First Senate blast motion passes for Chief Earl Old Person Memorial Highway

By: - January 13, 2023 4:46 pm

Sen. Susan Webber made the first blast motion in the five legislative sessions she’s been a part of to send Senate Bill 120, which would designate a portion of Highway 89 to Chief Earl Old Person, to the floor.

The motion passed 31-18, with only a simple majority needed, on the Senate floor on Friday and will go to second reading Jan. 17.

The bill was tabled Thursday after being heard in the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee. Republican committee members argued that such designations should be reserved for fallen law enforcement and said precedent for that logic started during the 2021 legislative session.

“I was really upset. I was angry,” Webber said about the bill being tabled. “But after I thought about it, you know, Earl himself would have just rolled with it.”

The bill came at the request of the Blackfeet Nation.

“I had to fight for those 17,000 people,” Webber said.

Sen. Theresa Manzella, R- Hamilton, Chair of the Senate Transportation committee, spoke in opposition to the motion and said after the roll call was taken that she would continue to vote against the bill.

“I wonder if these people would appreciate it or if they would prefer to have … that money used for something that they were passionate about?” she said. “Earl Old Person was passionate about education. Maybe he would have preferred to have it used for that?”

On the floor, Manzella reiterated an argument from committee that dedications would only go to law enforcement officers who were killed in the line of duty. Earlier this week, the committee passed SB 111, which would dedicate a memorial highway to Sheriff Jacob Allmendinger, who died in the line of duty in 2019.

Manzella said the legislature had discretion under Montana Code Annotated and there was a special category for police killed in the line of duty. The code she cited discusses the funding for memorial highways but not the naming.

She also cited cost as a reason the committee was against it.

“So they’re $4,700 apiece, and you might think that’s not much money, but where do we draw the line?” she said. “When you consider 10 in one year, now we’re looking at $47,000. That becomes some real money.”

Great Falls Tribune reported there were 11 highway designations in 2017, including ones honoring several Native American veterans and former politicians, like the first Native woman to serve in the legislature and the first woman to serve in the U.S. Congress.

According to the fiscal note, the cost per sign for labor, materials and installation is $2,219, for a total of $4,437 for two signs.

Yellowstone County Democrats on Twitter jabbed Sen. Barry Usher, who represents a part of the county as a Republican and first motioned to table the bill, saying the Conrad Burns Memorial Highway runs through his hometown. Burns was a U.S. senator from Billings.

At the meeting, Usher said he didn’t want to disrespect Old Person, but he was sticking to his belief the dedication should be reserved for fallen officers.

The Department of Transportation map for commemorative designations lists Sen. Burns, Jeanette Rankin and other non-law enforcement figures as being honored.

In arguing the dollars would add up, Manzella recognized the $2 billion surplus the state currently has, but cited the $32 trillion in federal debt as something that also had to be considered.

Webber said what comes with the designation is that Old Person’s name would be on the map in perpetuity.

“He’s been the pride of our nation for so long,” she said.

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.