Troubled Indian programs prompt GAO criticism
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Fulfilling the federal government's responsibilities to American Indians continues to be a major challenge for the Department of Interior, Congressional investigators said on Thursday.

In its biennial performance evaluation of the federal agencies, the General Accounting Office (GAO) cited six problem areas at the Interior, up from four in the 2001 review. Within these areas, the broken Indian trust fund made a repeat appearance while the controversial federal recognition process and dilapidated Bureau of Indian Affairs schools debuted.

"In the last 2 years, the department has taken specific actions to address management problems, but significant challenges remain," the report stated.

According to the GAO, the department has made little progress resolving long-standing management problems since Secretary Gale Norton took over two years ago this month. Referring to the "shortcomings" of a $40 million trust fund accounting system, the report notes that the Bush administration has only recently begun its reengineering effort.

"Until these matters are fully addressed, the department will continue to face significant challenges to ensuring that the new trust system will operate efficiently and effectively," the GAO wrote.

Other management problems "impede" tribal self-determination, the report states. Repeating an earlier critique, the GAO said the $10 million shortfall in tribal priority allocation (TPA) funds, used by tribes for everyday operations, has "caused a reduction in the services available to tribal members or caused tribes to use their own limited resources, thereby prohibiting the further development of tribal businesses or supplemental services."

Federal recognition, an increasingly hot button item, made its first appearance in the report. Citing the "tremendous effect" of newly recognized tribes, the GAO recommended the agency clarify the messy process.

Also debuting was a nearly $1 billion maintenance backlog at BIA schools, which serve 50,000 Indian children. Although Congress has increased funds to fix and build new facilities, the GAO said it hasn't been enough.

"[T]he budget allocations for the repair and maintenance of these facilities have generally been less than amounts recommended by national guidelines," the report stated.

With President Bush to unveil his budget on Monday, the areas mentioned in the report will be among those highlighted by the department. An historic increase is expected in trust reform in order to carry out Norton's agenda, including historical accounting of funds owed to Indian and tribal beneficiaries. The GAO, however, said the department is "likely to encounter obstacles, which could hinder its ability to successfully complete this endeavor."

Every budget year, a new set of BIA schools receives construction and repair funds. Typically, five or six are selected from a priority list that continues to grow.

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