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Crow tribal leaders and mining officials made their case for the Indian Coal Production Tax Credit on Wednesday in a meeting with U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont.

Calling the tax credit crucial to the Crow economy, Tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote urged Daines and visiting U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., to lobby for making the 8-year-old tax credit permanent.

The future of the $2 per ton tax credit on Indian coal has been uncertain since last December when it expired. Coal profits have taken a hit in recent years because of slumping domestic demand and cheap natural gas. Westmoreland Coal Co. operates the Absalooka Mine on the Crow Reservation.

“For the last few years, we’ve been using the Indian Coal Production Tax Credit,” Old Coyote said. “When it expired in December 2013, we saw a $3 million reduction in our budget as a tribe. A lot of our members are still on 32-hour (work weeks) because of this. Without the tax credit, our future is dim right now.

Unemployment on the Crow Reservation is about 47 percent, Old Coyote said. The 120 tribal members who work at Absalooka Mine earn more than $65,000 a year on average.

Coal energy, and more specifically the regulation of air pollution from coal-fired power plants, has been a key campaign issue for Republicans this year. Daines regularly cites the “war on coal” as he attempts to transition from the U.S. House to the Senate. Along the way, the politician has found a kindred spirit in Old Coyote, who says a war on coal is a war on Crow families. The relationship could be crucial for Daines because Crow voters have a long history of supporting Democrats.

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Montana’s congressional delegation, Daines and Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh, has been pushing for a continuance of the Indian Coal Production Tax Credit. There are bills in both branches of Congress to continue the credit. However the Senate version follows the formula used since 2005, which sunsets the tax credit every few years unless it’s renewed. The House version, authored by Daines, would make the tax credit permanent.

“This coal we’re talking about is your coal. It’s coal on Crow land, and we will fight. We will fight on behalf of the Crow people to ensure that you have the right to take that coal, that is your coal, and add the value to it to create the jobs that are so badly needed,” Daines told Crow tribal leaders.

Moran is chairman of the National Republican Senate Committee, charged with flipping Senate control to Republican by getting Republicans elected to seats currently held by Democrats. He told Crow representatives the GOP is committed to representing Indian voters in the next Congress.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.