HELENA — Tribal officials from across Montana came to Helena this week to urge a legislative budget panel to restore full funding for human-service programs, saying the programs are vital for Indian families struggling to get by.
"A majority of our people live below the poverty line," said Willie Sharp Jr., chairman of the Blackfeet Tribe. "They're not thinking about the Democratic or Republican agenda. They're thinking about survival."
Sharp, officials from Montana's six other Indian reservations, and representatives of urban Indians in the state spoke Tuesday before the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, which is hammering out initial recommendations for the state human-service budget over the next two years.
They said program funding that may be short-changed by the committee, including low-income heating assistance and Medicaid, is desperately needed by many Indians both on and off the reservations.
"Any reduction in (these programs) will have an impact on Indians and poor people in general," said Joe Durglo, vice chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on the Flathead Indian Reservation. "Montana citizens deserve the support of the state in providing baseline health care. ...
"Before voting on any reductions, ask yourself, 'Would I do that for my child? Would I do that for my niece or nephew, if they were on social services?' It feels like the Legislature is out of touch with Montana communities."
Those who spoke asked the panel to restore social-service spending as proposed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, in his proposed budget for the next two years.
"We're not here begging for additional funding," said Donna Buckles-Whitmer of the Fort Peck Tribes. "We're here just to keep what we have."
The budget panel, which will finish its work Friday on initial budget recommendations, so far has set spending on low-income heating assistance and welfare payments at levels below the governor's budget.
It has yet to make final decisions on funding for Healthy Montana Kids and Medicaid, which are two government programs that provide health coverage to poor and moderate-income families.
Keith Bailey, executive director of the Helena Indian Alliance, also criticized the vote to cut funding for tobacco-cessation programs.
"If we cut this program and we can't get to the kids before they start smoking cigarettes, that is just a shame," he said. "The bottom line here is, it's really imperative that we keep the existing programs that are accessed by Native Americans at present levels."
Reese Fisher, a member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, said his tribe and his people want to become self-sufficient, so they don't have to come to the Legislature asking for assistance. But until a variety of tribal business ventures start paying off, "we have people living in impoverished conditions that rely on these programs that you would cut," he said. "I ask you to restore them."