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NCAI Winter Session reviews budgetary and legislative highlights

WASHINGTON - A succession of speakers provided a steady commentary on the issues under discussion at the National Congress of American Indians Executive Council Winter Session Feb. 23 - 25. In this second of two articles on the session, their views have been grouped under subjects that received particular attention, namely President George W. Bush's budget request for fiscal year 2005 and the ongoing legislative process of the 108th Congress.

The Budget

With the federal budget projected to be around $500 billion in deficit for the fiscal year beginning next October, the Bush administration has announced that it will more than halve the deficit to $237 billion by 2009 - the year after Bush will have to leave office, even if he wins re-election in November.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., took aim at that target, analyzed it and unloaded a dose of heavy invective before an NCAI audience of 200 strong.

"This is truly make-believe budgeting," he said, adding that Bush's 2009 figure includes $2.4 billion in Social Security funds as "surplus," never minding that Social Security isn't surplus but money that must be spent eventually. In addition, Conrad said, the Social Security fund itself can't be considered as stable as the Bush projections would have it, given the many earners who will retire by then to draw on the fund, but without an adequate population of younger earners behind them to replace their tax contributions to the fund. Other problems with the 2009 number are that it leaves the alternative minimum tax, a benefit intended for high-income earners that takes an ever-increasing share of tax revenues from the government, out of account.

Worse yet, Conrad seethed, is the budget's pretense that the war in Iraq will not cost a penny after Sept. 30, when the 2005 budget is scheduled to become law. But it is widely expected that the administration will ask for, and receive, "supplementary" funding from Congress - a real cost to the national treasury that nonetheless remains off-budget. That supplementary cost has been estimated to run as high as $280 billion, Conrad said, adding that in any case "you know it won't cost zero? We're heading for deficits never before seen in this country."

But for Conrad and his audience, the worst this scenario had to offer was yet to come. For Bush has pledged to trim the budget through elimination of federal programs and cuts in domestic discretionary spending. The Indian reliance on federal programs is well-known; sweeping reductions would certainly be felt. More devastating still for Indian country in Conrad's view is the threat to domestic discretionary spending, and for this reason: it is a small part of the budget, $328 billion of a total $820 billion in the fiscal year 2004 budget, for instance. For cuts in domestic discretionary spending to effect any savings in the overall $2.4 trillion 2005 budget request, Conrad said, they would have to be steep indeed. Yet this is where the lion's share of Indian-specific funding comes from - for housing, health care, education, construction, forestry and much besides.

"This president's answer is to cut funding in a small part of the budget. The overall budget keeps going up."

Tex Hall, NCAI president and chairman of Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota, also breathed fire on the budget: "It seems the budget is trying to be balanced on health care, education and housing."

Jackie Johnson, the NCAI executive director and an Alaska Native, took note of the consolidated funding Congress has visited on Alaska Native villages in various areas of law enforcement and judicial systems. If Congress can change the way it works with the many Alaska Native villages, she said, "that sets a precedent."

She called for Native unity in altering the president's 2005 budget request. "Right now ? the different budget strategies don't talk to each other."

Legislative Update

Johnson began her review of the legislative calendar with a battle cry: "No legislation on appropriations bills" - a reference to two legislative riders in the first session of the current 108th Congress.

Riders are legislative provisions that are attached late in the lawmaking process, usually with a minimum of discussion, to larger bills that have already been openly debated in Congress. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, attached one to the 2004 omnibus budget bill that withdrew funding from Alaska Native villages with fewer than 25 residents, as well as from others with more than 25 in relatively (for Alaska) more urbanized areas. The rider overhauled Alaska Native law enforcement, court systems and local laws, all on the basis of a commission's quick review. Another rider, authorized by Sen. Charles Taylor, R-N.C., chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Interior Appropriations, rode the Interior Department spending bill into law at the 11th hour, putting a moratorium on federal expenditures for an historical accounting of the Individual Indian Money trust.

"No legislation on appropriations bills," Johnson repeated, bringing roars of approval from her audience.

She proceeded to provide the following updates on legislation in Congress:

* NCAI is supporting S. 1721, the probate reform measures offered by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo.

* Tribal sovereignty protection legislation will be brought up again in 2004, "to make sure we get included in Homeland

Security funding streams."

* NCAI is negotiating with the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs for amendments to S. 1177, the Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking Act. Many Indians believe provisions in the bill for state tax collection would compromise tribal sovereignty. "Indian country should not tolerate the taxation of cigarettes."

* Welfare reauthorization will not pass in the 108th Congress. "This is too controversial a piece of legislation for this [political and budgetary] environment."

* "At this time ? the Indian energy bill [at last notice, Title V of the national energy reform bill] is still intact ? The Indian energy component will stay as it is. ? Next week [the week of March 1] it will be on the [Senate] floor for action."