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Bill calls for tribal consultation on BIA budget

The Interior Department's budget process for Indian programs is due for a major overhaul under an appropriations bill making its way through Congress.

Department officials have already changed how they handle the Bureau of Indian Affairs budget. House lawmakers welcomed the "badly needed" improvements but they also inserted language in Interior's 2006 appropriations bill that criticized the Bush administration for its "inadequate consultation" of tribes.

To correct the oversight, the bill directs the BIA to work closely with tribes to develop an alternative budget structure. The goal is to provide "full transparency" for tribal priority allocation (TPA) funds that tribes use for their daily operations and to "clearly" show how funds for the central and regional offices of the BIA are being used.

To make the process more open, the BIA is also being directed to create a comprehensive website that contains all the relevant budget information. The Office of Special Trustee, whose budget has exploded since the start of the Bush administration, would be included in the site as well.

Although the bill has yet to be taken up by the Senate, the House is calling for speedy action on its recommendations. A progress report would be due by October and a final report "for consulting tribes and tribal leaders on administrative, funding, and operational changes to programs and projects" would be due by the end of the year. The new budget structure should be implemented in time for the 2007 budget, the bill said.

The language reflects concern among tribal leaders that their views are being ignored when it comes to the preparation and development of the BIA and OST budget. "The government-to-government relationship between the United States and Indian tribes has become very meaningless," said Ed Thomas, a prominent Alaska Native leader who has served on the BIA's tribal budget committee, at a Congressional hearing last week.

"They bring us in and we talk about the budget and really nothing happens," added Thomas, who is president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Tribes. "No consultation happens in my part of the country at all on these issues."

Tribes have slammed the 2006 budget, which was released in February, as highly inadequate. The Bush administration slashed Indian housing, education and social service funds at the BIA and other agencies while giving yet another boost to the OST.

House appropriators reacted by restoring money to programs like welfare assistance, Johnson O'Malley education grants and fire protection -- all of which had been cut by the White House. "The committee feels that the justification for the reductions -- that there are other programs in the government that could provide these funds -- is completely unfounded," the report accompany the bill stated. "The budget request provided no information to support claims that other funding sources are readily available to offset the reductions in this budget."

Other language in the bill, which passed the House by a vote of 329-89 on May 19, directs the BIA not to use law enforcement money for administrative expenses at the regional or central office level. A report on this spending would be due by the end of the year.

Separately, the bill requested a General Accountability Office (GAO) study on the land-into-trust process. A report would be due by May 2006.

The budget-related language of the report reads:
The Committee agrees with the Bureau that an alternative budget structure for the operation of Indian programs is badly needed. The current budget structure is confusing and complex and offers little opportunity to review funding levels and assess performance on a programmatic level. However, the Committee is concerned that there was inadequate consultation with Tribes when preparing this new budget structure. The Committee is also concerned that the process of making budgetary data available to Tribes is inadequate.

The Committee directs the Bureau to do the following:

1. Consult with Tribal leaders on an alternative budget structure that is: (1) aligned programmatically, (2) provides full transparency for Tribal priority allocations funding, (3) increases accountability for Bureau programs and program managers, and (4) clearly delineates funding levels of the central and regional offices. The Committee expects a progress report by October 31, 2005. The Committee directs the Bureau to submit a revised budget structure as a part of the fiscal year 2007 budget justification.

2. Develop an internet website, hosted by the Office of the Secretary, that: (1) allows Tribes to access Bureau of Indian Affairs and Office of Special Trustee budget information, (2) displays the distribution of funding that affects Indian country, and (3) contains information and links to all Federal grant programs that provide funding for Indian country.

3. Submit a report, by December 31, 2005, outlining the Bureau of Indian Affairs current process for consulting Tribes and Tribal leaders on administrative, funding, and operational changes to programs and projects.

2006 Interior Appropriations Bill:
H.R.2361 | House Report 109-080

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]