Montana Senate
Credit: Eliza Anderson Wiley / MTFP

A bill that would open the American Indian tuition waiver to Montana tribal descendants failed today on the Senate floor after a split 25-25 vote. 

ICT indian country today
This story also appeared in ICT

House Bill 288, sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, was initially brought to revise the current American Indian tuition waiver to include any descendants of the 500-plus federally recognized tribes in the United States. The bill was tabled in the House Education Committee earlier in the session.

The bill came back to life after it was amended to exclude non-Montana tribal descendants from the waiver. Since then, the bill has elicited some opposition from non Montana tribal citizens in committee hearings. 

Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, carrying the bill in the Senate, opened the Senate floor discussion with statistics from the National Conference of State Legislatures and Montana’s Office of Public Instruction showing that Indigenous students are less likely to finish high school. He mentioned that substandard health care and poor economic conditions contribute to the challenges Native students face in attaining higher education. 

Jonathan Windy Boy
Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, listens to a House floor session on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

“For every 100 Indian students, only seven of them go on to earn a bachelor’s degree, compared to 34 out of every 100 white students,” Morgeau said on the Senate floor. “When we ask ourselves why this [bill] is necessary, we’re trying to find ways to close that achievement gap in Montana, and this bill is one way to do that.”

Sen. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, spoke in favor of the bill — not in response to Morigeau’s points, but rather to approve the bill’s description of tribal membership. 

“I am impressed by the argument that the federal courts have ruled that tribal membership is a political unit, not a racial one, and consequently I believe this is a bill that needs to be supported,” Fuller said. 

After the bill received a tied vote, 25-25, a motion to indefinitely postpone it passed on a 25-24 vote, tabling the bill. 

The American Indian tuition waiver was enacted to promote and encourage access to higher education for American Indians within the state. In the 2019-2020 school year, 832 Native students accessed the tuition waiver. 

This story is co-published by Montana Free Press and ICT, a news partnership that covers the Montana American Indian Caucus during the state’s 2023 legislative session. Funding is provided in part by the Headwaters Foundation.

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JoVonne Wagner is a member of the Blackfeet Nation located in Northwestern Montana. She was born and raised on the reservation, where she says she experienced and lived through all the amazing things about her home, but also witnessed all the negative aspects of rez life. Wagner is an alumni of NPR'S Next Generation Radio. JoVonne interned for Buffalo's Fire and she recently graduated from the University of Montana School of Journalism.