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Bush administration seeks another cut in BIA budget


In the last budget of his administration, President Bush on Monday announced a cut of nearly $100 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The fiscal year 2009 budget seeks $2.2 billion for the agency that serves more than 550 tribes and more than 1.6 million American Indians and Alaska Natives. The request represents a 4.4 percent decrease from current levels and a 5.1 percent decrease from last year's budget.

At a press conference in Washington, D.C., Secretary Kempthorne acknowledged the financial constraints facing the Interior Department. But he said the fiscal year 2009 budget includes increases to beef up law enforcement on reservations and improve education levels at BIA schools.

"I learned about the devastating impact brought on [Indian] communities by drug cartels and I learned about Indian schools still lagging in education performance," Kempthorne said as he described why he is seeking $26.6 million to help tribes combat methamphetamine and $25.5 million to improve student achievement.

"Safety and educational opportunities lie at the foundation of every community's future," he added.

The only other area that saw a notable increase was economic development. The budget seeks $8.2 million, an increase of $2 million, for the BIA's guaranteed loan program, which helps tribes and Indian businesses.

That meant that reductions were seen in almost every part of the agency. There was a $27.6 million cut to school construction, $22 million cut to welfare assistance, a $12.5 million cut to roads maintenance, a $10.6 million cut for self-governance compacts, a $5.9 million cut to scholarships and adult education and a $2.3 million cut to tribal courts.

There were also three outright eliminations. The budget seeks to remove $21.4 million in Johnson O'Malley education grants, $13.6 million for the Housing Improvement Program and $9.8 million for Indian land consolidation.

The first two cuts were expected, as the White House tried to eliminate them last year only to see them restored by Congress. But the removal of the Indian land consolidation program -- which had been a top priority of the administration -- came as somewhat of a surprise.

In the case of JOM and HIP, Kempthorne said similar programs exist at the Department of Education and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "So rather than duplicate these programs, we have simply identified that we have other agencies -- with greater resources than we do -- that can still meet the needs of Indian Country," he said.

As for Indian land consolidation, Kempthorne said the program hasn't been effective because Congress hasn't appropriated enough money for it. Under the program, the department has been acquiring small ownership interests in individual Indian allotments in order to reduce administrative costs and make the land more usable for economic development.

"While we see the merits of that, the amount of money that was budgeted is not going to allow us to move forward," Kempthorne said.

In an interview following the budget presentation, Special Trustee Ross Swimmer said the department consolidated more 360,000 fractionated interests since a pilot program began more than five years ago. But about 1.5 million new interests were created during the same time, wiping out any potential progress.

"Congress punted," Swimmer said, noting that a similar attempt back in the 1930s to address fractionation was not funded by lawmakers.

Swimmer and his principal deputy, Donna Erwin, said OST is talking with tribal leaders about new approaches to fractionation. While the 2009 budget won't have money for the program, they said consolidation is on the table in the future.

OST's budget request of $181.6 million was $7.7 million below current levels. There were increases to address the probate backlog, to improve beneficiary services and to continue account for individual and tribal trust funds.

"This amount may be revised depending on the outcome of any further court rulings in Cobell v. Kempthorne or congressional action," budget documents state.

Just last week, a federal judge ruled that an adequate historical accounting of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust was "impossible" due to Congressional restraints and other limitations. "I don't know where this ultimately goes but it is time for it to be resolved," Kempthorne said the day after the decision.

Overall, the administration requested $10.7 billion for the Interior Department.

FY2009 Budget:
In Brief | BIA | OST | DOI [from OMB] | PART Ratings

Relevant Links:
Department of the Interior - http://www.doi.gov

Related Stories:
Secretary Kempthorne to roll out DOI budget (2/4)
Kempthorne previews BIA's upcoming budget (2/1)
Bush administration press conference on Thursday (1/30)