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Budget shifts for reorganization criticized at hearing
Thursday, May 13, 2004

Tribal and Congressional leaders warned on Wednesday that Indian programs face more budget cuts in the coming years due to the Bush administration's handling of trust reform.

At a lengthy oversight hearing before the House Resources Committee, the reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs came under fire as tribes and members of Congress questioned how it was being funded. The quick answer: the money is being funneled to the Office of Special Trustee, whose budget has grown by 54 percent and 44 percent in the last two years while education, health and other Indian programs have been cut.

"I understand that there's not a transfer slip that says, you know, take money from [Indian Health Service] and transfer $2 million to OST but the bottom line is that what's happening," said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-New Jersey), the vice-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus.

Interior Department officials denied they were financing trust reform on the backs of Indian Country. "There has been a concern that the role of the Special Trustee has been expanded greatly and that all of the money has been moved from the BIA budget to the OST budget," said Special Trustee Ross Swimmer.

"That's simply a mistake. It's not true. It's not happening," he said.

But tribal leaders offered strong evidence that the Bush administration is shifting money away from Indian programs to pay for the reorganization. In some cases, the money doesn't exist, they said.

The salaries of new deputy superintendents -- to be located at more than 80 BIA reservation agencies -- comes out of "carryover," or surplus funds from last year's budget, said Harold Frazier, chairman of chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. "That funding for their salaries will not be there next year," he said.

"So we question, where are they going to get their salaries from? Education? Social services? Road maintenance" asked Frazier, who also serves as head of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association. "Our people cannot take any more cuts to fund this reorganization."

The Bush administration is spending upwards of $15 million to hire dozens of new employees at the GS-13 and GS-14 employee levels. The salaries for these positions runs as high as $110,000.

Melanie Benjamin, chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe from Minnesota, questioned whether self-governance tribes would lose out on money because programs formerly managed by the BIA, such as probates and appraisals, have been shifted to OST. "Our annual funding agreements are with BIA and not the OST," she said.

"Self-governance is being dismantled by the changing processes by not allowing tribes to adapt as they see fit," she added. "As it is, changes are being forced upon tribes that we are told we must live with."

Members of Congress largely agreed with the tribal criticism. Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California), chairman of the committee, said the reorganization doesn't appear to address the core concerns of Indian Country -- more resources at the local level and speedier decision-making.

"Is it absolutely necessary to have this many steps to go through if somebody wants to get something approved?" he asked, referring to organizational charts presented by Swimmer and Aurene Martin, the principal deputy assistant secretary at the BIA.

"If you're going to go through all reorganization, let's get something out of it," he said. "I know we've got some very complicated and big issues ... but if we're going to go through all of this, let's change the system so that decisions get made."

The reorganization at the BIA's central office in Washington, D.C., is already complete. Martin said only four new positions were created, seeking to counteract tribal claims that the new structure is "top heavy."

The trust officers, who report to OST, and the deputy superintendents, who report to BIA, are being rolled out to Indian Country on a regional basis. The goal is to place them where more Individual Indian Money (IIM) account holders are located -- Oklahoma, the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains are the first target areas. A trust officer from Oklahoma appeared at yesterday's hearing along with Swimmer and Martin.

At most BIA agencies, the deputy superintendent will not actually be a new hire. The agency's realty officer -- the person who handles land-into-trust requests -- will likely be promoted to the deputy superintendent position.

"Why do we need $100,000 a year positions at our agencies when we could better utilize the funding to hire appraisers, range techs, range conservationists [and] surveyors to better manager our lands and our assets?" questioned Frazier.

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust

Related Stories:
Anderson scheduled to testify on reorganization (5/11)
Johnson seeks investigation into OST expansion (05/07)
Pombo to hold hearing on BIA-OST reorganization (05/07)
Campbell says agencies afraid of helping tribes (04/30)
Senate panel hears conflicting views of reorganization (03/11)
Senate panel to hold hearing on BIA reorganization (2/26)
Anderson praises Cobell suit in NCAI speech (2/25)
Fate of Indian preference in hands of Swimmer (02/04)
NCAI president uses speech to lobby for funding (01/22)
A wish list, and resolutions, for Dave Anderson (12/11)
Anderson finally receives nod to take over BIA (12/10)
Swimmer says reorganization is about 'simplicity' (12/05)
DOI holding 'to-be' meetings on trust reform (12/03)
Editorial: Reform DOI, not the trust responsibility (11/26)
Tribes still frustrated on trust reform (11/20)
Bush officials blasted by tribal leaders (11/19)

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