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Senators question Bush administration's budget cuts

Members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee said on Wednesday they will lead the charge against the Bush administration's proposed cuts to tribal housing, education, health care and other programs.

In his first hearing as chairman of the committee, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) acknowledged the need for a fiscally responsible budget. But he criticized "ill-advised" reductions to programs that are aimed at making tribes more self-sufficient.

"The federal government has continually reneged on its trust and moral obligations to meet the educational, health care, and housing needs of Indians, and these needs far outweigh the imperceptible contribution that the proposed cuts will make to reducing the deficit," McCain said.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the vice-chairman, agreed that the administration's priorities are out of touch with the conditions of Indian Country. "We have circumstances on the reservation that are desperate," he said.

Sen. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota) called the president's fiscal year 2006 request "an abomination." "This budget especially hurts those with the greatest need," he said.

"I look at this budget and it's not building hope," added Sen. Kent Conrad (D-North Dakota. "It's destroying hope."

The senators were particularly concerned about the administration's approach to trust reform. They noted that funds for programs at the Bureau of Indian Affairs were being cut while the Office of Special Trustee is expanding.

"It is lamentable that the funding for an [historical] accounting appears to have come directly from programs that affect the daily lives of Indians," observed McCain.

Five administration officials who appeared before the committee defended the amounts the White House submitted to Congress last week. Interior deputy associate secretary Jim Cason confirmed that resources are being diverted to address the Cobell v. Norton trust fund lawsuit and other trust reform initiatives. In 2006, the Interior Department is asking for a total of $591.4 million for trust programs, an increase of $85.7 million.

Dr. Charles Grim, director of the Indian Health Service, said he was "proud" that the budget reflected the priorities of tribal leaders and urban Indians who participated in the agency's ongoing consultation process. The IHS escaped the administration's ax to emerge with a $3.0 billion budget for 2006.

But two leading senators questioned Grim's refusal to find money for an urban health clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that is being threatened with closure. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico), who sits on the committee but did not attend the hearing, met with Grim privately and said he wants the IHS to find a way to serve the 25,000 Indians who live in the state's biggest city.

�The closure of the Albuquerque Indian Health Center will be an unintended consequence of the formula used by the Indian Health Service to distribute funds," Domenici said yesterday. "The funds are distributed to tribes based on membership, which means that most of the available health care dollars go to reservations. However, two-thirds of the American Indian population actually live in urban areas like Albuquerque."

And in a separate hearing, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico) made a similar plea to new Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt. "The federal government spends $1,914 per capita administering health care to Native Americans," Bingaman said at the Senate Finance Committee. "That's half of what is spent on federal prisoners each year."

"I believe that is a disgrace," he said.

Back at the Indian Affairs hearing, Victoria Vasques, an assistant deputy secretary at the Department of Education who directs the Office of Indian Education, said her $119.9 million budget is "sufficient" to meet the needs of Native students. She said they would also benefit from a $1.5 billion proposal to extend the No Child Behind Act to public high schools. About 500,000 American Indian and Alaska Natives attend public schools throughout the nation.

Michael Liu, the assistant secretary for public and Indian housing, told the committee that tribes have made significant progress in addressing housing shortages. Last year alone, tribes built 2,115 new housing units with the help of federal dollars, he testified.

Liu acknowledged that nearly every single Indian program at the Department of Housing and Urban Development is being reduced but said the amounts would provide for more than $100 million in loan guarantees through the private sector.

McCain questioned a proposal to strip HUD of the Community Development Block Grant program and move it to the Department of Commerce. Tribes and Indian organizations receive 1 percent of the total program amount, which came to $69 million in grants for the current year.

Liu responded that the Indian component will remain at his department but said, "I don't think the [set-aside] percentage will still hold." The Bush budget proposes $58 million for the Indian Community Development Block Grant program.

Members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee are poised to address many of the budget's shortfalls. Domenici, Dorgan and Johnson sit on the Senate Appropriations Committee along with Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the former Indian affairs vice-chair. Domenici, Conrad and Johnson also sit on the Senate Budget Committee.

McCain said the committee has until Friday to submit its budget views and estimates letter to the Budget Committee. "These budget cuts are unfair and unsustainable," he said.

Senate Testimony:
Oversight Hearing on the President�s Fiscal Year 2006 Budget Request for Indian Programs (February 16, 2005)

Budget Documents:
Interior | Bureau of Indian Affairs| Office of Special Trustee | Housing and Urban Development | Health and Human Services | Office of Management and Budget | Program Assessment Rating Tool

Relevant Links:
Senate Indian Affairs Committee -
White House Office of Management and Budget -