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Colorado’s Native legislative caucus eyes federal funds and ID uses

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Anticipating an infusion of federal funds for Indian country, Colorado’s bipartisan Native American Legislative Caucus is gearing up to support the state’s tribal nations in efforts to claim a share of the president’s economic stimulus package.

That’s number one on the caucus’ agenda, with issues of using tribal identification cards for voting purposes in the number two spot, said Sen. Suzanne Williams, Comanche, the state legislature’s only registered American Indian member.

She was conferring March 5 with Ernest House Jr., executive secretary of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, on approaches to be used for applications, since non-Native government entities usually have program proposals lined up and ready to go while Native entities may not.

“The two Ute tribes (Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute, of which House Jr. is a member) are meeting with NCAI to go through it line by line to see what they can apply for,” he said of the National Congress of American Indians’ recent session.

Among stimulus bill items might be improvements for U.S. Highway 491 that enters Ute Mountain Ute lands from the Navajo Reservation to the south and transects the Ute reservation before turning westward into Utah.

Tribal representatives are talking with local Colorado Department of Transportation officials for the Four Corners area, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet.

If time-consuming studies, including environmental analyses, have not been completed by application deadlines, the tribes could offer to expedite the studies and road preparation “by coming forward and saying, ‘We will put the money forward to do the study,’” and by agreeing to use a contractor from local government-approved lists, Williams suggested.

Representatives from the seven transportation regions in Colorado select the top priorities for their areas, meet, pick one from each region, and then agree as a commission on the final selections, she said.

Of some $2.5 billion in the stimulus bill for Indian country, about $450 million is allocated to the BIA roads and schools fund and $310 million in infrastructure funding for reservation roads. Some $225 million goes to state and local law enforcement assistance to tribes, and there are other allocations, including $510 million for housing.

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House said law enforcement has been a priority on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation, where the federal omnibus bill in 2008 provided two additional law enforcement officers.

He said the federal omnibus bill last year provided some additional funding, and former U.S. Attorney Troy Eid was helpful in cross-deputizing and otherwise coordinating local, state and federal law enforcement.

The caucus’ other current priority, the use of tribal identification for voting purposes in the state is being discussed, although some details still need to be worked out.

Basically, a change in state election rules would mean that Colorado would be giving permission for a verifiable state tribal ID to be presented for voting purposes, Williams said.

“Right now, they can use a water bill, driver’s license, state ID, why not tribal ID?” she queried, noting that all would carry photos of the voter-applicants.

Use of tribal ID would require a change in legislation, because “nothing in the Colorado statutes says ID as a tribal member would grant you the right to vote in an election,” she said.

The question will have to be resolved as to whether out-of-state tribal identification could be used for the purpose, and whether registration information from nearly 600 tribes would have to be kept on file.

Tribal IDs already are used in the Four Corners area because local government is aware of what they are, House said.

Care was taken to ensure that cards from the two Ute tribes are secure because non-federal tribal IDs have sometimes been used across the U.S. and fake tribal IDs have been sold to non-Indians, he said.

Other members of the Native American Legislative Caucus are State Senators Jim Isgar and Paula E. Sandoval and State Representatives Edward Casso, Ellen Roberts, Scott R. Tipton and Paul Weissmann.