Save Our Sisters: MMIW Awareness Walk file

Marita Growing Thunder, left, leads a group of supporters for the second year on an 80-mile walk across the Flathead Indian Reservation in March 2018 to raise awareness of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. 

A bill that would have created Hanna's Act, named after a murdered Native woman, looked poised to clear the state Senate on Friday but was delayed as part of an effort to save a Republican-sponsored bill offering a homegrown approach to addressing the issue of missing and murdered Native women.

The state Senate moved Friday to refer House Bill 21, more commonly known as Hanna’s Act, back to the Senate Finance and Claims committee instead of passing it out of the Senate.

The bill carries the name of Hanna Harris, a 21-year-old woman who went missing on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in July 2013 and was found murdered soon after. The bill has been scaled down from its original proposal to create and fund a missing persons specialist in the Department of Justice to assist law enforcement agencies with the investigation of missing persons reports. After amendments, it has no funding and only suggests the department create the position.

The bill for which Hanna's Act is being held up is Senate Bill 312 from Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby. It was tabled by the House Judiciary committee just hours before the Senate was set to vote on Hanna's Act, which the Senate endorsed initially by a 42-6 vote Thursday. Small's bill passed the Senate on a 49-0 vote last month.

Small said Friday afternoon he was not involved with the decision to move Hanna's Act to the Senate Finance and Claims committee.

If revived and passed, Small's bill would create a task force overseen by a member of the state Board of Crime Control and made up of members including someone from the Montana Highway Patrol, the state Attorney General’s Office, each of Montana’s seven reservations and the Little Shell Chippewa tribe. The bill would also begin a grant program that would pay for a tribal college to create and maintain a central network of data on missing indigenous persons.

Small, the lone Republican on the 12-member American Indian Caucus, told the House Judiciary committee Friday morning that his bill presented an “easy-to-check, easy-to-update, and … expedient” alternative to the common practice of reporting missing persons on social media. He said existing social media pages are not always updated, so it can be hard to tell if people are found. There are also about 20 such pages, he said, so there's not a centralized approach.

Small objected to a fiscal note attached to his bill, which estimates the Department of Corrections would need to add an additional position, hold task force meetings and other work that would cost about $122,000 a year. He said he doesn't think it should cost more than $25,000 to set up the program he proposes.

“It's a strange fiscal note,” Small said.

Only three of eight Democrats on the House Judiciary committee, one a member of the American Indian Caucus, voted in favor of the bill, which fell 14-5. Caucus member Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, voted no by proxy.

Morigeau said he found Small’s policy “great” and that his vote only had to do with the fact that Small’s bill lacked funding.

“My understanding in just briefly talking to our vice chair and our chair is that … when the vote came up, people seemed to like the policy,” Morigeau said. “I won’t speak for the R’s on the committee, but I was fine with the policy myself … just there was no money there for it. And it’s good to see people being proactive to find money to keep it alive.”

Morigeau added that he has already spoken with committee chairman Rep. Alan Doane, R-Bloomfield, about reconsidering the bill after funding is sought.

“It’s great to see Jason working over there to get funding to keep it alive,” Morigeau said. “I look forward to bringing it back.”

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Later in the day, Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, moved to delay the final Senate vote on Hanna’s Act. Thomas called Small's bill, of which he is the only co-sponsor, a "very effective piece of legislation."

"In order to keep (Small's) bill alive, I'd like to take (Hanna's Act) from third reading today (and) send it to the finance committee for the purpose of considering amendments there," Thomas said.

Thomas and Small both voted to pass Hanna’s Act when it came before the Senate on second reading Thursday.

Sen. Susan Webber, a Democrat from Browning and a member of the American Indian Caucus, said she was OK with Thomas’s motion because the bills are complementary.

It's unclear, however, if the intent of Small's bill could be amended into Hanna's Act because the act has a very specific bill title. 

“Hanna’s Act is obviously important to us and to Sen. Small and everybody,” Morigeau said. “As long as that bill is moving forward and we’re able to keep his bill moving forward, I think it’s a win-win for everybody.”

The Senate Finance and Claims committee will hear Hanna's Act Monday.

Lee Enterprises reporter Holly Michels contributed to this story.

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Local and State Government Reporter

State and local government reporter for the Independent Record.

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