Around 400 people of all ages marched through downtown Billings Friday to call attention to the high number of Native American women and girls who go missing in Montana. Many are found only after they are deceased.
Native and non-Native families marched, as did tribal and Montana leaders, friends and family of women and girls who have been missing.
Meanwhile in Helena, state lawmakers had tabled or stalled two bills intended to address the epidemic of missing persons. Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, proposed setting up a statewide missing persons registry through a tribal college. His Senate Bill 312 passed the Senate, but was tabled in House committee.
Rep. Rae Peppers, D-Lame Deer, sponsored Hanna's Act, named in remembrance of a young Northern Cheyenne woman who was found murdered days after she went missing. Hanna's Act proposed to fund one full-time person in the Department of Justice to work with local authorities on missing persons cases.
HB21, which is cosponsored by Rep. Kimberly Dudik, D-Missoula, passed the House, but was stripped of its $100,000 in funding and the directive that DOJ "shall" employ a missing persons specialist was changed to "may".
The watered-down bill was tentatively approved in the Senate Friday, but then referred to the Senate committee that oversees appropriations legislation. At a Monday morning hearing in that Senate Finance and Claims Committee, Peppers acknowledged that her bill had been "gutted." She asked the committee to restore funding and the requirement that DOJ add this position.
Nine other proponents echoed Peppers' plea, including representatives of the Montana Association of County Attorneys, the Montana Coalition against Sexual and Domestic Violence, Montana Native Vote, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Montana Sheriff's and Peace Officers Association, Montana Association of Christians, Montana Primary Care Association and the office of Gov. Steve Bullock.
Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, moved to send HB21 to the Finance Committee to amend it. Thomas is cosponsoring Jason Small's bill, and wants to keep it alive.
It isn't clear just what Thomas has in mind. The committee questions on Hanna's act Monday mostly were about having the DOJ hire a missing person specialist by "sucking up" the costs for at least two years and perhaps permanently so no general fund money would need to be committed.
Small's proposal also has a cost, which a fiscal note estimates to be just over $120,000 a year for a task force and grant coordinator.
Small and Pepper's bills are complementary, not competitive. Montana certainly would be justified in both setting up a data base and task force to work on finding missing persons and hiring one DOJ specialist.
Time is critical when a child or adult goes missing. As Small's legislation says, "the likelihood of finding a missing person decreases rapidly after the first 24 hours and falls to less than 4 percent after 72 hours."
The 2019 Legislature must reach an agreement on stepping up missing person reports, searches and coordination statewide. And lawmakers must find a way to pay for this increased measure of public safety.
To delay is to ignore the Montanans who marched through Billings last week and those who brought their concerns to Helena over the past four months. If the Legislature fails to address the crisis in a meaningful way, legislative leaders will be telling their constituents that preventing the loss of women's lives isn't a priority.