Funding points to a crisis in self-determination

WASHINGTON, D.C. - A major shortfall in payments and required funding to manage tribal self-governance programs has reached a crisis point.

This is the conclusion reached by a tribal workgroup, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) and a Congressional committee. The problem stems from consistent under payments to tribes to manage tribal self-governance programs. These programs are authorized under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act which enables tribes to contract to administer BIA and Indian Health Service programs.

At the heart of each program lie "contract support costs" incurred by tribes in carrying out program duties. These costs have consistently been under funded by the federal government, resulting in shortfalls and non-payment to tribal governments.

"Since the time of our first self-governance compact with the Department of the Interior, the Cherokee Nation has never been fully funded with contract support costs," said Chad Smith, principle chief of the Cherokee Nation. "Last year, the BIA shorted the nation almost a quarter million dollars in indirect costs, and failed to pay us any direct contract support costs."

Two years ago, in response to mounting problems and formal complaints, Congressional Appropriations committees began to probe the issue. That same year, the GAO began an independent study and tribes convened a nationwide task force to study the issue in depth and make recommendations to Congress.

The House Resources Committee held two hearings in 1999 to take testimony from the Administration and tribes to find a resolution to the issue. On May 16, the committee met again to hear testimony on H.R. 4148, a newly proposed bill which amends contract support costs provisions in the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.

The bill incorporates recommendations from the Tribal National Policy Workgroup, input from the administration and recommendations from the GAO report. A central provision of the bill would make contract support costs an entitlement, legally requiring full funding. Contract support costs currently are categorized as discretionary spending and subject to annual appropriations.

In his statement, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Gover voiced BIA frustration with the issue and raised concerns about how full funding would be achieved under current appropriations. With the level of funds available, he questions the federal government's ability to meet its obligations.

"Contract support payments have been among the most contentious issues in Indian affairs for the past 25 years," Gover said. "However, this bill's language could be construed to compel federal agencies to redirect program funds from other recipients or operations to meet the full contract support payments of Indian tribes and tribal organizations. The offsets should be satisfactory to both Congress and the administration."

Dr. Michael Trujillo, HIS director, reiterated administration's concerns regarding the source of funding and voiced opposition to establishing a new entitlement.

"The administration does not support the creation of a new entitlement because it only addresses one component," Dr. Trujillo said.

In response to these concerns, Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., said the committee was interested in resolving the matter fairly, through carefully consideration.

"This is not a legal matter, but a moral matter," Kildee said. "We have to identify some offsets from other areas in government, not Indian programs. We should fully fund contract support costs and make it an entitlement."

Tribal witnesses, like Richard Narcia, lieutenant governor of the Gila River Indian Community, expressed support for the bill and its overall ability to address current problems.

"The recent GAO study validates tribes' need for adequate contract support funding and officially confirms the adverse effects of under funding on our local programs," Narcia said. "With the introduction of H.R. 4148, we are now in position to address specifically the problems with the existing system and put into place a sustainable contract support system."