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Tallying what Indian business contributes


State and tribal officials are gearing up for a major economic study that will encompass all seven of Montana’s Indian reservations.

The probe is part of House Bill 670, a broad economic development measure approved by the 1999 Legislature. State lawmakers allocated $200,000 for the study—designed to document what tribes contribute to Montana’s economy—and to hire two specialists to track financing and projects.

Also created in the bill was a new state-tribal commission designed to help funnel new money and jobs onto reservations, most of which are plagued with high unemployment rates and resounding poverty. The nine-member panel, consisting of representatives from each reservation, Commerce Department Director Peter Blouke, and state Indian Affairs Coordinator Louie Clayborn, has met twice so far.

According to state officials and Rep. Bill Eggers, a Crow Agency Democrat who sponsored the HB 670, the economic study will be modeled after a similar project recently completed in Washington state.

The Washington study, conducted by an independent contractor, shows that the state’s 27 federally recognized tribes together contribute about $1 billion annually to the state’s economy. It also revealed that tribal enterprises in 1997 spent more than $865 million for supplies, equipment and services, and that the tribal governments and tribally owned businesses employ more than 14,000 citizens across the state.

The survey, the first of its kind in Washington, took an in-depth look at population, timber production, fisheries, gaming, and the service sector, among other economic indicators. Among with many other findings, the research revealed that tribal governments in 1997 paid more than $56 million in employment and payroll-related taxes, which officials say helped knock down the myth that Indians don’t contribute to the non-Indian tax system.

But Eggers, among others, says he’s worried that Montana’s study may not be completed in time for the 2001 legislative session, which starts in January. Because a sunset provision was tacked onto the bill, money not spent for the project could be sent back to the state’s General Fund. Perhaps more importantly, if the study isn’t ready for lawmaker review during the next budget process, tribal leaders may not have as much clout as they’d desire while seeking state assistance for new projects.

Clayborn and his administrative officer, Lori Ryan, said last week that the state-tribal commission is plowing ahead with its work and a formal request for study proposals will be released in coming weeks. The panel is also close to advertising for the two new positions.

“Everybody’s pretty active,” Ryan said. “We’ve pulled together a well-qualified group.”


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