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Bush administration budget slashes BIA programs

The Bush administration released its fiscal year 2006 budget on Monday, slashing the Bureau of Indian Affairs by nearly $110 million in order to pay for the increasing costs of trust reform.

At a press briefing, Interior Secretary Gale Norton unveiled a $10.8 billion budget that reduces the BIA's funding to $2.2 billion. With trust reform a top priority of the administration, the money taken from the BIA is being funneled into the Office of Special Trustee.

"The 2006 continues to strengthen Indian trust programs by investing $591 million into programs, an increase of $80 million over the 2005 appropriations," Norton said. "Most of this increase, $78 million, allows us to continue implementing our plan for historical accounting of individual Indian accounts and to continue our work on tribal accounting."

The focus on trust means a wide range of programs are taking a hit in the budget. Education, tribal colleges, new school construction and tribal priority allocations are being reduced while OST's budget is growing by 33 percent to a total of $303.9 million.

The only exception came in law enforcement. In response to the controversy over the poor conditions of Indian Country jails and high rates of violent crime on reservations, the budget seeks an additional $19.2 million to expand law enforcement services, maintain new detention centers, place some juvenile inmates in more safe facilities and develop a national repair and improvement program.

There are a handful of other bright spots in the budget, including $2 million to develop a pilot program for leadership academies at four BIA schools. The initiative was advanced by outgoing assistant secretary Dave Anderson, who resigns on Friday after just a year on the job.

"The leadership academy is really a small part of an overall recognition that Indian education is not where it should be," Anderson said in an interview yesterday. He said he hoped the first pilot academy could be up and running by the fall.

The budget also requests $500,000 to create an Economic Development Commission that will look at ways to eliminate barriers to tribal businesses. The idea was pushed by Anderson, an entrepreneur who tried to bring a more business-friendly vision to the BIA.

But as far as numbers go, the cuts are more numerous and striking. The most obvious is an $89.5 million reduction to the BIA school construction account, leaving money for just two school projects -- replacement of the Porcupine Day School in South Dakota and the first phase of replacement of the Crownpoint Community School in New Mexico -- in fiscal year 2006.

BIA officials said the reduction is needed to allow for the completion of school projects that have already been funded. Although the Bush administration has touted its pledge of nearly $1 billion to school construction, only nine new facilities have actually been built since 2001. The remaining 25 are still in the design or construction phase.

"The schools aren't getting built as quickly so if we back off a little bit, [we can] give them a little more time to get built," said Debbie Clark, the BIA's chief financial officer.

Another cut that stands out comes to tribal priority allocations (TPA), the funds used by tribes to carry out day-to-day operations of their governments. The budget requests $760.1 million, which is $9.4 million less than the 2005 level and $10.5 million below the 2004 level.

Coupled with the reduction is a proposal to overhaul the formula used to distribute TPA funds. Clark said tribes have complained that the current system, in place since the 1970s, is not fair.

"It's not going to be an easy process to get through," Clark admitted. She said discussions would begin at the BIA-tribal budget advisory council meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, next month. The entire consultation process could take as long as a year, she said.

The proposal now goes to Congress, where it is already being greeted with skepticism from members of both parties. In years past, lawmakers have restored President Bush's budget cuts to Indian programs.

"Ironically, the budget document lists funding for Indian schools under the heading 'Supporting a Compassionate Society'," noted Rep. Nick Rahall (D-West Virginia), the ranking Democrat on the House Resources Committee. "But the level of dollars is anything but compassionate, looking to the most vulnerable to pay the price for overspending on its true priorities."

Budget Documents:
DOI Budget in Brief | Trust Responsibilities | Tribal Communities | Bureau of Indian Affairs | Departmental Offices [includes Office of Special Trustee] | DOI [from White House]