Congress should include Indian country in economic stimulus legislation

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Within the next few days, Congress may advance economic stimulus legislation to counteract the negative impacts to our nation's economy stemming from the cowardly terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

As has been reported, House and Senate leadership are awaiting President Bush's request to move ahead with such an initiative. The White House, in turn, is heeding the request of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan to give the stock market additional time to recover on its own before intervening with economic stimulus legislation. We suspect, however, that congressional staff has already begun drafting an economic stimulus package for consideration by Congress as soon as it is requested.

With the average unemployment rate on American Indian reservations greater than 50 percent, nationwide, the social, economic and health challenges on most reservations are more daunting than anywhere else in the country.

Based on these facts alone, tribal governments should be able to rely on any economic stimulus legislation to include provisions that will help Indian country secure greater economic opportunities.

Regardless of the driving force behind economic stimulus legislation, American Indians and Alaska Natives should not be left behind when such legislation is crafted. We Native Americans suffer the same losses and pain as do other Americans over the circumstances that led to the need for this economic stimulus initiative.

Our American Indian people serve in every branch of the U.S. military services in much greater numbers, per capita, than any other race or cultural origin in America. Our patriotism is unquestioned. Therefore, Congress and the Bush administration should look to help tribes as well as the rest of the American economy during these times of crisis.

A few tribes are working closely with Rep. Wes Watkins, R-Okla., to include permanent authorization of Accelerated Depreciation and Wage Tax Credits into any such legislation. Introduced earlier this year as H.R. 224, this legislation seeks to permanently extend IRS Code Section 45A and Section 168(j). These two tax provisions help stimulate economic development on American Indian lands more than any other investment tax incentives under current federal law by allowing investors to accelerate depreciation rates on equipment and personal property connected with the economic development project. In addition wage tax credits would be allowed for companies that employ American Indians as part of the workforce connected with these projects.

While current tax incentives to employ Native Americans and to invest on American Indian lands have not been in effect for long, they have shown great promise in improving economic conditions in many regions of Indian country.

Providing these incentives has not only helped attract private sector investments to reservations, but also made a positive difference in the socio-economic conditions and quality of life for those who call Indian country home.

Making these tax incentives permanent will increase investment on American Indian lands by providing the kind of certainty that is important to tribes and to those seeking to invest economic development dollars on tribal lands, thereby helping tribal governments further secure private sector development financing desperately needed to create diversified and sustainable economic projects throughout Indian country.

Earlier this year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an energy tax package (H.R. 4) that included an extension of the accelerated depreciation and wage tax credits. However, the extension was for three years only, pushing the sunset from fiscal year 2003 to fiscal year 2006, and limiting the applicability of these tax credits to energy related projects only.

Rep. Watkins is pushing for inclusion of his bill, H.R. 224, in any economic stimulus legislation that may be introduced. His argument is that any legislation designed to stimulate this nation's economy should not forget the needs of the most severely depressed economic sector ? Indian country. By including his legislation, Congress will provide tribes with two of the greatest tools to attract investment capital onto American Indian lands ? accelerated depreciation and wage tax credits.

Tribal leaders must voice their utmost prioritization for these tax provisions being legislatively extended directly to the president, as well as to their respective senators and congressmen, if such extensions are to become part of an economic stimulus package this year.

If including H.R. 224 in an economic stimulus package cannot be done, then improvements in the American Indian accelerated depreciation and wage tax credit provisions currently in H.R. 4 should, at a minimum, be on the table for inclusion in any economic stimulus legislation Congress develops.

American Indian people have always been ready to sacrifice whatever it takes to protect this nation from encroachment by those who seek to do us harm. We have answered the call of duty each and every time to protect and improve freedom and liberty not only in America, but throughout the world as well. Yet we continue to struggle to enjoy the same economic benefits as non-Indians in these United States.

Congress should feel obligated to do all it can to improve the economic conditions of tribal communities. By including permanent authorization of accelerated depreciation and wage tax credits in an economic stimulus package, Congress will take a step in that direction and do the right thing for Indian country.