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Bush official puts positive spin on budget numbers

Some Indian programs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development will be seeing a cut in fiscal year 2006 but tribes have reason to remain optimistic, a top Bush administration official said on Tuesday.

Speaking at the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) meeting, Michael Liu, the assistant secretary for public and Indian housing, repeatedly acknowledged the "tight" nature of President Bush's latest proposal. "There's no question about it that this is a tough budget year," he said.

But Liu, who joined the Bush administration in September 2001, said tribes should try to look on the bright side. "Indian Country actually fared better than other programs at HUD," he told the leaders of 24 tribes from Maine to Florida.

Under figures released on Monday, HUD's budget is shrinking by 11.5 percent for a total of $28.5 billion. Liu said the cut reflected external pressures -- such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and internal ones like the growing public housing program commonly known as Section 8.

The package presents a mixed bag for Indian housing programs, with some seeing an increase over the amount proposed by Bush in 2005. But when compared to the amounts approved by Congress in the omnibus appropriations act that was passed late last year, they translate into cuts.

As one example, the Section 184 Indian Housing Loan Guarantee Fund will be funded at $2.645 million, which is greater than the $1 million sought in 2005 but lower than the $5 million provided by Congress. Liu said the money will support over $250 million in housing loans for qualified American Indians and Alaska Natives.

In another example, the budget proposes $58 million for the Indian Community Development Block Grant (ICDBG), down from the $69 million approved by Congress. As part of a new administration proposal, this money is going to be rolled into the Native American Housing Block Grant program for a total of $583 million, a loss of $107 million for Indian Country.

At USET yesterday, Liu tried to assuage tribal concerns about this shift. "The ICDBG will remain at HUD," he noted, while the rest of the $4.7 billion program will be moved to the Commerce Department. He didn't know whether Commerce plans to develop its own tribal-specific program.

In other areas, the Title IV program for tribal housing activities will be funded at $4.65 million, an amount higher than both the 2005 request and the amount funded by Congress. Liu said this will support $37.9 million in loan guarantees.

Taken together, Liu said the money is "more than enough" to meet HUD's aggressive projections for the coming year. He praised tribes and banks for expanding the Indian housing market, and said the Bush administration would work to support the need.

"We want to get more involved," he told USET.

Liu also said tribes should be proud that they are taking advantage of the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act. The administration and some members of Congress were concerned about reports of nearly $1 billion in unspent funds but the discrepancy has been cleared up with the help of tribal data.

"We've cleaned up the numbers," Liu said. "We've done a better job at HUD. The progress is where it should be." The figures now show that the money is being distributed and spent by tribes as intended, he added.

Not everyone at USET was swayed by the upbeat message, with some tribal leaders saying the cuts go deeper than presented. "We will forever remain one of the most underfunded people," said Randy Noka, a council member for the Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island.

Housing issues will take center stage next week as the National American Indian Housing Council holds its annual legislative session in Washington, D.C. The meeting takes place February 15-17 at the Wyndham Washington Hotel.

Relevant Documents:
HUD Budget | OMB Overview | OMB Ratings

Relevant Links:
Office of Public and Indian Housing, HUD -
National American Indian Housing Council -