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Indian programs largely protected from budget freeze

WASHINGTON – Fears that President Barack Obama would freeze or cut Indian country programs in his fiscal year 2011 budget have been alleviated.

Soon after the president released his proposed budget the week of Feb. 1, it became clear that many Indian-focused programs were set to receive steady, or even growing support in the coming year.

In a broad swath of areas, from Interior and justice funding to health and education programs to Treasury bonding, the president’s budget appears to maintain or strengthen support for Indian country.

“What makes the budget look good is the context – domestic spending has largely been frozen, but many Indian country programs have beaten that trend,” said Lloyd Miller, a Native affairs expert and lawyer with Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry.

At Interior, for instance, the administration made a commitment to honor trust responsibilities and empower tribes, according to a Native-specific fact sheet released by the White House.

In total, the department’s budget pledges $2.6 billion to support and strengthen American Indian and Alaska Native communities, including new investments in tribal self-determination, law enforcement, trust management and tribal self-

determination.

Along those lines, the budget provides funding for a Cobell settlement, yet to be approved by Congress; it includes $19 million to support 45 additional FBI agents for Indian country and $256 million in grants and technical assistance to increase public safety efforts in tribal areas, and it offers increased funding to better compensate tribes for the work they perform in managing federal programs under self-determination contracts and self-governance compacts.

The budget also designates $7.5 million for Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation’s Native American Affairs Office – an increase of $1.4 million over the 2010 enacted level.

Interior officials also said the budget would support tribal energy and climate change developments. Complete Interior designations are online at www.doi.gov/budget/2011/11Hilites/BH077.pdf.

In terms of health, the budget offers $4.4 billion for IHS, one of the largest increases for the agency in recent years. The increases are partially focused on expanding access to contract health services to cover care provided outside the Indian health system when services are not available at IHS-funded facilities.

On education, the budget provides $31.7 million in funding for tribally controlled colleges and universities in the Department of Education – a five percent increase from 2010. It also includes $3.8 million to strengthen Native American-serving non-tribal institutions.

The budget additionally includes $127 million for post secondary education for Native Americans within the Department of the Interior, and it expands the maximum Pell Grant award to $5,550 for the next school year and ensures that future financial aid is reliable by making the Pell program mandatory and increasing the value of the maximum award.

The Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, has announced that its budget includes a $41.4 million increase in tribal funding across the nation, of which $30 million is targeted for new multimedia grants to tribes to help them move beyond capacity building to implementation of federal environmental programs.

On the Treasury front, the budget would make permanent the Build America Bonds program in the 2009 economic stimulus bill, which has already authorized $64 billion in projects to tribes.

Chris Stearns, a Navajo lawyer with Hobbs Straus Dean & Walker and a former congressional staffer, noted that the Internal Revenue Service is asking Congress to amend tax laws to include tribes as states, so tribes, the IRS and states can share information about taxpayers.

Hope MacDonald-Lone Tree, a Navajo Nation council member, has heard many tribal officials express optimism about the budget during recent conversations with the White House.

“During a time of economic hardship, President Obama continues to keep the needs in Indian country a priority for his administration,” MacDonald-Lone Tree said. She has served on a Justice Department advisory group.

Miller agreed, and offered a couple reasons why Indian country may have fared well compared to other domestic programs.

“The Indian country agenda tends to match the president’s general agenda where he has presented a priority on health care, law enforcement and economic development.

“Also, he made quite a unique commitment to Indian country during his campaign, so maybe he feels it’s an area where he’s really got to live up to his promises.”