Appropriations report sounds alarm about land-into-trust agenda

Cowlitz Tribe Chairman Bill Iyall, seated on right, signs land-into-trust documents with Bureau of Indian Affairs Regional Director Stan Speaks on March 9, 2015. Photo from Cowlitz Tribe

The House Appropriations Committee will consider an appropriations bill tomorrow that provides $2.5 billion for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The amount is not as large as the $2.7 billion that President Barack Obama requested in his fiscal year 2016 budget for the operation of Indian programs at the agency. But it's $76.4 million higher than the 2015 level.

"This bill represents difficult decisions to allocate resources to important federal programs, while operating under a tight budget caused by the administration’s unwillingness to address our national debt,” Rep. Ken Calvert (R-California), the chairman of the Interior appropriations subcommittee, said in a press release.

It's not the funding level, however, that will draw attention to the markup tomorrow. Instead, lawmakers are openly questioning the BIA's goal of placing 500,000 acres in trust by the end of the Obama administration.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn, the head of the BIA, have repeatedly cited the lofty figure in speeches to tribal leaders and testimony before Congress. So far, about 300,000 acres has been placed in trust since January 2009.

But rather than supporting that agenda, the report that accompanies the appropriations bill suggests the BIA is rushing the land-into-trust process. "Such a goal incentivizes haste," the report states.

As evidence of haste, lawmakers are pointing to the BIA's decision to approve a land-into-trust application submitted by the Cowlitz Tribe of Washington. The report correctly notes that 152 acres were placed in trust despite ongoing litigation.

However, the report omits some key details, namely the fact that the tribe submitted the application shortly after gaining federal recognition 15 years ago. And the BIA took extra time to make the decision after losing a round in court -- a delay that added about four years to the process.

Even though the case hasn't been finalized, the lawmakers are asking the Interior Department to explain what it will do if it loses.

"The [Appropriations] Committee directs the Department to: (1) report to the Committee within 30 days of enactment of this act on (a) the process it has established for taking the land out of trust should the court order the Department to do so; and (b) the cost to the Department of taking the land out of trust, and (2) focus not on an acre goal but on reducing the current backlog of fee-to-trust applications," the report states.

"It is entirely appropriate for the government’s goal to be to process those applications as efficiently and fairly as possible," it adds.

The report does not mention that the tribe plans to use part of the 152-acre site for a casino. One of the plaintiffs in the litigation is the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde in Oregon, whose leaders fear competition from the Cowlitz casino.

Even then, gaming represents a very small portion of the BIA's activities. Of the approximately 1,900 applications approved since 2009, only about 20 have been for casinos, Washburn said last month at a heated hearing on the land-into-trust process.

The appropriations bill will be taken up tomorrow at the opposition of Rep. Betty McCollum, the ranking Democrat on the Interior subcommittee. Although she did not mention the land-into-trust language, she said her colleagues have failed to include enough money for Indian programs.

"Some of our most moving testimony was from our friends in the Native American community, who documented the unmet needs that still exist and made a compelling case for this subcommittee to build upon its past work to further the social and economic well-being of Native Americans, especially in the area of Indian education," McCollum said last week at a subcommittee markup.

"Yet, instead of responsibly addressing those needs on behalf of the American people, this bill once again forces agencies to do more with less –an unrealistic and increasingly impossible task," she added.

Despite the disagreements, action on the Interior appropriation bill at this time of the year marks a significant milestone. Lawmakers have not approved a budget bill for the BIA and other Indian program on time since 2009, when the process became mired in partisan bickering that eventually led to sequestration, or mandatory across-the-board cuts, in 2013.

Relevant Documents:
FY 2016 Interior and Environment Bill - Full Committee Draft | FY 2016 Interior and Environment Bill - Draft Committee Report

Committee Notice:
Full Committee Markup - FY 2016 Interior and Environment Appropriations Bill (June 16, 2015)

FY2016 Budget Documents:
Indian Affairs | Strengthening Tribal Nations and Insular Communities | Fact Sheet | Budget In Brief

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