- Associated Press - Thursday, April 6, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana’s unemployment rate may be among the lowest in the nation, but joblessness remains a pervasive problem across the state’s tribal communities - more than twice or three times the state’s roughly 4 percent unemployment rate.

Dissatisfied with the job the federal government is doing to help reservations build their economies, Montana officials acknowledge that they need to do more to foster entrepreneurship and boost economic opportunities to lift Native people from persistent joblessness and poverty.

“We know that poverty creates a lot of social problems. And we’ve seen it impact our reservations in an extreme manner. Poverty results in increased drug use, a break down in the family, kids dropping out of school. Whatever we can do to improve the economic activity on our reservations across the state - we need to go down that road,” said Republican Rep. Greg Hertz, who hails from the town of Polson on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

Hertz went before the Senate Taxation Committee on Thursday to get its support to give additional tax credits to businesses that could help employ more Native Americans.

“When it comes to reservations, we have to provide businesses with extra incentives to locate on or adjacent to reservation to provide some job opportunities for tribal members,” said Hertz, whose bill is titled “the Montana Indian Reservation Economic Development Act.”

The proposal, among other things, would give businesses on reservations and communities within a 10 mile band of tribal lands as much as an additional $2,000 in tax credits for every worker making at least $15 an hour.

A bill by Sen. Lea Whitford, a Democrat from Browning and the Blackfeet Reservation, sought to place a tribal representative on the state’s tourism advisory board to help draw visitors, jobs and economic development to reservations. The proposal, however, is stuck in a legislative committee.

Frustrated by some of the inaction to help their communities, the Legislature’s nine Native American members are pushing for a deeper look into the economic challenges.

Earlier this week, Republican Sen. Jason Small of Busby and a member of the Northern Cheyenne, urged lawmakers to dedicate a legislative committee over the next year to study and better understand the factors behind the high unemployment rates among the state’s Native residents.

While Native Americans in the Legislature say many of the reasons are apparent, a lot of the hard data is missing from discussions that seek to address the employment challenges faced by Montana tribes.

“I’m really wanting a good hard look at things,” Small said. “Everyone knows what’s going on, but we don’t have the statistical proof a lot of the times to move forward.”

Some of the data is already prompting wide concern. In Small’s owns reservation, 13.1 percent of residents were unemployed - although that rate could be even much higher because it does not count people who had given up looking for work.

“We’re in areas that are geographical segregated, and we aren’t terribly close to areas where there is a lot of work,” Small said.

The Rocky Boy’s reservation also had a 13.1 percent unemployment rate. Fort Belknap and the Crow reservations each recorded 11 percent unemployment, and at least 11.9 percent of residents were unemployed in the Blackfeet Reservation.

Few Montanans fathom the realities of life on reservations, said Democratic Rep. Shane Morigeau of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

“They don’t understand the struggles that tribes have,” he said. “They don’t realize that tribes are trying to get into the business sector because it’s better for tribes, but it’s also better for Montana. When tribes do better, Montana does better.”

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