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Omnibus spending bill is better than expected for tribes

WASHINGTON - Congress has finalized a federal spending bill of $388
billion, including many designated Indian spending items or "earmarks" that
represent an effort by congressional members to do what they can for tribes
in a tight budget. The earmarks, which come On top of departmental program
appropriations, include funding for tribal justice programs, education,
jobs, libraries and cultural centers.

Overall, domestic spending for fiscal year 2005 will rise by less than 1
percent over last year, the slightest increase in a decade. The austerity
fulfills the prediction of budget-watchers in Congress, who have warned for
most of this year that a record federal budget deficit would lead to cuts
in domestic discretionary spending rather than in "untouchable" entitlement
programs or military spending. But by and large, although Indian spending
did suffer a handful of setbacks, spending cuts did not come at the
singular expense of tribes. In many cases, Congress restored funding for
Indian-specific programs and institutions the Bush administration had
slashed dramatically or zeroed out in its initial budget request. The
congressional restorations in the final bill, along with the earmarks
mentioned above, led one veteran budget monitor on Capitol Hill to suggest
tribes have "learned to play the game."

The omnibus spending bill, so called because it includes nine separate
appropriations bills, will fund 13 government departments, their agencies
and commissions, as well as miscellaneous other matters in a catchall
category, for fiscal year 2005, which began Oct. 1. The bill will still be
subject to mandatory cuts of less than 1 percent across all departments,
but these "rescissions" as they are known will be applied at the discretion
of the departments. Some departments such as Interior will still have to
make separate departmental cuts over and above the across-the-board
rescissions. The rescissions will keep the budget within guidelines
established by congressional leadership and the White House, which had
threatened to veto the bill if spending exceeded a 1 percent increase over
last year's budget.

The bill passed in November but had to be reconsidered after the usual
Thanksgiving recess because it came to include, more or less by accident, a
provision that would have given congressional staff access to the tax
returns of individuals. A chorus of outrage led Congress to repeal the
provision before sending a final bill to Pres. George W. Bush for his
signature on Dec. 8.

A major loss in Indian spending funding occurred in land consolidation.
This is also one of the few Indian programs where Congress cut back on an
administration request. Only $35 million will go to land consolidation,
half what Bush requested in an effort to slow down land fractionation and
its related expenses. The program appears to have become a sacrificial lamb
during negotiations designed to comply with the Bush budgeting guidelines
without undercutting other Indian programs.

In another odd turn of events, steep cuts to a program represented
compliance with tribal wishes when the Office of the Special Trustee saw
nearly a quarter of its requested budget trimmed away. In coming in so far
under the administration's request of almost $250 million, Congress clearly
responded to the concern of tribes that fully funding the office would
siphon resources from other tribal programs.

Alaska Native and tribal water interests gained multi-year funding under
rural agricultural programs and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The BIA's $2.3 billion budget represents many congressional funding
decisions that improved on administration requests, while simply fulfilling
them under other line items. Two institutions that had been zeroed out saw
funding restored in the enacted budget: United Tribes Technical College in
North Dakota and Crownpoint Institute of Technology in New Mexico. Public
safety programs gained over both the Bush request and last year's funding
level; likewise for BIA schools. New school construction funding fell
slightly but remained at high levels, reflecting the gains made in an
administration priority of recent years. The General Assistance Program was
level-funded over administration requests for a cut; likewise for contract
support costs, cuts to which were a particular sore point with tribal
leaders during congressional hearings last summer. All told, the BIA budget
increased slightly over last year but survived a Bush request to scale it
back by $76 million.

Congress honored the '05 request by level-funding the Indian Health Service
at $3 billion, technically a 1.6 percent increase but not enough to keep
Indian country from "falling behind" when inflation is factored in, in a
phrase from congressional hearings. As in previous years though, the
administration maintains that other IHS revenue sources - health insurance
collections, diabetes appropriations, rental collections on federal health
staff quarters - boost IHS program spending to $3.7 billion. In any case,
given the budgetary hard times, tribes may find reason to feel good about
gains in contract care services, hospital and health clinic construction,
and program funding.

A law separate from the budget bill compensated Three Affiliated Tribes in
North Dakota for a hospital ruined by flooding from dam construction on the
Missouri River 50 years ago. The long-promised compensation takes the form
of a $20 million IHS clinic.

For many lawmakers, a bitter disappointment in Indian health care is the
failure of Congress, the Department of Health and Human Services and the
White House to reauthorize the Indian Health Care Act, despite brave
statements of devotion to the cause from DHHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson.

Indian-specific earmarks that made it into the omnibus bill under the
miscellaneous or "other matters" category include funding for legal
services, water rights at Nez Perce and an endangered owl species at
Quinault.

Finally, as tribes count their blessings under a budget that could have
been much worse for them, a cautionary note from the Center on Budget and
Policy priorities, issued last February, is still relevant. Under budgetary
assumptions that guided the administration's '05 (as distinct of course
from the enacted budget under consideration here), the center warned as
follows:

"By 2009, funding for domestic discretionary programs would be cut $50
billion below the 2004 level, adjusted for inflation ... The large majority
of domestic discretionary programs throughout the government would be cut,
including popular programs that the Administration claims it is increasing
based on its funding request for 2005. The cuts generally would start in
years after 2005 and grow wider with each passing year."