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Budget proposals draw first round of outrage

WASHINGTON - In what has become an annual rite, President Bush issued budget proposals Feb. 5 that stated the priorities of his administration and salted the wounds of its critics.

Bush's priorities for fiscal year 2008 (which begins Oct. 1) are national defense, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a balanced federal budget. In requesting $2.9 trillion, the president seeks to boost defense spending by 11 percent to $481.4 billion, and to secure an estimated $141.7 billion in supplemental emergency funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The federal budget, now $248 billion in deficit, will become a $61 billion surplus by 2012 under the president's scenario of revenue gains from a growing economy and steep cuts to domestic programs.

The Constitution assigns Congress the power of the purse. By initiating the budget process, according to Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the president's request serves as a kind of target practice for competing priorities. Democrats poured criticism on the president's proposals, as they have in the past. But this year's Congress is majority Democrat for the first time in the Republican president's tenure.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., again accused the president of deception in his budgeting assumptions, and again decried the squeeze on domestic programs; but he does so now as the powerful chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, elevated by a Democratic majority in the Senate. Likewise in the House of Representatives, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., has been a consistent critic of the president's budgetary priorities; but he now wields a gavel, as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. Natural Resources is the principal committee of jurisdiction over Indian-specific legislation in the House, and Rahall lost no time in speaking out against the proposed budget's effect on Indian country.

In a Feb. 5 release, Rahall stated that the president's budget for FY '08 ''both debilitates the basic needs of sovereign Indian nations and stunts the creation of opportunities in Indian country. ... Sadly, this latest budget proposal leaves much to be desired for meeting the real and pressing needs of our first Americans.''

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Rahall called for more funding of housing and sanitation, health care and the BIA.

The BIA, a division of the Interior Department, would receive $2.2 billion in FY '08, a trifle less than the present level but more than requested for 2007. The Interior budget would fund two new initiatives in education and anti-methamphetamine addiction. The Office of the Special Trustee, charged with managing the tribal and Individual Indian Money trusts at Interior, would see an increase of $15.4 million over the present level to $196.2 million, $48.3 million less than requested for FY '07. Interior plans a $6 million credit to the IIM investment pool account of OST in 2007. Indian land consolidation efforts would be funded at $10 million in FY '08, $20.7 million below the current level and $49.4 million below the FY '07 request. According to Interior's ''Budget in Brief'' publication for FY '08: ''New provisions in the American Indian Probate Reform Act of 2004, which became effective in June 2006, should substantially reduce the rate of [land] fractionation and have a corresponding impact on the future direction of the program. In addition, the program is studying acquisition strategies, such as targeting selected highly fractionated tracts, to see what approach is the most effective.''

The IHS would get $4.1 billion in FY '08 under the president's request, a boost of $212 million over its current funding level and $101 million over the president's request for FY '07. But as in FY '07, the president attempts to zero out Urban Indian Health clinics. The Administration for Native Americans, a division of the Administration for Children and Families within the Department of Health and Human Services (which houses the IHS as well) would remain at the $44 million funding level. ANA, the government's last discretionary grants program specifically for tribes and Indian organizations, allocates $3.9 million to Native language program grants.

Housing and Urban Development's Native American Housing Block Grant program would receive $627 million under the president's FY '08 request, a slight increase over the current level. The National American Indian Housing Council would not receive funding in 2008 under the president's budget.

The ''Indian Country FY 2008 Budget Request'' of the National Congress of American Indians recommends an increase of $485 million for IHS and a 10 percent increase in Urban Indian Health Programs funding to just over $36 million. ''NCAI requests an increase of $6 million to the ANA for existing and start-up immersion [language learning] programs ... for a total language budget of $9.9 million.'' NCAI also recommends $748 million for the Native American Housing Block Grant and $4.6 million for NAIHC.

The president's budget request for FY '08 is not to be confused with a congressional joint resolution on the budget that would fund the government through Sept. 30, the close of FY '07, at the levels enacted for FY '06. The president's budget requests for FY '07 have been nullified by congressional inaction.