a spending problem” to our communities so they can see first-hand the benefits of the programs they love to disparage.
Tribal and community leaders continue to work hard to create jobs and economic prosperity. In fact, Montana tribes contribute over a billion dollars a year to our local economies, primarily by directing tribal lease revenues to essential services that are repeatedly recycled into the state's economy. But despite these efforts, Montana’s Indian communities continue to suffer because critical federal and state responsibilities are perennially underfunded. Tribes struggle to make up these deficiencies despite severe limitations on their authority to raise revenue through taxation. As a result, every Indian Country community is on the poverty watch list. And Montana Indians have the highest rates of suicide in a state with the nation’s highest suicide rate.
In the face of these disturbing facts, the already insufficient amount of funds spent on services essential to our survival should not be cut at the expense of a tax system that only benefits the rich. In our communities, every dollar that supports Montana Indians is essential. Funding for public schools, language preservation, economic development and Medicaid expansion; our communities cannot afford to pay the price of political posturing. And the benefits to these programs are exponential. They contribute to local economies, train work forces, reduce the costs of health care to all Montanans, ensure educational opportunity, and even help to preserve Montana Indian languages.
These programs are a matter of life or death for many of our community members and they cannot be cut or experience any more cuts. And, let's not pretend that the rich don't also benefit from critical services and infrastructure.
We are grateful to those who remain committed to protecting funding for Indian programs and we appreciate all those legislators, both Democrat and Republican, who have supported our work to improve social and economic conditions for all Montanans. It’s time for us to gather in Helena, roll up our sleeves and restore our constituents’ faith in our public institutions.
Our state government can work for all Montanans if we set aside the rhetoric, bench the propaganda and work in a bipartisan manner to find solutions. The survival of our histories, cultures and communities depend on it.
This opinion is signed by members of the Montana Indian Caucus: Rep. Shane Morigeau, Sen. Lea Whitford, Sen. Frank Smith, Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, Rep. Bridget Smith, Rep. George Kipp III, Rep. Susan Webber, Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy and Rep. Rae Peppers.