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A photo of Henny Scott

A photo of Henny Scott, a 14-year-old freshman at Lame Deer High School who was found dead in December, sits in the hearing room as testimony is given for Hanna's Act, which authorizes the state Department of Justice to assist with all missing persons investigations.

Lawmakers and state agency leadership admitted Monday that legislation named after a murdered Native woman and meant to avoid the circumstances that led to her death in the future is toothless.

At the start of the session, the bill directed the state Department of Justice to create a missing persons specialist to coordinate among local, state, federal and tribal law enforcement on missing persons cases. While the specialist would work on all missing persons cases, the position was envisioned to assist in situations involving jurisdictional issues among law enforcement agencies. 

The bill was named for Hanna Harris, a 21-year-old Native woman who was missing for several days before she was found murdered on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in July 2013. Harris' mother, Melinda Harris Limberhand, traveled to Helena to speak in support of the bill. She and many others explained how they often faced delays in starting the search for their missing daughters, mothers, aunts and sisters.

After the bill passed the House unanimously, the Senate Judiciary committee first tabled it and then brought it back for amendments that stripped $100,000 in funding for the position and the language that required the Department of Justice to create the position.

"This pretty much guts the bill," Rep. Rae Peppers, a Democrat from Lame Deer who is carrying Hanna's Act, said Monday. The act is House Bill 21.

Liz Bangerter, government affairs director with the state Department of Justice, told the Senate Finance and Claims committee "quite honestly, it (the bill) really doesn't do anything."

Bangerter, a former legislator, said the Department of Justice could "suck it up for two years" and find a way to add and pay for the position, but would struggle to recruit qualified candidates to a job without secure funding beyond a two-year window.

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Sen. Ryan Osmundson, a Republican from Buffalo and chair of the Senate Finance and Claims committee, said Hanna's Act needed to be amended, though he didn't say how, and specific amendments weren't discussed.

"It does need something because it doesn't do anything right now," Osmundson said.

The act was set to clear the state Senate last week and head to the governor's desk, but was sent to the Senate Finance and Claims committee instead. That move was an effort to stall to try to find a way to revive a bill from Sen. Jason Small, a Republican from Busby, also aimed at the problem of missing and murdered Native women. Small's bill would have created a grant program for tribal colleges to create a database of missing Native people.

Small has objected to the fiscal note on his bill, saying its high price tag of $124,649, was meant to make it harder to pass. His legislation is Senate Bill 312.

It's unclear if there will be an effort to blast Small's bill onto the House floor after a House committee tabled it last week, or if the intent of the bill will be amended into Hanna's Act.

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State Bureau reporter for The Independent Record.

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