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Indian leaders suggest improvements to Obama’s budget

WASHINGTON – While dramatic spending increases for Indian country exist in President Barack Obama’s first proposed budget, tribal leaders have suggested a number of improvements to his 2010 outline for Indian programs. Their input has already swayed some members of Congress.

At a hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs March 6, several Indian leaders said they are pleased that, even in tough economic times, Obama’s budget recognizes the need to make substantial investments in Indian country.

Obama’s budget allocates more than $4 billion for the IHS, the largest increase for the agency in two decades, according to the White House.

In the areas of law enforcement and education, the president’s budget includes more than $100 million in increased funding to the BIA, as well as funding for tribal colleges.

But Indian leaders said the proposal does not go far enough, specifically in the areas of Indian health, education, housing and public safety.

“We’re not keeping up with the cost of real business in Indian country,” testified Jackie Johnson Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. She described federal budgets focused on tribes since 1998 as “flat-lined.”

Tribal leaders also testified in favor of rules and regulations that would provide flexibility to allow Indian tribes to better determine how best to meet local needs.

The arguments appear to have held weight, as the SCIA leadership is now backing big increases for Indian country programs, beyond those offered by Obama.

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Their support extends to a $400 million appropriation for public safety and health programs that was rejected as part of the omnibus bill earlier this month due to partisan wrangling. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., has long been an advocate for the funding, and was disappointed that Democrats did not include it as part of the omnibus plan.

In total, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., the chairman of SCIA, and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., the vice chairman, have asked colleagues to increase funding for Indian programs by approximately $1 billion for 2010. That number includes requests for an additional $600 million for Indian health, $100 million for public safety and justice and at least $90 million for economic development programs.

“The United States owes a unique legal obligation and trust responsibility to 562 federally recognized Indian tribes based on treaties, federal laws and Supreme Court decisions,” read a March 13 letter sent from SCIA leadership to the Senate Budget Committee.

“We recommend that the FY 2010 Budget Resolution include funding levels that will permit the federal government to meet these solemn obligations.”

The leadership has indicated that more money is needed beyond Obama’s outline to address poor health, safety and economic conditions in Indian country.

“The Indian Affairs Committee’s oversight of conditions and issues facing tribal communities has revealed significant challenges,” the letter said.

“Many tribes face inadequate access to health care, law enforcement services, economic opportunity, education and housing, all key elements of healthy communities. Tribal infrastructure needs are significant and too often present both a threat to public health and safety and a barrier to tribal economic development.”

Along with Johnson Pata, making the case for more Indian support were Jessica Burger, of the National Indian Health Board; Robert Cook, president of the National Indian Education Association; and Cheryl Parish, vice chairperson of the National American Indian Housing Council.