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Tribes Campaign for Infrastructure Needs, Come Up Short in Trump Budget

With the U.S. government already billions of dollars in debt on funding various Indian country infrastructure projects, what are tribes left to do?

If there was an I-beam in Donald Trump's presidential campaign platform, it was his vow to create a $1-trillion infrastructure program that would generate millions of jobs. On March 15, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (SCIA) invited Indian leadership to scope out priorities for spending that proposed funding. With United States government already billions of dollars in arrears on funding various Indian country infrastructure projects, tribes are now methodically evaluating and prioritizing their needs. As Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) stated as he kicked off the meeting, "We don't know what [the funding] will look like, but Indian country needs to be part of it....the federal government must live up to its solemn trust responsibility...."

High on the list of Udall's – and many other speakers' – priorities was improved broadband capability. "We can't afford to let the digital divide grow," he said.

Delbert Rexford, special assistant and advisor to the President of the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation, advocated strongly for infrastructure spending to expand oil and gas drilling and operations in Alaska. This translates into improving roads, air and sea ports.

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The biggest concern for the chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation, Edward Manuel, was roads. The Tohono O’odham share a 75-mile international border with Mexico, and have 800 miles of Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) roads – 45 percent paved – making up an area the size of Connecticut. Four hundred border patrol agents use the roads 24/7, making their maintenance a costly nightmare.

BIA roads – "83 percent of which are unacceptable" – were in Councilman of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe’s Leslie Shakespeare's crosshairs, too. He saw federal-state-private partnerships under federal coordination as the "best configuration" to upgrade them.

As the panel moved to a discussion of environment and public works (EPW), James Floyd, principal chief of the Muscogee Creek Nation, emphasized how necessary a cooperative process was given the complicated jurisdictional boundaries and regulations for water.

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Tribal lawyer for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Ryan Rusche said he would like to see the authorization of the Indian water settlements to "[ensure] safe and reliable drinking water, as well as dependable water for agricultural, industrial, and commercial needs and wastewater treatment."

Derek Dyson, a lawyer for the Navajo Utility Authority, pointed to the Federal Communications Commission as the roadblock in the tribe’s plan to expand broadband coverage. With only 51 percent of their people now covered, this tribe the size of West Virginia is fighting to get federal funding for broadband infrastructure. Their highly dispersed population makes communication critical not only for economic development of their mineral resources, but for emergency response and public safety, education, and even simple connectivity to the rest of the world.

There was no discussion on tribal health, education, and housing until Rep. Norma Torres (D-CA) and Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) both seemed a bit exasperated at the dearth of dialogue on these subjects. Torres said most Indian health care facilities are 40 years old – four times the age of most non-Indian health facilities. She also highlighted the $1.3 billion backlog in school facility upgrades, the $2.8 billion backlog in sanitation projects, and pointed out that 30 percent of Indians live in overcrowded housing, which is six times the national average.

Jon Whirlwind Horse, facilities manager of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, focused on the plight of children – "our future" – in Indian country. "If we build adequate schools, we won't have to have so many jails," he said. He also wondered why Indian programs were not mandatory funding for the federal government, since they derived from treaty rights: "We shouldn't have to file lawsuits to get our rights protected. We need to get away from the bureau system."

Franken agreed. Especially troubling to him was the housing situation on reservations. He has been promoting guaranteed loan programs to draw investment in Indian country, especially in progressive technologies like renewable energy.

Despite these many proposals, everything now rests on the fate of President Donald Trump's budget. Though SCIA Chairman John Hoeven (R-ND) hoped to see an infrastructure bill this year, and he wants to make sure that Indian country's input guides its spending, the day after the hearing, the White House released a proposed budget in which infrastructure didn't even get an honorable mention.

What was highly visible in Trump's budget, which now must face the scrutiny of Congress, were cuts that will hurt tribal programs: a 21 percent cut for the Department of Agriculture, an 18 percent cut for Health and Human Services, a 14 percent cut for the Department of Education, a 13 percent cut for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a 13 percent cut for the Department of Transportation, and a 12 percent cut for the Department of the Interior. All this while the budget proposes a 23 percent increase in programs for national security.

With severe reductions in programs that benefit Indians and non-Indians alike such as Medicaid and Medicare, it seems unlikely that tribes will see a dime for infrastructure this year.