President Trump releases new budget with cuts for Indian Country programs

By Acee Agoyo

It's only a month late but who's keeping track? The Trump administration finally released its fiscal year 2020 budget proposal and the numbers aren't looking good for Indian Country.

Big cuts are being sought at the agencies that fund almost every single tribal program. At the Department of the Interior, home to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education and the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, President Donald Trump is calling for a 14 percent cut.

The BIA and the BIE are in fact going to see some dramatic changes if the Trump team gets its way. Without prior consultation or notice, the administration is seeking to separate the two agencies into separate entities, all while cutting their funding streams.

"The budget proposes to establish the Bureau of Indian Education as an independent bureau with a separate budget structure to advance ongoing BIE reforms to improve learning and student outcomes at BIE schools," the BIA's budget document states.

As a result, the BIA's budget authority would decrease by more than $1 billion, going down to $1.99 billion. As a separate entity, the BIEs budget would be $936.2 million, according to the proposed agency's budget document

When combined, the BIA and the BIE would receive a total of $2.93 billion under the funding request. That represents a cut of more than $326 million from current levels.

But Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, who has been nominated to serve as the permanent leader of the department, put a positive spin on the announcement. In an initial statement, he said the budget focuses on specific areas -- though he did not mention the trust and treaty responsibilities to the first Americans.

“President Trump’s 2020 budget request is an effort to restore fiscal sanity in Washington," Bernhardt said on Monday afternoon. "In doing so, the Department of the Interior’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget request strikes a reasonable balance and includes several important legislative proposals to address longstanding problems like the National Park Service’s maintenance backlog."

“The FY 2020 budget proposal continues to ensure we are focused on providing public access to the American People, creating jobs and economic growth, protecting our natural and cultural resources, enhancing safety and security, promoting healthy working rangelands, increasing energy security, and restoring infrastructure," Bernhardt added.

Over at the Department of Health and Human Services, home to the Indian Health Service and the Administration for Native Americans, the outlook isn't any better. The agency is getting a 12 percent cut under Trump's proposal.

But the details for the IHS show some bright spots. The fiscal year 2020 budget request for the agency that serves more than 2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives is $5.9 billion, an increase of $392 million, or 7 percent above current levels.

The ANA, on the other hand, is not keeping up. According to the budget documents, the agency whose programs were deemed a success at a hearing on Capitol Hill less than two weeks ago would see a reduction of 5.45 percent to $52 million.

Like his counterpart at Interior, Secretary of Health and Human Service Alex Azar did not mention Indian Country in discussing the release of the budget. Priorities for the next fiscal year include the opioid crisis and HIV/AIDS.

“The President’s budget makes necessary investments and bold reforms to deliver on HHS’s mission, and supports the hard work the men and women of HHS are already doing to improve the health and well-being of the American people," Azar said in a statement on Monday. "The budget will advance HHS’s work on increasing the affordability of individual health insurance, bringing down the price of prescription drugs, transforming our healthcare system into one that pays for value, and combating the opioid crisis."

"It also provides historic new funding dedicated to one of the most important public health initiatives undertaken this century: President Trump’s plan to end the HIV epidemic in America by 2030," Azar said. "This budget will help deliver on the President’s vision for a fiscally sustainable federal budget, a stronger economy, and a healthier America.”

The release of the budget comes after dozens of Indian Country leaders presented their funding priorities to Congress. Over two days last week, key lawmakers were told of the government's failure to meet its trust and treaty responsibilities.

"Health care has not improved the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation," Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe said at the session that took place on the morning of March 6.

With the executive branch seeking to make cuts, the 60-plus representatives of tribal governments, urban Indian providers and inter-tribal organizations are turning to Congress for help. Members of the House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- said they would work to ensure that the United States meets its obligations as best as it can.

"My visits to tribal communities across the nation have shown me that we are failing -- and failing greatly -- at meeting our treaty responsibilities," said Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), who chairs the subcommittee.

"Congress must not take our treaty and trust responsibilities lightly," McCollum said. "Congress needs to figure out how we can best fulfill our duties, given the limited funds we have to work with, and how to make those funds grow and work more effectively for you."

Trump's fiscal year 2020 budget proposal is only a request -- it's up to Congress to write the appropriations bills that fund Indian Country's key programs. McCollum's subcommittee handles the BIA, the BIE, the OST and the IHS.

"Like many colleagues in Congress, I recognize that upholding the tribal trust responsibility is shared by all members of Congress, regardless of the Congressional district," Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio), the ranking Republican on the panel, said last week.

"I also recognize that the federal government still has a long way to go before it is is fully meeting its trust and treaty obligations," said Joyce, who pointed out that his district was once home to the Seneca Nation and other tribes before they were forced into other areas by the U.S.

Fiscal Year 2020 #FY2020 Budget
Department of the Interior:
FY2020 Budget in Brief | Bureau of Indian Affairs | Bureau of Indian Education | Departmental Offices [Includes Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians]
Press Release: President’s Proposed $1.9 Billion For Indian Affairs’ FY 2020 Budget Focuses On Programs Serving the Broadest American Indian and Alaska Native Service Population
Press Release: President’s FY 2020 Budget Proposes $936.3 Million for Bureau of Indian Education, Elevates Its Budget to Bureau-level Status Separate from Bureau of Indian Affairs

Department of Health and Human Services:
FY 2020 Budget & Performance | Indian Health Service
Secretary Azar Statement on President Trump’s FY 2020 Budget
Statement on FY2020 Budget Proposal for Ending The HIV Epidemic In America

Indian Country on Capitol Hill
On March 6 and March 7, the House Committee on Appropriations heard from dozens of Indian Country leaders about their funding priorities. Listen to their stories on the Indianz.Com SoundCloud.

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