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Shortfalls in Bush budget request

WASHINGTON - Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell gaveled a hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs into session Feb. 11 with several reminders of the good things Indian country has going for it.

The Colorado Republican mentioned the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian on Sept. 21 and urged tribes to take part. He also noted, as a succession of committee members and witnesses also would, the passage of a probate reform bill intended to help consolidate fractionated trust land - the subject of a rare proposed budget increase in fiscal year 2005. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, added that a mediation process in the trust funds litigation known as Cobell for lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell is showing signs of progress.

But probably the best news for witnesses at this hearing on the budget was Campbell's reminder that President Bush's budget request for 2005 is just that - a request made of Congress, and certain to be altered by Congress before it is enacted into law. That enactment would take place almost a year from now if it follows the course of the fiscal year 2004 budget. With war on the ground in Iraq and a presidential election year at hand, little about the discretionary spending portions of the budget can be considered cast in stone. The president's proposed budget reductions do not single out Indian country but reach across the board of federal programs outside of homeland security.

At any rate, Campbell pointed out that a full five of the committee members are also appropriators, a clear indication that Indian country will be represented when final budget decisions are made for '05. Barring an impasse of the kind that shut down the government once before in recent memory, the '05 budget will go into effect in October 2004 whether the actual budget has passed or not (if not, temporary spending resolutions will be the first choice to bridge the gap).

Still and all, the Bush request reflects presidential priorities, and for these it is being criticized in Indian country and by allies on Capitol Hill, including Sens. Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson, D-S.D., Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and others yet to be formally heard from.

Cuts in health care, housing and education drew particularly sharp comments at the Feb. 11 hearing. Don Kashevarov of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium sounded a sure theme of the coming wartime elections when he noted in troubled tones that he considers America the greatest nation on earth ? and yet, "In this trillion dollar budget, why can't we keep the first Americans from falling behind in health care?"

Or education or housing, as other witnesses noted in decrying proposed budget cuts in those areas.

For the record, the president's enacted budget for the Indian Health Service in 2004 turned out to be $2.9 billion, a 2.5 percent increase over 2003. The administration maintains the figure is much higher when other IHS program revenues are factored in. The '05 request is for $3 billion, technically a 1.6 percent increase but not enough to keep Indian country from "falling behind" in Kashevarov's phrase when inflation is factored in, as it must be for program planning purposes. Again in '05 though, the administration maintains that other IHS revenue sources - health insurance collections, diabetes appropriations, rental collections on federal health staff quarters - boosts IHS program spending to $3.7 billion.

In housing, a decrease in Native American Housing and Self-Determination block grants, from $654.1 million in '04 to $647 million in '05 seems to be the main complaint, given the undoubted dire housing needs on many reservations.

In education, BIA school construction funding would decline from '04 levels by $65.8 million, to $229.1 million in '05, (part of a steep decline in BIA construction allocations for the same periods, from $351.1 million to $283.1 million). Tribal college funding would also suffer cuts - the zeroed-out budget for United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, N.D., being particularly noted at the Feb. 11 hearing. Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of the American Indians and chairman of Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota, strongly dissented and Sen. Kent Conrad, a committee member, portrayed the United Tribes de-funding as representative of budgetary distress at tribal colleges generally: "The president's response is 'cut them' ? apparently because we've got to pay for the tax refunds for the nation's wealthiest people when we can't pay our bills already."

Mention of the federal budget deficit brought about by the war on Iraq inspired several comments at the hearing. The most emphatic of these came from Sen. Byron Dorgan, Conrad's fellow Democrat from North Dakota. "We have a full-scale crisis in Indian country in health care, education and housing needs," he said, contrasting the cutbacks proposed in these areas with the heavy U.S. investment in same as Iraq rebuilds.

"If we can make that kind of investment in Iraq, we can darn sure make it in Indian country."

Also under criticism at the hearing were proposed cuts of BIA programs based on poor performance measures, and of proposed increases to the Office of the Special Trustee for trust funds. Hall repeated his regular criticism, vociferously shared by many tribal leaders, that BIA cuts are paying for the OST increases.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs has scheduled another hearing on the budget request for Feb. 25, this time with testimony from federal agencies that administer Indian programs.

Two curious features of the president's '05 budget request bear special mention, though they did not come up at the Feb. 11 hearing.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has released an analysis of the president's budget contending that it requests modest increases in '05 domestic discretionary spending, followed by steep cuts in subsequent years, until spending levels will show a $50 billion annual decline by 2009. These planned spending declines, sure to effect Indian country if they are enacted, are not shown in tables of the publicly-issued budget, according to the center. "To find these cuts, one must have access to the 1,000-page OMB [Office of Management and Budget] computer run that covers all budget accounts and underlies the budget."

It should be noted that the center's analysis assumes a steady state universe when it comes to needs, and a dynamic one when it comes to funding - that is, it assumes a same level of need over time, against declines in funding over time. The opposite is true of the president's budget as reflected in the OMB thousand-pager - that is, it assumes a dynamic universe when it comes to needs: need declines over time in an efficient productive economy (a staple of the free market economic modeling favored by the president), and funding is justified in declining along with it. Of course, as the center implies in pointing out the budget's favorable assumptions on future war funding (not accounted for at all), such dynamism tends to work in the direction of politically favorable outcomes.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities' Feb. 5 analysis can be accessed on the Internet at www.cbpp.org/2-5-04bud.htm.

Finally, the president's '05 budget request assumes income from oil development in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge that could not be tapped without new legislation. Because an attempt to open ANWR had to be dropped from national energy legislation that may not become law even without that divisive item, the presence of ANWR revenues in the budget could only come about through serious political repositioning - the kind associated with election years. It would appear then that the president hopes to open up ANWR in his second term, with the help of a more conservative Congress after the November elections.

Of course, even in the event it amounts to more than speculation, that scenario is a long way from playing out. But stranger things have been known to happen in election years.