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Arizona House targets state Indian commission

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PHOENIX, Ariz. ? Arizona tribes received a jolt from the state House of Representatives, which voted to eliminate a key governmental committee on American Indian affairs.

An important tribal community college also saw its budget cut in half during the budget purging and two other state agencies were barely saved.

In a party line vote 36-24, the Republican-led House voted to eliminate the Arizona Commission of Indian Affairs, a liaison agency between the state government and Arizona's 21 American Indian tribes. The cut was a Republican instigated amendment to the House budget.

House Democratic staffers say originally there were four proposed cuts that would severely impact the state's tribes. In addition to the commission and the Navajo-operated Din? Community College, the original Republican proposal called for the elimination of the Arizona Tribal Welfare Commission and the Indian Senior Welfare Center.

Deb Krol, who works with the commission, blames the targeting of the commission on state-mandated term limits which brought a conservative Republican majority to the House, who "don't know anything about Indian issues."

Krol's boss, executive director Ron Lee, takes a little more cautionary stance and said that in addition to the commission, many other state programs have been unfairly targeted.

However, the commission is one of only two agencies ? the other being the Arizona Film Commission ? targeted by the House for dissolution. Even such seemingly superfluous agencies such as the Arizona Boxing Commission managed to survive the assault.

Jamie Hogue, a research appropriations analyst for the Arizona Democrats, said she is surprised the Republicans would want to eliminate such a small yet important agency. She said the decision was more surprising because the elimination of the commission would be very controversial, even to moderate Republicans.

"In the whole framework of the state budget, the $200,000 or so that the Arizona Commission of Indian Affairs receives is a pittance of an entire state budget of $675 million," Hogue said. "It's very surprising that they are going after a commission that takes up so little of the budget."

In comparison to other Southwestern states, New Mexico, with an American Indian population of 173,483 appropriates $1.5 million to its state Office of Indian Affairs. Utah, with only 30,000 American Indians doles out $216,000 to its Division of Indian Affairs, while Arizona, with an American Indian population of 255,879 shells out only $237,000 annually to the Commission.

Calls to the Arizona House Republican staff were not returned by press time.

Another proposed cut might also peripherally effect Arizona Indians is the removal of the federally mandated School Facilities Board to legislative appropriations. Essentially what this means is that disbursement of funds for school building construction would go to the Arizona Legislature and cease to be an independent entity.

Jennifer Daily, a research analyst for the Democrats in the Arizona House, said schools in poorer districts, such as American Indian reservations, are usually the ones most in need of school building construction funds. She also said that they would be more subject to the political whims of the state Legislature.

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"If the School Facilities board goes under legislative appropriations, school districts will have to fight for every dollar," Daily said.

The state, however, might have a fight with the federal government on its hands in regard to the School Facilities Board issue. A federal court mandated its separate existence.

The House budget proposal was not without a fight. Jamie Hogue reported that at least four Representatives took to the floor to speak against the proposed cuts. They were mostly American Indian or representing American Indian districts and were led by 3rd District Rep. Sylvia Laughter, a Navajo.

Apparently it was the efforts of fellow American Indian Representatives, such as Debora Norris, also Navajo, that resulted in saving the Indian Welfare Commission and state-funded Senior Living Centers.

The cuts are the result of a budget shortfall in the Grand Canyon State, which like most of the nation is mired in a recession. However, the House budget proposal is the only one of several suggested plans that call for the elimination of any agencies.

Daily, Hogue and Lee all said the House version of the budget faces a tough fight. The Senate budget does not call for elimination of any agency, and only requests that all state agencies receive an across the board 4 percent cut. Neither party controls the Senate, which is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans who each have 15 seats apiece.

Another obstacle for the House is Republican Gov. Jane Dee Hull who has expressed support for the commission and with a few differences, calls for a plan similar, though by no means identical, to the Senate.

Francie Noyes, Gov. Hull's press secretary confirmed that her boss is in favor of keeping the commission and thinks there are other ways besides cutting certain programs to balance the state budget.

"She thinks that it's important to keep the communication that the commission provides," Noyes said.

Daily and Hogue both said the matter most likely will end up in a conference committee. Hogue reports that House Republicans stated their intention to not budge on the matter and so have senators. However, since Hull, who ultimately has veto power, is opposed to cutting the commission, the House proposal could face an uphill battle.

Vowing to fight to stay alive, Lee said he is meeting with members of both.

Krol said incidents such as these only reflect the need of American Indians to become a bigger part of the political process.

"This whole thing illustrates the reason why Indians need to get into politics and just get active about political issues. Other ethnic groups, like Hispanics have already done this and have protected their interests. We need to protect ours."