Big Sky Roundup

Senate passes Chief Earl Old Person Highway designation, moves on to House

By: - January 18, 2023 1:06 pm
The Montana state Capitol in Helena on Jan. 2, 2023.

The Montana state Capitol in Helena on Jan. 2, 2023. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)

Sen. Susan Webber’s bill that would designate a portion of U.S. Highway 89 to the late Chief Earl Old Person passed the Senate on third reading  Tuesday.

After a 38-12 bipartisan vote, the bill will go to the House and be carried by Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, R-Browning.

Webber, a Democrat from Browning, said she felt great it passed the Senate.

“After all it’s been through, my goodness,” she said.

The bill was the first in the Senate to be “blasted” out of committee onto the floor after the Senate Highways and Transportation committee tabled it last week with a 7-5 vote. Sen. Jeremy Trebas, R-Great Falls, was the only Republican to vote in favor in committee.

A “blast” motion is a procedural move that allows senators to vote to advance a bill to the floor even though it didn’t get the votes in committee.

The bill passed second reading in the Senate on Monday after some discussion. Webber spoke at length about Old Person’s legacy as the longest-serving elected tribal official in the U.S., as she did in the committee hearing last week.

Three Republicans spoke on the floor to explain their no votes on second reading, with Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, citing fiscal conservatism as she did during Friday’s vote. The two signs would cost just more than $2,200 each, according to the fiscal note.

Both Sen. Becky Beard, R-Elliston, and Sen. Bob Brown, R-Trout Creek, said they were voting against the bill because a highway sign did not do justice to Old Person.

“Even though I do intend to vote no, as I did in the Highways and Transportation Committee,” Beard said. “I think this is not the end, it is only the beginning of commemorating and memorializing this great Montana individual.”

Beard, who said in an interview she found signs a “cheesy” way to commemorate someone, also said she could see “many of us rolling up our sleeves” to fund a bust or statue of Old Person in the Capitol.

Brown said that signs will “come and go” and be damaged. He said he believed the proper thing to do would be for the Tribe to name a piece of land after Old Person “so it would be there for eternity.”

Sen. Wendy McKamey, R-Great Falls, said she met Old Person when her family hosted the Miss Indian America pageant and said he was a “delightful individual.” She said she would like to designate a highway to Montana’s first female governor, Judy Martz, who also did not die in the line of service. Martz passed away in 2017 after battling pancreatic cancer.

Legislators who opposed the designation to Old Person argued they had decided in earlier sessions a memorial sign should be reserved for fallen law enforcement officers.

“It would be a shame not to be able to honor Governor Judy Martz. I would hope that we will be able to do that,” she said. “And colleagues, I would hope we would be able to honor Chief Earl Old Person. He was an extremely honorable gentleman.”

Vote breakdown for SB 120, which would designate a portion of Highway 89 to the late Chief Earl Old Person. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

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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.

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