Senate panel shares criticism of Bush budget
Thursday, February 12, 2004

Tribal leaders weren't the only ones critical of the Bush administration's new budget at a hearing on Wednesday where Democrats and even Republicans expressed disappointment with funding for Indian programs.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, promised to do what he could to increase resources for education, health, law enforcement and other critical areas. He noted that he and other Indian advocates also sit on the Appropriations Committee.

"We have a lot to say about what is increased and what is decreased," Campbell told the crowded hearing room.

But it was Democrats who had the harshest words for President Bush's fiscal year 2005 request. Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) said it "makes no sense whatsoever" to cut Indian school construction and take away money from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to fund trust reform.

"Every aspect of Indian Country is hurting," he said. "We've got to do better."

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) called the budget "completely out of whack" with the needs of Native Americans. He said the slashes come as Bush seeks to make his tax cuts for the wealthy permanent despite a mounting federal deficit.

"These are priorities I don't think reflect the priorities of the American people," said Conrad, who is the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee.

Tribal leaders who testified at the hearing, the first on the 2005 budget, shared the concerns. Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians called on Congress to make a "strong across-the-board commitment" to boost funding levels above the Bush request.

H. Sally Smith, chair of the National Indian Health Board, said "things look challenging" even though the $3 billion Indian Health Service (IHS) budget was not cut. She asked for a $100 million increase for contract health services funds that are used to purchase emergency care. She also said the self-governance program needs an increase of $20 million.

"I would hope that the agencies are listening," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who added that she was "disappointed" with funding for Alaska Natives.

Don Kashevaroff, president of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, said the proposed increase of 1.6 percent to the IHS budget is not really an increase. "Inflation really is our deadly enemy here," he told the committee. With the cost of health care rising, tribes are actually losing money, he said.

Cindy LaMarr, president of the National Indian Education Association, criticized cuts for construction of Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. She noted that the decrease of $65 million was the exact amount of the increase for historical accounting under the Office of Special Trustee. Bush administration officials have denied taking money from Indian programs to fix the broken trust system.

Russell Sossamon, chairman of the National American Indian Housing Council, said Bush has ignored Indian Country four years in a row. He said Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act funding should be a "minimum" $700 million. The 2005 request is $647 million, roughly the same as previous years.

"Progress is slow to meet the need," he told lawmakers.

Gary Edwards, head of the National Native American Law Enforcement Association, cited high crime rates, substance abuse, gang activity and smuggling across borders as indicative of the need for more resources. He said tribal law enforcement, public safety, homeland security and youth deserve high priority.

"We must increase the number of drug enforcement officers in Indian Country," he said.

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), vice-chair of the committee, said tribes need to undertake a nationwide pubic relations and information campaign. Even after 27 years of fighting for Indian rights, he said it is tough to get the attention of colleagues.

"Frankly, they could care less," he told the audience. But he added, "We've got a story to tell, a good story."

Hearing Testimony:
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (February 11, 2004)

FY 2005 Budget Documents:
OMB | DOI | HHS | USDA | HUD | Education

Relevant Links:
National Congress of American Indians -
National Indian Health Board -
National Indian Education Association -
National American Indian Housing Council -
National Native American Law Enforcement Association -

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