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Washington in brief

No vote deal on Akaka and energy bills - yet

WASHINGTON - Sen. Daniel Akaka's office has dispelled a persistent Washington rumor of recent weeks to the effect that a political arrangement has been made to switch a vote of the Hawaii delegation on the national energy bill, in return for unspecified considerations on S. 344.

S. 344, called the "Akaka Bill" after the Hawaii Democrat, its lead sponsor, would establish federal recognition of Native Hawaiians as a political group.

National energy legislation, dear to the policy agenda of President George W. Bush, came within one vote of becoming law when the ballots were last cast. Assuming Republicans can get the bill to the Senate floor for a final vote and all other votes stand fast, they would have to peel off one opposing vote to send the bill to the president. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., point man on the bill for the Bush administration, has stated that he will seek that vote from the Hawaii delegation.

Hawaii is dependent on offshore energy supplies. By spurring further exploration and development of fuel resources, the bill would boost national fuel supplies.

Akaka has requested voting time on the bill. The Senate's Republican leadership would have to make time in a crowded legislative schedule.

Paul Cardus, press secretary for the senator, dispelled the vote-swapping rumor from late February, when a series of national Indian organizational meetings brought many tribal leaders to the nation's capital. No such deal has been reached, he said, adding that a deal of some kind could still take place. The senator has always said that he'll talk to anyone, Cardus said.

S.D.'s Johnson is at home, healthy and resting

WASHINGTON - Sen. Tim Johnson has been given a medical all-clear following recent surgery for prostate cancer, communications director Julianne Fisher confirmed.

"He's cancer-free. Now comes monitoring and recovery." The prognosis is for a full recovery, Fisher added.

The South Dakota Democrat, a strong presence in Indian affairs dating from his days in the House of Representatives, is resting at his home in Virginia. He may be back on Capitol Hill as early as mid-March, though Fisher said he'll be strictly limited to light office work at first.

Udall declares candidacy for Colorado Senate seat

WASHINGTON - Rep. Mark Udall set his sights on the open Senate seat from Colorado, signaling his candidacy to party leaders and the press March 9. The move immediately followed the decision of the state's high-profile Republican governor, Bill Owens, not to run for the post Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell retires from after the current congressional session.

Other candidates were mulling their options, notably another Coloradoan in the House of Representatives, Scott McGinnis, a Republican. Newspapers in the state have also reported that former Denver mayor Wellington Webb is contemplating a campaign.

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But an off-the-cuff view is that if Campbell had to go, few candidates would have been so welcome to Indian country as Udall. He is the son of the late Morris "Mo" Udall, the longtime Arizona delegate to the U.S. House and a staunch ally on Indian affairs. Mo Udall's brother, Stuart Udall, served as Interior Secretary, pro-Indian for the times, in the Kennedy administration. Stuart Udall was instrumental in founding the Udall Center for Public Policy Studies at the University of Arizona, which has shown a standing devotion to Native issues. Other members of the prominent democratic clan include U.S. Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Lori Udall, an environmental activist who has worked on international indigenous issues.

The one perfect certainty in the election is that Campbell won't be reconsidering his decision. At a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs oversight hearing March 10, a couple of witnesses urged the committee chairman to change his mind and reclaim a seat that is considered his for the taking in some quarters. A smiling Campbell replied, "I've been married 38 years to a wife who says she's been a single mother for 22 years [the duration of his political career], I've got two grandkids who don't know me and my dog growls when I get home. I believe it's time to get back to the ranch - back to the pow wow circuit if nothing else."

The campaign is already under a 24/7 watch in Washington. The withdrawal of Campbell, a Republican, has implications for the balance of power in a Senate that now seats 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats, and a Democrat-inclined Independent.

IRS ruling lifts tax burden

WASHINGTON - Just in time for tax season, the Internal Revenue Service has ruled that educational benefits provided by a tribal program do not count as gross taxable income to individual beneficiaries with less than the national median family income.

National median income for a family of four in 2002, the year at issue in the ruling, was $54,400. The figure has risen since, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

The IRS issued private letter ruling 200409033 on Feb. 27. Private letter rulings come with a proviso - they address only the facts submitted in the request for a ruling, and cannot be relied upon as precedent in other situations.

That said, the ruling appears to have broader application in Indian country. According to an analysis by the law firm Gardner Carton & Douglas, benefits provided by the tribal program (a corporation in this case) included tuition, books, fees and supplies, room and board, transportation, and the cost of some personal expenses such as day care. In addition, the ruling reaffirmed the IRS treatment of tribes as states or other governments under section 7871 of the tax code, which provides for the tribal chartering of nonprofit organizations under tribal law.

Finally, the ruling addresses the critical "integral part" test of tribally chartered organizations. In this case, the IRS found that a tribal education corporation was an integral part of tribal government because the tribe created it, appointed its governing body, and funded it. As a part of tribal government, the educational corporation is not taxable; therefore expenditures for the "general welfare" are not taxable income to the recipient.

Whether educational assistance is for the "general welfare" depends on income, the IRS decided in this case. Beneficiaries of the educational corporation's assistance earning more than the national median family income must count the assistance as gross taxable income.

In the absence of official IRS guidance for determining whether a tribally chartered entity is an integral part of government, "This ruling further highlights the IRS' willingness to use the integral part test on a case-by-case basis," write Gardner Carton & Douglas attorneys Karen Brown McAfee and Kathleen M. Nilles.

BIA budget figures confirm allocation decline

WASHINGTON - The BIA allocation of the Interior Department budget shows a decline in fiscal year 2005, as expected upon release of President Bush's 2005 budget request.

A recently-issued breakout of the budget's specifically BIA figures confirms a decline of more than 2 percent in BIA funding, to approximately $2.25 billion. The cuts come in housing, school construction, school operations, health facilities construction, law enforcement, forestry, and contract support costs, among other items. Tribal members and leaders have spoken out against each of the reductions in a variety of venues recently, as a series of national organizational meetings has brought a host of Indians to Washington.

The Tribal Priority Allocation shortfall has been a particular sore point. The TPA budget actually rises by about $5 million under the president's 2005 request, not enough to keep pace with inflation, much less tribal need in an austerity budget that features other cuts to Indian line items, according to several tribal leaders. The National Congress of American Indians describes TPA funds as "key to tribal self-determination" because governments can use them flexibly, as unrestricted funds in effect, to meet needs specific to the tribal community. NCAI is calling for a $35 million increase in TPA funds under the enacted level for fiscal year 2004.