Senate panel backs victim services and transportation bills

Members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee attend a business meeting on July 22, 2015. Photo by Andrew Bahl for Indianz.Com

Democrats concerned about tribal consultation and funding
By Andrew Bahl
Indianz.Com Staff Writer

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee approved two bills at a business meeting on Wednesday as Democrats questioned the lack of tribal consultation and funding commitments.

Lawmakers advanced S.1704, the Securing Urgent Resources Vital to Indian Victim Empowerment Act, and S.1776, the Tribal Infrastructure and Roads Enhancement and Safety Act, by voice votes. No one expressed any opposition to either measure.

But Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), the vice chairman of the committee, noted that S.1776, also known as the TIRES Act, was introduced barely a week ago. The bill only has two sponsors, both Republicans, including Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the panel.

While the committee held an oversight hearing on transportation in April in which tribes sought support for repairing crumbling roads and bridges, Tester said there has been little to no consultation in Indian Country on the bill.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Senate Indian Affairs Committee Business Meeting to consider S. 1704 and S. 1776

"With the TIRES Act in particular, the bill is moving after one week," Tester noted. "We did not have a legislative hearing. I'm not sure all the tribes have had a chance to review it."

"I can tell you that if I was sitting your chair and you were sitting in mine, you would say the same thing to me, Mr. Chairman," Tester told Barrasso.

"I think it is really really important that we have input" from Indian Country, the vice chairman added.

The bill increases funding for tribal road programs and makes the process for starting those projects much easier. Barrasso called the issue one of health and safety for the first Americans.

“Improving safety on tribal roads is absolutely necessary,” Barrasso said. “Far too many lives have been lost or permanently changed because of inadequate and unsafe roads across Indian Country.”

A section of U.S. 89 on the Arizona portion of the Navajo Nation collapsed in February 2013. The state Department of Transportation has since repaired the highway. Photo from Facebook

The version of the bill that was approved at the business meeting includes an amendment to cover roads and bridges in and around Alaska Native villages .The language was proposed by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Barrasso said.

The other bill -- S.1704, also known as the SURVIVE Act -- was introduced by Barrasso on July 7. It has nine co-sponsors, including Tester and other Democrats on the committee.

Despite the bipartisan support, Tester, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota) and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) offered and withdrew amendments that would have established a more permanent funding source for victim services programs in Indian Country. The bill, as written, requires the Interior Department to create a competitive grant program with money from the already-established Crime Victims Fund.

"Tribes have long stated that competitive grants don't work," Tester said. "They get a program going and then the program ends because of money."

“These crime victim services are just one aspect of public safety which we owe tribes under our trust and treaty obligations," Tester said. "So making tribes jump through hoops for funding ... doesn't make sense.".

Despite the concerns, committee members endorsed the measure. A hearing last month drew testimony about the high rates of victimization in Indian Country, particularly among youth.

“The SURVIVE Act is important for tribes and it will provide resources to victims,” Franken said. “The bill not only provides assistance for victims of crime but protects youth victims’ privacy. We are reporting a much improved bill out of committee and I look forward to advancing the bill.”

“The SURVIVE Act will empower tribes with the flexibility to develop programs that meet the needs of their communities. It is vital that victims of crimes across Indian Country have access to the help they need," added Barrasso.

Both bills can now be considered by the Senate. Companion versions have not been introduced in the House.

Committee Notice:
Business Meeting to consider S. 1704 and S. 1776 (July 22, 2015)

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