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Feds OK funds

WASHINGTON ? Important funding for tribal governments and Indian people finally passed Congress in the waning days of 2001.

Many had been concerned about the delay and its possible affects on tribal programs. While some programs had to wait for funding levels as outlined under the new bills, most have been able to continue without interruption. Now that most programs are back on track, there are still some concerns that there were not enough increases and too many decreases, and that many of Indian country's needs are still not being met.

"We are pleased that Congress has finally passed many of these bills, but we are worried about some of them," said Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. "There are many obligations the federal government has with Indian tribes and Native communities and some of those are not being adequately addressed under these levels and some programs have even been cut."

Appropriation bills are supposed to be completed, approved by Congress and signed by the president by the end of the federal government's fiscal year, on the last day of September. However, since the bills were not approved by that date, appropriations are covered by what is called a "Continuing Resolution", which authorizes funding, but only at current levels.

The FY2002 Interior Appropriations bill, the largest one affecting Indian tribes, provided $1.8 billion for the BIA's Operation of Indian Programs, an increase of $61 million over last year. The Indian Health Service received $2.8 billion, an increase of $130 million over last year, and $52 million over the president's initial request. The final version of the final Act, however, provided funding well below earlier highs passed by the House and Senate for many programs under these agencies.

For the Office of Special Trustee, the entity within Interior responsible for trust funds management, the new Act states that funds requested by the administration for an historical accounting may not be allocated to Interior before a report, requested by Congressional Appropriations Committees, is provided, detailing the methods and costs associated with such an accounting. The Interior appropriations also urge the Indian Health Service and the Office of Management and Budget to establish a recurring base budget for hospital and clinic facilities construction, recommending that the base amount for FY2003 be no less than $90 million.

Several legislative riders from last year's bill are also included with the final Act. These include: allowing the hiring of administrative law judges to address the Indian probate backlog; permitting the redistribution of "Tribal Priority Allocations" and tribal base funds; allocating BIA post secondary school funds consistent with unmet needs; and limiting payments for contract support costs in past years to funds available under the law.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) took the biggest hit in cuts for Indian programs. The Indian Housing Block Grant program was cut by nearly $2 million and the Indian Community Development Block Grant program by $1 million. Other programs from which tribes received funding were also drastically cut or zeroed out. The Empowerment Zones/Enterprise Community program was cut by over $150 million, while the Drug Elimination Grants program was eliminated altogether.

"Such cuts do not bode well for communities already in dire need of sufficient housing," said Johnson. "The federal government needs to understand that any cuts will do harm to these communities."

Funding levels for Indian programs within the Department of Justice and the Department of Commerce also received some cuts or remained at last year levels. There were few increases.

Funding levels for tribal courts and juvenile justice remained the same, while funding for law enforcement personnel under the "COPS" grant program was reduced by $5 million. Funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs "Native American Veterans Housing Loan Program" also remained at last year's $500,000 level.

One bright spot for tribes was the Department of Transportation. Its appropriations bill allocated the fully authorized level of $275 million for the Indian Reservation Roads program. An additional $35 million offset a legal directive improperly applied to tribes. This directive termed the "obligation limitation" reduced funding for the Indian Reservation Roads program and other Federal Highway Administration programs by a certain percentage each year. However, funds from this reduction are then redistributed to certain federal programs and the states, but not to tribes. The additional $35 million aims to correct this inequity.

All appropriations bills passed by Congress and not yet signed by the president are expected to receive his approval.