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California Republicans make pitch to tribes

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. ? Republicans are looking for allies among the Indian tribes, at least in California.

Following up on an earlier meeting last August, the Republican caucus again met with the leaders of several California Indian tribes in a short afternoon summit on January 18. Once again the driving force of the summit were three key players in the California Republican leadership, state Senate minority leader Jim Brulte, R-Ranch Cucamonga, Sen. Jim Battin, R-Palm Desert and Assemblyman Dave Cox, R-Fair Oaks.

Brulte and Battin passed out a letter spelling out an agenda for health care, employment and security. Speakers included Susan Masten, former president of the National Congress of the American Indian and current Yurok tribe chairwoman, Ruben Barrales director of governmental affairs for the Bush administration and Brenda Souilliere recently elected chairwoman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association.

"Republicans and Indians together," said Barrales with mock irony. "I hope in a few years that concept will not seem so unique."

Barrales made the case that the current Republican administration is more beneficial to America's Indian tribes than previous Democratic ones. He said the Bush administration is committed to the expansion of Indian health and family services. He said American Indians and republicans are in line philosophically in nurturing what he called the "spark of entrepreneurship." He said that Republicans would create a friendlier climate for the developing world of American Indian business.

Barrales cited what he characterized as the Republican commitment to less regulatory red tape to clear the way for expanded opportunities of American Indian business. He used the term "common sense environmental practices" as a specific example.

Furthermore, Barrales said that President Bush unequivocally supports tribal sovereignty and the concept of government to government relations.

When asked about Bush's statement last year on the campaign trail that state_s rights wee superior to tribal governments, Barrales argued that his presence at the summit of intergovernmental affairs is evidence of Bush's current stand.

The meeting delved into the issue of funding accounts, set up by the gaming compact signed with Governor Davis and financed by gaming tribes in the form of machine licenses.

The compact set up two different funding accounts, one called the distribution fund, that would put money into local infrastructure improvements, and the second a trust fund set up for non-gaming tribes.

Masten made perhaps one of the most controversial statements of the day. She stated that though her Yurok tribe is a non-gaming tribe and a marked recipient of trust fund monies, gaming tribes should not be required to pay other tribes from their own revenues. she stated that tribal sovereignty makes each tribe its own government

"For example, California is not required to pay Oregon from its own revenue," said Masten. "I_m only pointing out the principle of the issue that we are sovereign nations and we should make our own decisions."

Sen. Battin addressed the distribution fund issue and called for removal of the caps that limit the number of gaming machine licenses. Currently they are restricted to around 2,000 per tribe. He said that only non-gaming tribes who receive money from the trust fund are the ones that suffer.

"I believe it should be the marketplace that decides," said Battin. He also questioned what he characterized as the confusing method in which the funds are maintained. Only machines whose licenses were purchased after September 1, 1999, are subject to paying into the trust via the license purchase.

Health care was also a topic of the day. Josh Valdez, the San Francisco-based regional representative for the federal Health and Human Services Department said that his department was in the process of formulating policies at the "highest levels" to come up with solutions for problems such as the disparity of funding for the tribes.

Valdez said that better intra-governmental communication is needed to insure a more efficient and streamlined process in covering American Indian health issues. After his speech, Valdez told ICT he thought that potential private and public partnerships, such as participation from HMO's could be involved in any final plan. However, Valdez would not comment much further on any specifics. "There will be, however, more of a push for health care coming to Indians," he said.

Both Sen. Brulte and Assemblyman Cox said they were pleased with the outcome of the meeting. Cox told ICT that he sees much common ground between the Republican Party and American Indian tribes.

"Based on my judgment it seems that most of their policy leans toward Republican ideas," said Cox. He cited, among other things, less federal governmental intrusion to make a more business-friendly environment.

Sen. Brulte for his part stressed that this meeting was a legislative and not political session. He also said the summit should be viewed as part of an ongoing series of talks so the California Republican caucus could better communicate with tribes about their needs.