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Indian-specific reductions draw criticism

WASHINGTON -- For all the criticism sure to be leveled at President Bush
for the proposed Indian-specific budget cuts in his federal budget request
for fiscal year 2007, a close look also shows that someone in the White
House is listening somewhat closely to the major concerns of Indian
country.

Three of the leading concerns of tribal leaders in recent years have been
contract support costs, health care and land consolidation. Contract
support costs pay the bill for a range of management and administrative
cost centers such as utilities, repair and maintenance, audits and
insurance; the Supreme Court has ruled the self-determination contracts
between tribes and federal agencies fully enforceable, even down to these
indirect costs, leading one longtime attorney in Indian country to call
self-determination contracts "the new treaties." The health care needs in
Indian country are well-known and funding them has been an ongoing campaign
for a loose consortium of tribes nationwide. As for land consolidation, it
is a critical step in restoring tribal land "fractionated" by inheritance
policy into miniscule holdings to economically productive use.

It's worth noting that in a budget with plenty to complain about for
everyone outside the military "defense" establishment, the Department of
Homeland Security and the usual healthy handful of special interests, the
administration remembered tribal contract support costs with a proposed
increase of $19 million to fully fund indirect costs in BIA-tribal
self-determination contracts at $151.7 million; the IHS, with an increase
of $124.5 million to a total budget of $4 billion; and land consolidation,
with an increase of $25.4 million over the appropriation for FY '06.

Of course, whether it's Indian country or anywhere else, funding is seldom
enough; and 2007 is shaping up as one of the tightest fiscal years in
memory. The National Congress of American Indians called for a $75 million
increase to fully fund IHS contract support costs, and one of the
trade-offs for the overall IHS increase was the zeroing-out of last year's
$32.74 million appropriation for urban Indian health clinics, a move that
met with an outpouring of skepticism and outright scorn at a Senate
Committee on Indian Affairs budget hearing Feb. 14.

The zeroed-out urban Indian health care budget repeated a pattern that
showed up more than once in the president's proposals -- justification of
the goose eggs on grounds the services were duplicated by other programs
that could accommodate the de-budgeted services.

Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., the committee vice chairman, seized upon the pattern
as it recurred for tribal courts, prison facilities construction, the
Johnson O'Malley education program, the National American Indian Housing
Council's technical assistance and training in homeownership, and others.
"That's not streamlining. That's pretty significant ... It appears to me
that you're taking these programs, zeroing them out and calling it
streamlining," he said to Regina Schofield, assistant attorney general with
the Office of Justice Programs in the U.S. Department of Justice. Schofield
had just met Sen. John McCain's assertion of a crisis in Indian detention
facilities with the statement that $7 million remained in that particular
till for architectural design, but more money would be needed for detention
facility construction. In view of the president's budget request, the
implication here was that Congress will have to intervene to appropriate
funding for Indian detention facilities if Congress wants them built.

McCain, the committee chairman, quietly replied, "I would hope that you
would request that money, Ms. Schofield."

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For those with some sense of what to look for, the exchange brought the
budget process's several elements of Japanese kabuki theater --
ritualistic, stylized, impassive yet intense -- into the open. Year after
year, agency heads admit to Congress that they need more funding. But under
the 43rd president at least, they've given little indication of going
toe-to-toe with the president for those increases, something former Sen.
Ben Nighthorse Campbell complained about regularly. Year after year, when
zeroed-out budgets come over from the White House, Congress expresses some
measure of displeasure with the administration, decries the cuts as an
affront to constituents and sets about restoring them. The administration
then expresses some measure of displeasure with Congress, and often goes on
to accuse it of running up the budget once the cuts are restored.

McCain, the Arizona Republican, and Dorgan the Democrat more or less
acknowledged all this when they agreed that the administration can be
counted on to propose budget cuts knowing full well Congress will restore
them. For that matter, Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., said the same thing at a
later stage of the hearing. "It's a game as old as there is, as long as
we've been doing business," McCain said.

But as a reminder that there's nothing theatrical about it in the last
analysis, there's no rehearsal and no certain ending can ever be scripted.
If Congress ever once fails to rise to the occasion and restore cuts, the
lost services in Indian country alone would be monumental. By the same
token, if the president and his Republican majority in Congress overreach
in their campaign of program rollbacks, a great many of their gains in
Congress since winning control of the House of Representatives in 1994
could be lost at the polls in the upcoming mid-term elections.

Another major Indian program that suffers a setback in the president's
plans for FY '07 is health care facilities construction, down $20.1 million
from FY '06. That's enough to cancel facilities at the top of the IHS
priority construction list in Barrow and Nome, Alaska, to the alarm of
Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a committee member. She said the
vastness of Alaska's geography means Native people typically find
themselves far away from the infrastructures of health care, a condition
the Nome and Barrow facilities will help to mitigate. IHS Director Charles
Grim said the facilities came with too big a price tag for this year's
tough budget, but remain priorities -- a continuation of the hiatus in
funding that began in 2006 as a supposed "one-year pause," as the
administration characterized it then. Murkowski replied that a timeline for
the construction is needed "and, truly, a commitment to move forward with
these important projects." Grim couldn't give that commitment, but repeated
that the projects are priorities.

Murkowski also brought up rural sanitation, a vital concern for Alaska
Native communities built on permafrost. "That's a strong component of our
program," Grim said, noting an increase in the proposed budget for it, as
well as its exceptional performance rating under the administration's
assessment system. "We're making some headway," Murkowski acknowledged,
"but we still need that commitment."

The BIA budget will dwindle by $52.4 million to $2.2 billion in FY '07 if
the president's budget is enacted. Indian school construction funding would
fall by almost $50 million. The Indian Child Welfare Act would lose almost
three-quarters of a million dollars in implementation funding. A commodity
foods supplemental program within the U.S. Department of Agriculture would
be eliminated. Environmental Protection Agency programs in Alaska Native
villages would decline by $19 million in FY '06 to $15 million. A Community
Oriented Policing Services grants program is poised to lose $128 million in
funding, potentially costing tribal governments 759 law enforcement
positions.

Even level funding from FY '06 will wreak havoc on some programs, among
them the Native American Housing Block Grant program authorized by the
Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act. The
program's success is reflected in the level funding request of $625.7
million for FY '07, relatively generous in the nation's straitened
budgetary circumstances. But energy-related inflation, spiraling
construction costs and the growing American Indian population mean that
many fewer Native families will find their way into homes despite the same
funding.

At the hearing's end, Dorgan emphasized that Indian people should be in
touch with their representatives as the budget evolves, and that tribes and
Indian organizations should come forward with their information,
perspectives and advocacy, as they did at the hearing. "This budget process
goes on for a long time here," he said.