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Hearing gives administration a chance to play defense on '05 budget

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration got a chance to defend its fiscal year 2005 budget priorities before Indian country Feb. 25, at a budget oversight hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian affairs.

Despite the somewhat dry topic, the day was not without fireworks. If the budget process can be compared to a sparring match between Congress and the administration, perhaps Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell can be said to have come off the top ropes over the absence of Dave Anderson. The assistant secretary for Indian affairs was confirmed in the BIA top slot four months ago, but remains on a "learning curve" in regards to the nuts and bolts of the BIA budget, suggested Ross Swimmer, the special trustee for trust funds, under pointed questioning from Campbell.

The Colorado Republican and committee chairman retorted that he is on a "patience curve" and warned that Anderson will find "a less friendly chairman if he doesn't get over here."

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, the committee co-chairman (he's technically the vice-chairman, but Campbell has appeared to honor his longevity on the committee by referring to him by the former title), also repeatedly grilled Office of Indian Education director Victoria Vasques on the zeroed-out '05 budget for a Native Hawaiian educational program.

Other than that, the occasion was uneventful. Swimmer has taken a great deal of criticism over increased funding to his Office of the Special Trustee, which many tribal leaders believe has come at the expense of BIA program funding. In mounting a measured defense of the administration's budget request, Swimmer as much as admitted that this is so. "While many people believe these rising costs [of correcting the Indian trust management systems, especially the Individual Indian Money trust] should not be offset by reductions or level funding in other areas of the BIA or Interior budget, the reality is that, to some extent they will be, because the Interior budget ? allocation is not increasing at the rate of the costs of administering the IIM accounts."

Swimmer also portrayed Indian budgeting against a larger background of congressional accountability "for each dollar appropriated for Indian programs."

"Interior is now spending many millions of dollars a year to keep track of individual interests in Indian trust lands, and to manage, collect, and distribute revenue from them. This does not include the costs associated with the litigation of the Cobell case. The costs of managing accounts that sometimes have as little as one cent in them far exceed the benefits that accrue to the beneficiaries of those accounts ? The cost of managing these kinds of individual assets is expected to rise exponentially over the next 20 years as individual Indians die and their interests are further split through inheritance? We believe we must aggressively try to consolidate the millions of interests in individual Indian trust lands into a more manageable number so that these lands can be put to their best economic use. Further, funds spent on managing a high number of small accounts could be put to better use. We propose beginning that process with an aggressive nationwide Indian land consolidation program, and meaningful probate reform."

Land consolidation is the subject of an unprecedented $75 million request in the 2005 budget, Swimmer said. The budget also requests increased probate reform funding, but a Campbell bill to improve probate reform (S. 1721) is still under review with the administration, Swimmer said.

Swimmer said a budget decrease in Indian school construction funds reflects the progress made under much larger budgets of the previous three years. Similarly, a decreased request for land and water claims settlements reflects two major settlements from last year. The administration has also made strategic requests of $1 million to assist tribes in developing uniform business codes, and of $250,000 for a start-up "student loan repayment program specifically targeted to students who agree to a term of employment on a reservation or within the BIA."