March 31, 1998 in Idaho

Batt Urges Tribal Leaders To Focus On Job Creation Legislature May Be Source Of Economic Incentives, Governor Advises

Associated Press
 

Acknowledging the peculiar problems Idaho’s Indian tribes face in providing employment opportunities for their members, Gov. Phil Batt advised tribal leaders on Monday to work with legislative allies on economic incentives for reservation development.

“You may find that the Legislature might be receptive to some well-thought-out plans for tax breaks,” the retiring chief executive said. “They’re frustrated also.”

The need for job creation, especially in the midst of welfare reform that essentially demands all able-bodied people work, dominated much of the governor’s monthly summit meeting with Indian leaders.

While the reservation casinos that have been a sore spot for Batt during his administration have bolstered severely depressed tribal economies, the welfare-to-work mandate only aggravates the employment problems that face not only the tribes but all of rural Idaho.

A lack of skills for many tribal members combined with inadequate transportation to job centers off the isolated reservation and insufficient child care work to keep tribal employment exorbitantly high, Indian leaders said, and the problem is only aggravated by racism and low self-esteem.

“It’s unrealistic for our people to travel off the reservation for a minimum-wage job,” Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council member Marjorie Zarate said. “It would cost them more to get there than they’d make.”

Administration officials laid out the campaign they have been waging for years to attract new, good-paying jobs to Idaho. But while they have been successful with annual employment growing at one of the fastest rates in the nation, they admitted that none of those new jobs are landing on the reservations.

“To make the transition from welfare to work, we have to have people trained for jobs and we have to have the jobs,” Batt conceded. “It’s a lot easier said than done.”

Nez Perce Tribal Chairman Sam Penney called for some kind of enterprise zone that provides economic incentives to lure new businesses onto the reservations.

Lawmakers, encouraged by many non-Indian businessmen, have repeatedly rejected proposals making it easier for tribes to open businesses. But Batt suggested that incentives for nontribal members could be acceptable.

Even with the hundreds of jobs the reservation casinos have created for the tribes, state Labor Department figures show double-digit unemployment remains a fact of life, and tribal leaders believe the state’s numbers underestimate the problem.

On the Fort Hall Reservation, where the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes have about 4,000 enrolled members, the state estimated unemployment at nearly 27 percent for the year through January. Tribal officials believe the jobless rate is over 50 percent.

But the state estimated the total work force at under 1,400, just a third of the membership.

Statewide, where unemployment has been hovering at just over 5 percent, the state estimates the work force at about half the population.

Labor Director Roger Madsen acknowledged the disparity and had no explanation. Tribal leaders suggested cultural differences, particularly Indian commitment to the extended family and the reliance of those less capable on more self-reliant family members, could provide an explanation.

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