Leaders of the Tuloumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians celebrated the opening of a public safety building in Tuloumne, California, on January 26, 2017. The Tuolumne Economic Development Authority, the tribe's economic arm, oversaw the project. Photo: Tuloumne Band

Bureau of Indian Affairs opens consultation on big economic proposal

The Bureau of Indian Affairs isn't letting the change in administration slow down plans to address a big taxation issue for tribes.

A notice that will be published in the Federal Register on Wednesday announces a series of consultations on the Indian Trader Regulations. Tribes will be able to use the sessions to address what they consider to be unfair systems of taxation.

Businesses that set up shop in Indian Country are often forced to pay taxes to states and local governments. That deprives tribes of revenues that could be used to improve services and infrastructure in their communities. It also creates uncertainty for outside entities that might otherwise want to bring jobs and development to reservations.

"Dual taxation of traders and activities conducted by traders and purchasers can impede a tribe's ability to attract investment to Indian lands where such investment and participation are critical to the vitality of tribal economies," the BIA said last month when it announced plans to update the rule. "Tribal communities continue to struggle with unmet needs, such as in their schools and housing, as well as economic development, to name a few. Moreover, beyond the operation of their governments, tribes continually pursue funding for infrastructure, roads, dams, irrigation systems and water delivery."

The revenues bypassing Indian Country can be staggering. In Washington, the Tulalip Tribes are losing out on about $40 million a year under a taxation system that's being challenged in federal court with the help of the Department of Justice.

In North Dakota, the numbers are even more outrageous. In the last three years, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation has been deprived of more than $1 billion due to the way the state imposes taxes on energy development on the reservation.

"We wish the numbers were only $40 million," Chairman Mark Fox said at a tribal conference where dual taxation was discussed. "A billion dollars. Not $40 million. A billion dollars." The tribe has since threatened to walk away from the agreement.

The Indian Trader Regulations were first issued in 1957, at a time when opportunities on reservations were few. The BIA attempted a not well-received update in the early 1980s but tribes have since made great strides in improving their economies through housing, retail, gaming and other developments.

With President Donald Trump now in office, the forthcoming update gives his administration a huge opportunity to help tribes make even greater advancements. But the new occupant of the White House so far has ignored Indian Country with a series of controversial directives on pipelines, infrastructure, border security and public safety.

The Interior Department also remains without clear guidance since the Senate has yet to confirm Trump's choice for the agency. During his time in Congress, Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Montana) has put priorities on economic development and employment in Indian Country.

"I have great respect for the Indian nations," Zinke said at his confirmation hearing in January as he mentioned that he is an adopted member of the Fort Peck Tribes.

Beyond a void in leadership at the top of the department, Trump has yet to name an Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, the official who will oversee the BIA. By this time in his first term, former president Barack Obama already had his Interior pick confirmed and had already announced his choice for the BIA.

Several names have been floating around Indian Country and Washington, D.C., as potential contenders for the BIA job. Gavin Clarkson, an attorney and citizen of the Choctaw Nation, has made no secret of his interest and he would bring a strong economic tilt to the agency with his background in finance.

Other possible picks include Jana McKeag, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who has the backing of five tribes in Oklahoma and comes with a lengthy resume of public service. Some are speculating that Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), another Cherokee citizen who chairs Trump's Native American Coalition is being considered. Another name being mentioned is Carl Artman, a citizen of the Oneida Nation who led the BIA toward the end of the Bush administration.

Whoever ends up with the job will likely be tasked with formally approving the Indian Trader Regulations. The tribal consultations begin February 23 and run through March 16, according to the forthcoming notice. Written comments are also being accepted through April 10.

The schedule for the consultations follows:
Thursday, February 23, 2017
Swinomish Casino & Lodge
12885 Casino Drive
Anacortes, WA 98221

Tuesday, February 28, 2017
Miccosukee Resort & Gaming
500 S.W. 177th Avenue
Miami, FL 33194

Thursday, March 2, 2017
Harrah’s Resort Southern California
777 Harrah’s Rincon Way
Valley Center, CA 92802

Tuesday, March 7, 2017
The Northern Hotel
19 N. Broadway
Billings, MT 59101

Thursday, March 9, 2017
Holiday Inn-Rushmore Plaza
505 N. 5th Street
Rapid City, SD

Monday, March 13, 2017
Mirage Resort & Casino
3400 S Las Vegas Blvd
Las Vegas, NV 89109

Tuesday, March 14, 2017
Mystic Lake Casino Hotel
2400 Mystic Lake Blvd
Prior Lake, MN 55372

Thursday, March 16, 2017
Seneca Allegany Resort & Casino
777 Seneca Allegany Blvd
Salamanca, NY 14779
Forthcoming Federal Register Notice:
Proposed Rules; Traders with Indians (To Be Published February 8, 2017)

Federal Register Notice:
Traders With Indians (December 9, 2016)

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