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A stimulating year

WASHINGTON – After the national economic troubles of 2008, tribes knew going into 2009 there was likely going to be a federal stimulus. Indian leaders worked hard early on to be sure tribes would be included. And they were.

The overall stimulus bill, signed into law by President Barack Obama in February, amounted to approximately $787 billion.

Tribes ended up being designated about $4.2 billion in areas including infrastructure, health, and education, including approximately $2 billion for enhanced tax incentive bonding authority to get projects off the ground.

Keith Harper, a Native affairs lawyer with Kilpatrick Stockton and a former member of Obama’s transition team, noted that important tribal provisions were included in the final legislation.

“Would I have wanted to see the amount higher? Yes,” Harper said. “Is it a whole lot better than we did under the Bush administration? Absolutely.”

In helping get the bill passed, North Dakota Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and member of the appropriations committee that approved the legislation, noted that some tribal communities suffer 50 percent unemployment rates and many have longstanding construction needs.

Officials with the National Congress of American Indians had previously asked Congress to provide $6.14 billion to Indian country as part of the stimulus package.

After the legislation was brokered Feb. 11, some Indian country officials said increased money to a variety of bond programs could prove especially advantageous to tribes.

Chris Stearns, a Navajo lawyer who used to work on Capitol Hill, predicted that the greatest long-term impact of the stimulus for tribes would lie in the billions of dollars in new bonds available for roads, construction, schools, energy projects and Internet access.

The bill also wiped out most of the current IRS restrictions on the ability of tribes to issue tax-exempt bonds.

As the year progressed, a steady flow of the funds made their way to tribes, with few complaints made regarding accessibility.

The White House also updated its stimulus Web site in the summer to better notate awards to tribes.