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Indian Affairs Committee objects to Bush funding cuts

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee is calling on Congress to reject President Bush's proposed funding cuts to Indian programs.

In a February 18 letter, the committee provided its views on the president's fiscal year 2006 budget, which contained more than $200 million in cuts to education, housing, law enforcement and other critical tribal programs. The senators instead recommended increases across the board while expressing concern about the expansion of the Office of Special Trustee.

"Although we agree with the president's goals of funding programs with proven performance and accountability and reducing the federal deficit, we disagree with many of the proposed funding cuts and the priorities set out in the budget," wrote Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), chairman of the committee, and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the vice chairman.

The senators cited the recent Harvard University study that tied improvements in reservation conditions to self-governance. Many of the recommendations to restore and increase funding came to self-governance programs like tribal priority allocations and contract support costs, both of which are being cut by the White House.

The letter welcomed the proposed $12.1 million increase in law enforcement and detention facilities at the Bureau of Indian Affairs but noted that a similar boost was not provided for tribal courts. "The request for additional funding is justified due to the increasing burden placed on tribal courts," the senators wrote.

On education, the committee backed the proposed slow-down in BIA school construction "with the proviso that school construction funding must be resumed at previous levels" once concerns about the amount of time it takes to build new facilities are addressed. The Bush administration has provided more than $1 billion to build 34 new schools but only nine have been completed since 2001.

The senators rejected cuts in BIA school operation, the Johnson O'Malley program, administrative cost grants and tribal colleges, including the United Tribes Technical College in North Dakota and Crownpoint Institute of Technology in New Mexico. These two schools "have demonstrated high levels of success in educating Indians," the letter stated.

On trust reform, the committee called on Congress to fully fund the Indian Land Consolidation Act at $95 million rather than the $34.5 proposed by the administration, arguing that the increase "will serve the long term interests of both Indian country and save government future costs." At the same time, the committee said "it cannot avoid the conclusion that some of the substantial increase in funding for OST, particularly the $77.8 million for historical accounting, is at the expense of programs vital to improving the lives of Indian people."

Moving to health care, the senators said the proposed Indian Health Service budget of $3.0 billion is "inadequate" to meet the needs of American Indians and Alaska Natives and reduce health disparities. They called on increases for contract health costs, contract support costs and urban Indian health.

On housing, the committee objected to the administration's proposal to combine the Indian Community Development Block Grant Program (ICDBG) with the Native American Housing Block Grant (NAHGB) Program and reduce their funding by a total of $109 million. The letter urges that the ICDGB continue to be funded at $69 million while NAHGB be restored to current levels and adjusted for inflation.

The committee also objected to a proposal to eliminate the Indian Assistance Program at the Department of Justice and consolidate it with the Community Oriented Policing System (COPS). The move threatens Indian funding because COPS grants only last three years.

Overall, the $51.6 million request for tribal justice programs "is still insufficient to fund over 171 tribal law enforcement agencies, tribal courts and their affiliated programs," the senators wrote. "Indian tribes have broad civil jurisdiction, and criminal jurisdiction for offenses committed by Indians on Indian land, and they need to rely on tribal judicial systems to maintain law and order."

The administration wants to force tribal governments to compete with state and local governments for but the committee said the proposal will have a negative impact. "Tribes rarely, if ever receive direct or pass through state funding for police or judicial activities on Indian lands," the letter said.

Finally, the committee questioned cuts to environmental programs affected tribes and Alaska Native villages, citing a "high level" of need. The senators also sought restoration in funding to rural development programs at the Department of Agriculture.

Last Tuesday at the National Congress of American Indians, McCain said he expected a "fight" for a better budget. "We will engage in spirited, and sometimes, I think, bitter discussion about our obligations we entered into by solemn treaty," he told tribal leaders.

In approving the fiscal year 2005 budget, Congress stepped in and restored a number of cuts proposed by the White House. A number of members of the Indian Affairs Committee -- including Sens. Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota) and Kent Conrad (D-North Dakota) -- sit on the Budget and Appropriations committees.

Senate Indian Affairs Committee Letter:
FY 2006 Views and Estimates (February 28, 2005)

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]