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Tribes lobbying against 'harmful' appropriations riders
Monday, November 10, 2003

Provisions to deny funding to Alaska Native tribal courts, force the Bureau of Indian Affairs to pay for tribal trust lawsuits and require yet another report on Indian gaming are contained in appropriations legislation under debate in the U.S. Congress.

The Commerce, Justice and State (CJS) appropriations act isn't usually an area ripe for meddling in Indian affairs. But lawmakers in the House and Senate have inserted language deemed "harmful" by both the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA).

Both organizations are lobbying to have the provisions removed before the bill makes it to President Bush's desk. The timing is up in the air -- Republican leaders hope to wrap up work on the measure, along with 9 other appropriations bills, by Thanksgiving, but prospects are dimming as the holiday approaches.

The Senate is set to take up the CJS bill this week. Its version contains a provision that forbids the Department of Justice from providing federal funds to Alaska Native tribal law enforcement and court systems and another that requires the BIA to use at least $3.1 million in Indian program money to pay for government lawyers battling 21 tribal mismanagement lawsuits.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has taken credit -- or the blame -- for the tribal court rider. With not enough resources to spread around more than 220 Native villages, he says the money should go to the state of Alaska. Native leaders are opposing the proposal and say it is an attack on their sovereignty.

No one has stepped forward to take the fall for the tribal trust rider, which reimburses DOJ for its defense of the lawsuits, most of which are not in active litigation but are in various stages of mediation and informal discussions. Sources in and out of Congress said the White House pushed for some sort of language in this area. The White House was behind a rider to delay a court-ordered accounting of individual Indian trust funds in another appropriations bill awaiting President Bush's signature.

NCAI President Tex Hall and other tribal leaders have spoken out against the use of Indian program money to pay for problems they say the federal government created. The $3.1 million identified by the CJS rider is nearly the entire budget of the BIA's economic development office.

As for the House, its version contains language directing DOJ to provide a report on what it is doing to combat "possible illegal activity" within the $14 billion Indian gaming industry. It was inserted by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who chairs the House subcommittee in charge of the CJS bill and is a noted foe of all forms of gambling.

Last summer, Wolf and his colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee suffered a major defeat when a study he sought of Indian gaming was killed on the House floor. NIGA, which represents more than 150 tribes with casinos, is again taking the lead to remove or change this rider.

Elsewhere in the CJS bill, there are cuts for Indian Country. Grants for prison construction, courts and alcohol and substance abuse have been reduced by $4.5 million to $13 million in the House version. The Senate version provides $18 million.

The tribal law enforcement account, which is used for officer hiring and technology programs, has been cut by $4.7 million to $30 million in the House version. The Senate bill provides $20 million.

The explanation of the tribal court rider reads:
The Committee notes that the Department of Justice and other Federal agencies have provided grants to tribes in Alaska for courts, police officers, and law enforcement equipment. Because the previous administration recognized 227 separate tribes in Alaska, there are not sufficient funds for each tribe to have its own court system and police force. Therefore, the Committee has included a general provision in the bill clarifying that funds should not be made available to tribes in Alaska for courts or police until a more efficient delivery system can be developed such as consolidation. However, to ensure that judicial services continue in Alaska Native villages, the funds that have previously been granted to tribes will now be allocated to the State of Alaska to increase magistrates and fund the Village Public Safety Officer Program until such system can be developed.
The language for the tribal trust rider states:
At least 21 lawsuits have been filed by Indian Tribes seeking billions of dollars for alleged mismanagement of Tribal assets by the Bureau of Indian Affairs [BIA]. Some of the cases seek an order requiring the United States to perform multi-million dollar, multi-year accounting, and others seek a money judgment for losses the Tribes claim they have suffered. The Committee believes additional resources to defend against this litigation are essential, but believes they should be paid for by BIA and not the Department. Accordingly, the Committee directs the Environment and Natural Resources Division [ENRD] to seek reimbursement of not less than $3,060,000 by BIA not later than 30 days after enactment of this Act.
The Indian gaming report provision reads:
The Committee remains concerned with possible illegal activity associated with gambling casinos on Native American reservations, and directs the Justice Department to submit a report to the Committee by October 12, 2003 describing all ongoing Justice Department efforts with regard to this issue.

CJS Bills and Conference Reports:
H.R.2799 | H.Rept.108-221 | S1585 | S.Rept.108-144

Relevant Links:
National Congress of American Indians -
National Indian Gaming Association -

Related Stories:
Congress clears Indian funding in budget bill (11/4)
Stevens unapologetic in speech to Alaska Natives (10/27)
Stevens remarks on Alaska Natives draw fire (10/7)

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