Indian country lets Senate know why economic recovery money is needed

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WASHINGTON – Members of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs seem to realize that Indian governments are in desperate need of economic recovery dollars for infrastructure and other areas of concern. Recent congressional testimony from tribal and Indian organization leaders helped confirm the reality.

Earlier this month, SCIA members and several other senators sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to support a $3.58 billion plan to fund a range of Indian country programs as part of an economic stimulus proposal.

A bevy of tribal leaders were happy to hear the news, but many said the request is not enough.

In testimony before the committee Jan. 15, National Congress of American Indians Executive Director Jacqueline Johnson Pata upped the ante, requesting $6.12 billion for tribal government infrastructure investment to be included in the Obama administration’s upcoming American Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Plan.

“We can’t afford to be left out of. … Obama’s economic recovery plan for the nation.

“Eight of the 10 poorest counties in the United States are home to Indian reservations, so economic development and growth in Indian country is essential as it impacts nearly every aspect of reservation life and tribal governance.”

She said by investing in tribal governments, America will be meeting its moral obligation to ensure those populations that have persistently lived in the poorest economic conditions have the opportunity to go down the same path to recovery as the rest of America.

She also said tribal governments rely on revenue from economic development to provide core services to citizens in lieu of a sustainable tax base. This reliance, she explained, makes tribal governments much more vulnerable than other governments during economic downturns.

Leaders with the National Indian Education Association, the National Indian Health Board and the Alaska Federation of Natives backed up the arguments.

Before the testimony even began, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the committee, said several senators recognize economic hardships were apparent in Indian country – long before the current national economic crisis.

He noted vast economic assistance is needed, especially in terms of infrastructure, on reservations.

Dorgan said he and others want a portion of the national economic stimulus plan to go directly to tribal governments to help improve the situation.

At the same time, he cautioned there will likely be no tribal earmarks on the stimulus money if it does pass Congress, which he estimated might happen around President’s Day.

Still, since some of the money would likely be directed to state and local governments, he said that some should go to tribal governments. This could be done in such a manner that does not involve earmarks, he indicated.

Johnson Pata said NCAI’s $6.12 billion request for recovery is modest in comparison to requests from state and local governments.

Like the $3.58 billion plan recently put out by some senators, NCAI’s recovery plan calls for money for building homes, renewable energy, health, telecommunications and more. NCAI is also asking Congress to give tax credits for tribal alternative energy projects.

Julie Kitka, president of AFN, cautioned that short-term stimulus relief might not be enough. She recommended a Marshall Plan for Indian and Alaska Native communities.

The historic plan was the main U.S. path for rebuilding and creating stronger bedrocks for the countries of Western Europe after World War II.