Sen. Barrasso introduces another version of land-into-trust fix

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, presides over a business meeting and hearing on July 22, 2015. Photo from SCIA / Flickr

Update: Starting this afternoon, the committee will begin webcasting its business meetings. Today's meeting starts at 2:15pm Eastern.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee is finally taking action on a key priority for tribes but lawmakers remain in disagreement about the best way to address the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar.

Tribes have long advocated for "clean" fix to ensure that the land-into-trust process at the Bureau of Indian Affairs continues without a hitch. S.732, which will be considered by the committee at a business meeting this afternoon, does just that with a simple change to the Indian Reorganization Act.

"The Supreme Court’s misguided decision in Carcieri v. Salazar has thrown Indian Country into chaos, effectively creating two classes of tribes: those who can take land into trust and those who cannot," Brenda Lintinger, the secretary of the United South and Eastern Tribes and a council member for the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, told the committee at a hearing earlier this month.

In addition to S.732, a recently-introduced bill in the House -- H.R.3137 -- addresses the decision in a relatively straightforward fashion. The Obama administration also supports a "clean" fix.

A view of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in Kansas. The tribe waited 19 years for a decision on one of its land-into-trust applications. Photo from Facebook

A new proposal, though, is entering the mix. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the committee, introduced S.1879, the Interior Improvement Act, on Tuesday to resolve the doubts raised by Carcieri.

At the same time, Barrasso is responding to concerns raised by states and local governments about the way the BIA handles the land-into-trust process. His bill requires more public notice and more transparency, including a provision that requires applications and decisions to be posted online, something that doesn't happen currently.

“Outdated federal Indian land policies must be modernized to streamline bureaucracy, including processes governing trust land acquisitions,” Barrasso said in a press release. “This bill encourages local cooperation and better transparency from Washington. It’s about time we give tribes the freedom to use their land for the betterment of their people.”

The bill encourages tribes to enter into cooperative agreements with and local governments regarding. While many already do that, S.1879 includes incentives -- these land-into-trust applications will be given "weight and preference" at the BIA.

Additionally, tribes with cooperative agreements could potentially see faster decisions on their applications. The bill imposes concrete timelines on the BIA to move forward with the review process, something that isn't in place right now.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Senate Indian Affairs Committee Oversight Hearing on "A Path Forward: Trust Modernization and Reform for Indian Lands"

Tribes are not likely to complain about deadlines. According to a 2006 report from the Government Accountability Office, the median wait for a decision was 1.2 years but some waited 13, 14 and even 19 years for an answer.

At the July 8 hearing, Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn pointed out that tribes fought for timelines during a lengthy rule-making process during the Clinton administration. All that work came for nothing because the Bush administration delayed the changes in early 2001 and outright revoked them later that year.

Tribes also have questioned changes in law, policy or regulation that appear to give local and state governments more say in the land-into-trust process. Washburn noted that the BIA already takes comments from interested parties.

"We want to have their views," Washburn said of local and state governments.

Washburn also said local or state opposition can kill a tribe's chances of restoring or expanding its land base.

"Those are the applications that tend to languish for year and maybe are never approved," Washburn told the committee.

Today's business meeting takes place at 2:15pm in Room 628 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building and will immediately be followed by an oversight hearing into drug and alcohol abuse. Both the meeting and the hearing will be webcast.

Committee Notices:
Business Meeting to Consider S. 383 and S. 732 (July 29, 2015)
Oversight Hearing on "Examining the True Costs of Alcohol and Drug Abuse in Native Communities." (July 29, 2015)

DOI Solicitor Opinion:
M-37029: The Meaning of "Under Federal Jurisdiction" for Purposes of the Indian Reorganization Act (March 12, 2014)

Government Accountability Office Report:
BIA's Efforts to Impose Time Frames and Collect Better Data Should Improve the Processing of Land in Trust Applications | Highlights

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