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House budget resolution looks good for education and health

WASHINGTON - The House of Representatives passed a joint resolution Jan. 31 that would supply $463.5 billion to nine federal departments through fiscal year 2007. The departments, including Education, Public Health, Housing and Urban Development, and Interior and the Environment, were left unfunded for FY '07 when the 109th Congress came to a close last year; they have been funded since at FY '06 levels by continuing resolutions, the latest of which expires Feb. 15.

The Jan. 31 resolution of the House funds all nine departments at FY '06 enacted levels through Sept. 30 (when FY '07 ends), while providing for increases in a comparative few high-priority programs and maintaining agency staff. The Democratic majority in the House has made reforming ''earmark'' appropriations a priority, but the party leadership there has argued that time doesn't permit both earmark reform (Congress hasn't even agreed on the definition of an earmark) and debate on the FY '07 budget items left over from the last Congress. The House solution, favored by a 286 - 140 vote, is to freeze the federal budget for the nine domestic spending programs at levels already enacted for FY '06, canceling the earmarks found in the budget proposed for 2007 but never enacted. By the time the FY '08 budget is enacted, this line of reasoning goes, Congress will have given proper time to an earmark reform process.

The resolution addresses earmarks as follows, in Title I, Section 112: ''Any language specifying an earmark in a committee report or statement of managers accompanying an appropriations Act for fiscal year 2006 shall have no legal effect with respect to funds appropriated by this division.''

For the House resolution to become law, the Senate must pass it in identical form. The Senate is expected to take up the resolution the week of Feb. 5 (also the week President Bush's proposed budget for FY '08 is made public). Unlike the House, the Senate has few rules limiting amendments and debate. Therefore a fair number of Capitol Hill observers in Washington believe the Senate will alter the House resolution, forcing a conference committee between the two chambers to iron out differences before the present continuing resolution on the budget lapses Feb. 15.

American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian programs stand to lose considerable funding if the earmark reform movement in the House carries over to the Senate. Many other national programs, including Safe and Secure Rural Roads and Boys and Girls Clubs, would also lose funding if the moratorium on earmarks goes forward.

Funding federal programs at FY '06 levels is also sure to damage some Indian programs, few more so than the National American Indian Housing Council. The organization, authorized under the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act, provides training and technical assistance to potential Native homeowners through tribal housing authorities. A Senate Appropriations Committee report has authorized FY '07 funding. But under Title I, Section 112 of the House resolution, the appropriation in the report is defined as an earmark. As matters stand now, the $4 million approved by Senate appropriators will not be available in 2007. That means it would be altogether scrubbed, because appropriations for FY '08 will have to be debated all over again.

''We're certainly rolled up in their elimination of funding,'' said NAIHC Executive Director Paul Lumley, in his third day on the job. ''Without these appropriations ... we're looking at a budget that will not sustain itself to the end of the fiscal year [Sept. 30].'' The result could be curtailed services and layoffs, and worse depending on the FY '08 budget.

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NAIHC argues that the appropriation is not an earmark at all. The council is authorized to receive technical assistance and training funds under Section 703 of NAHASDA, said Deputy Executive Director Dennis Daniels. In addition, the $4 million is approved for appropriation in a Senate Appropriations Committee report.

''That's the discouraging thing, to be lumped in as an earmark when we're clearly not,'' Daniels added.

Lumley said NAIHC is pinning its hopes on Senate restoration of its approved funding, or on other Senate action. He noted that many other interests, deprived of earmarks, are lining up to make similar requests of their senators. ''It's not going out on a limb to say tribes are special and unique, and Congress should give reconsideration to our appropriation.''

In the field of health, Indian country fared better under the joint resolution. The IHS received a boost in funding of $125 million over its FY '06 level.

Indian education programs also seemed to emerge from the joint resolution without dramatic cutbacks. Lillian Sparks, executive director of the National Indian Education Association, said federally funded Indian elementary and high schools should receive FY '06 funding, and in some cases more. Johnson O'Malley, a supplemental Indian education program, is the main concern here. Last year, the president's proposed budget zeroed out Johnson O'Malley's $16.4 million budget for FY '06. The BIA has discretion to restore it under authority of the joint resolution, Sparks said. But if the BIA has other shortfalls to make up for, President Bush's priorities may also color its decisions. NIEA has counseled its members to contact the BIA with the message that Johnson O'Malley funding should be preserved.

Tribal colleges and universities also come out comparatively well under the joint resolution. Most of them are land-grant institutions. ''There's very good things under the land-grants,'' said Meg Goetz, director of congressional relations for the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. Not only do they receive increases over FY '06 in their equity grants, extension and research programs, but they are also funded in budget line items. As Goetz explained, this means they are not subject to agency discretion in the use of appropriations.

Goetz added that United Tribes Technical College in North Dakota and Crownpoint Institute of Technology in New Mexico, both zeroed out annually in the president's budget requests, may benefit from the resolution's clear directive to fund projects at the funding level enacted for FY '06. Congress funded both institutions in FY '06.