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House panel acts to restore Bush budget cuts

A House subcommittee restored some of President Bush's budget cuts to Indian programs on Wednesday with the approval of the Interior Department's fiscal year 2006 budget bill.

Although detailed figures are not available, the initial numbers from the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee were encouraging. The panel boosted the Bureau of Indian Affairs budget to a total of $2.0 billion, or $67 million over current levels, whereas the Bush administration sought an overall cut of nearly $110 million.

And instead of accepting the White House's cuts to Indian education, the subcommittee added $19 million to BIA education for a total of $654 million. The panel also restored some, but not all, of Bush's cut to construction and repair of BIA schools and facilities.

Combined with a $118 million increase at the Indian Health Service for a total of $3.1 billion, the numbers represented a $5.7 billion investment in Indian programs, according to the initial numbers. The figure represents a $145 million increase above current levels, the subcommittee said.

Overall, the panel restored $107 million in program reductions sought by the Bush administration.

The bill's approval comes three weeks after lawmakers heard directly from tribal leaders about the 2006 budget. Harold Frazier, the chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, said the budget cuts represented the federal government's failure to carry out its promises to Indian people.

"In our treaties, there were agreements made where the U.S. government agreed to provide us with education, health, agricultural resources, welfare, and help us to build our economy," Frazier told the subcommittee on April 14. "Yet today, these entitlements are being separated and manipulated into discretionary services which can be exterminated at the stroke of a pen."

Rep. Charles Taylor (R-North Carolina), the chairman of the panel, and Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Washington), the vice chairman, have voiced concerns as well. At a hearing in March, they objected to the cuts at the BIA while "funding for the trust related programs continues to increase," said Taylor.

"This budget," Dicks said on March 17, "moves us in the wrong direction."

On the Senate said, several key lawmakers plan to beef up the Indian Country budget too. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee, some of whose members sit on the Senate Appropriations Committee, rejected the Bush administration's proposal in an official letter in February.

"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.

Funding levels for trust reform were not released yesterday. But in past years, the House and the Senate have cut the Office of Special Trustee's budget, specifically money for historical accounting projects for individual Indians and tribes. Lawmakers are concerned that the effort will not be successful or will not be accepted in court.

Taylor and Dicks also have been responsible for provisions targeting the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit over individual Indian trust funds. It was not clear whether any new riders have been added to the bill, which has not yet been filed.

Overall, the bill funds the Interior Department and related agencies with $26.2 billion, down from $27.0 billion last year but more than the $25.7 billion requested by the Bush administration.

The bill will now go to the House Appropriations Committee for approval. It is likely to be considered by the full House this summer, with Senate action occurring around the same time.

The goal is to approve all appropriations legislation by October 1, the official start of the fiscal year. But in years past, the House and Senate have passed massive "omnibus" bills because they couldn't get every individual bill approved.

FY 2006 Funding Levels:
Subcommittee Reports FY06 Interior Appropriations Bill (May 4, 2005)

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]