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Budget Matters: Indian Country Faces Funding Uncertainties, Again

The problem for Indian country’s budget is that continuing resolutions create tremendous uncertainty because they are not appropriations.

In recent sessions of Congress, budget uncertainty has become normalized thanks to a continuing reliance by legislators on so-called continuing resolution (CR) budgeting.

The problem for Indian country is that CRs create tremendous uncertainty because they are not appropriations. They are more like "IOU notes" from federal agencies to the federal government. These "IOUs" will be deducted from the final annual budget appropriations, whenever those are approved. To complicate matters, no one knows what the appropriations will be until a final budget is passed. Consequently, federal departments, including the Departments of the Interior and Health and Human Services, never know whether what they have planned for under a CR will be covered by the actual budget.

The CR uncertainty has been worrisome for Indian country, which has been left waiting each year to see whether federal funding for tribes will be cut or tinkered with. It’s a problem that some in Indian country wish could be avoided by making federal funding for at least some tribal programs permanent due to the special trust relationship the federal government has with tribes.

However, with little sign of federal willingness to make tribal funding permanent, the U.S. government began its eighth fiscal year operating under a CR last fall.

Bottom line: the total budget cap for Indian country programs will likely remain the same as it has been since 2012, with individual agencies funded at fiscal year 2016 levels, with some deviations, according to David Reich Sr., Fellow at the Center on Federal Budget Priorities.

The fiscal year 2017 funding ceiling remains at the 2016 level for all non-defense spending, with no possibility of an increase unless something extraordinary and unlikely happens in Congress. Only the Department of Veterans Affairs received a $2.9 billion increase which will be paid for out of current continuing resolution funding.

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It’s unknown whether the GOP, with an incoming Republican-elect, and the Republican House and Senate, will seek to reduce last year's $518 billion total for non-defense appropriations. Whatever increases and decreases, philosophically or reality driven or not, all will have to fit within the current CR's total funding level.

This is not good news for Indian country. Tom Cole (R-OK), a registered member of the Chickasaw Nation, noted his disappointment with the CR at the November 29, 2016 Meeting of the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) Tribal Gaming Task Force.

Task force members present said that Cole stated at the meeting that not only had the September 2017 CR kept a difficult vote from happening on non-defense matters, he was also concerned that passing a budget would be tougher in March or later. Complicating Republican strategy is the Trump administration's lateness in getting budget talks kicked off. Cole said that they want to lead, but "don't have their act together yet." Nor is it apparent that Republicans in Congress had planned for a Trump victory; they do not seem to have a definite plan, and it is not clear that the House and Senate are on the same budget page.

Cole’s words do little to reduce uneasiness over the Interior budget. Worse, by April 2017, Congress is supposed to be working on a fiscal year 2018 budget. Given that the Budget Control Act which established budget caps and sequestration extends to 2021, it is unclear what the overall impact will be to Indian country. In the meantime, costs continue rise even through this prolonged low inflationary period.

The likelihood of a deal to raise the budget cap for Interior, which houses many Indian affairs programs, is low. It can only be achieved if sequestration continues to apply to defense spending, or parity for defense and non-defense is invoked.

President-elect Donald Trump has signaled his preference for budget offsets rather than parity, but the new Congress may not have gotten this far in its thinking. Trump has also indicated interest in private infrastructure investment, which would leave funding for Indian infrastructure investment dependent on the federal government or private sources.

According to information provided at a November 30 National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) Budget Task Force Meeting, the organization’s officials see their only option under circumstances as making the case for the best congressional investment of the funds it will receive. Issues topping their list are economic security, job security, and education to develop a competitive work force in Indian country. There are also potential entitlement changes in Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP, TANF, etc. which lie outside of the appropriations process, that could have a major impact on Indian country.

Apparent to Patrice Kunesh, Co-Director of the Center for Indian Country Development (CICD) of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Indian country cannot win this fight without rigorous data in hand to demonstrate that Interior’s investment is paying off. Both citizens and legislators at the federal and state level believe Indian country is hampered because "our story is all about deficits and gaps," Kunesh said at the November 30 meeting. But, "...we have good news narratives," that need to be showcased and advocates to spread our success in using federal funds, she added.

To prepare for the upcoming uncertainty, NCAI is requesting critical information from reliable tribal sources by December 14 to be included in its fiscal year 2018 tribal budget request. NCAI officials say that specific information should address:

  • The top funding priority for tribal issue areas;
  • Historical budget trend analysis for respective Indian program areas;
  • Well-documented data and background to justify all increases sought;
  • What authorizing legislation recommends for funding levels;
  • Anecdotes of successes of the federal investment in tribal programs; and
  • Images or photographs with citations to accompany recommendations.

NCAI is asking contributors to submit input to aebarb@ncai.org by December 14.