Tribal leaders denounce BIA budget plans as reckless
Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Bush administration officials shocked tribal leaders on Tuesday with plans to slash the Bureau of Indian Affairs budget by nearly 6 percent in the next two years.

At a meeting with tribal leaders near Washington, D.C., new assistant secretary Dave Anderson announced a cut of 2.4 percent, or $55.3 million, in fiscal year 2006. But once inflation and salary increases are taken into account, a BIA budget aide said the impact would actually be 3.6 percent, or nearly $80 million.

The proposal comes on top of a 2.3 percent reduction the agency that serves more than 560 tribes and more than 1 million American Indian and Alaska Natives is taking in fiscal year 2005. Dozens of programs, from education to law enforcement to Indian child welfare, are being flat-lined, reduced or outright eliminated by the Bush administration.

"They dropped an $80 million bombshell on us," said Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians. "It was pretty devastating news."

Hall co-chairs the BIA's tribal advisory budget council with Jim Gray, chief of the Osage Nation of Oklahoma. Both called the proposed cuts "unprecedented, unreal and reckless."

"Why should Indian schools, clinics and hospitals continue to bear the brunt of deficit reduction?" asked Gray. "Why should our children, sick, and the elderly have to pay for the costs of run-away spending, tax cuts and foreign wars?"

Anderson's announcement was accompanied by a memo from Lynn Scarlett, the assistant secretary for policy, management and budget at the Department of Interior. On March 12, she informed top officials that the department will take a $259 million cut in 2006.

"Budgeting within these constrained funding levels will be even more challenging than in 2005," she wrote.

While the memo outlined dramatic cuts to every single Interior agency, bureau and office, the BIA would absorb 22 percent of the overall cut at the department. The National Park Service is the only other agency that would shoulder such a heavy burden.

As for the Office of Special Trustee, it would be scaled back by $8 million. The office's budget saw increases of 54 percent and 44 percent in the past two years.

Scarlett told agency heads that they should submit a 2006 budget based on the reduced numbers. Anderson's response is due May 14, although he stressed yesterday that the figures in the memo are not final and are negotiable.

Tribal leaders appreciated Anderson's willingness to advocate for their needs. But some said it was indicative of the current administration's disregard for Indian Country.

"I have said it before, and I will say it again," said Joe Shirley Jr., president of the Navajo Nation, the largest tribe in the country. "It is time to elect an administration that will seriously take into consideration the obligations the federal government holds with Native nations. This administration has made it very clear to us that they are not concerned with Native America."

Hall concurred with the sentiment and reiterated that nearly 1 million Indian voters will turn out to the polls this November. "There are going to be some tough times but we need to make this an election issue," he said. "We need to make the budget a centerpiece."

Hall, Gray and Shirley were among 22 tribal leaders who penned a letter to President Bush seeking an immediate meeting. They told him the proposed cuts "will seriously damage our efforts at self-determination and self-reliance ... and will substantially damage Indian education, law enforcement, health care, housing, child welfare and many other areas critical to the lives of our people."

In the meantime, tribal leaders plan to draft a counter-proposal to present before Anderson's response is due in May. The tribal advisory council will be meeting next month to formulate the substance of the proposal.

"I know we are going to ask for an increase, but we are going to ask for a realistic increase," Hall said yesterday. "We need to make a case to the U.S. government and to Congress that $80 million [in cuts] is not acceptable."

Relevant Documents:
Lynn Scarlett Memo (March 12, 2004) | Tribal Leaders Letter to President Bush (March 23, 2004)

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Indian educators meet for legislative summit (3/22)
Cuts run deep for tribal programs at BIA (03/09)
Senate panel shares criticism of Bush budget (02/12)
Tribal leaders pressing Congress on funding (02/11)
BIA programs barely survive White House test (02/10)
Fate of Indian preference in hands of Swimmer (02/04)
BIA budget staying the same under Bush request (2/3)
NCAI president uses speech to lobby for funding (01/22)

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