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Massive spending bill ready for Bush's signature
Friday, January 23, 2004

The U.S. Senate approved a $328 billion spending package on Thursday that funds a number of Indian programs but also changes the way Alaska tribes receive federal dollars.

Senators voted 65-28 in favor of the omnibus appropriations bill, a day after Democrats and some Republicans successfully blocked its passage. It now heads to President Bush for his signature.

The omnibus resolves the status of seven different bills that are normally passed on their own. It funds 11 government agencies, including the Agriculture, Justice, Education, Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services departments.

Scattered throughout the 1,182-page bill are programs and projects for Indian Country. There's $3 million to rebuild a road on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, $1.1 million to help keep Indian kids in New Mexico in school, $200,000 for an Indian health project in California and $150,000 to recruit more Indian law students at the University of North Dakota.

But there are also some controversial provisions, and they don't necessarily involve the expenditure of money. Language in the bill requires the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to treat Alaska Native corporations as tribes under the government-to-government executive order.

Another section requires the Department of Justice to provide a report on "possible illegal activity" within the $14.5 billion Indian gaming industry. The National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA), which represents more than 150 tribes with casinos, had opposed this provision, which was adopted by "reference" in the final bill.

The section that has generated the most interest does involve funds. Worried that more than 220 tribes in his state would seek their own share of the pie, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, inserted a rider to limit money for tribal law enforcement and tribal courts.

The bill outright denies these funds to tribes with less than 25 members. It also denies money to tribes located within seven municipalities, cities and boroughs whether or not they have more than 25 members.

Alaska Native leaders have spoken out against the provision. Jackie Johnson, an Alaska Native who is the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), said it would be "devastating" to tribes who have successfully implemented child welfare, alcohol abuse and other social service programs for their people.

"We do see this as an affront attack on the jurisdiction [and] on the tribes' ability to provide those much needed services to their communities," Johnson said on Wednesday.

Stevens had originally proposed to deny all justice funding to tribes. But after objections from tribal leaders, he drafted the version that will become law upon Bush's signature.

At its annual convention last October, the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) endorsed the creation of a high-level body to examine tribal funding issues. Stevens responded by creating the Alaska Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission, to be composed of federal, state and tribal representatives.

Johnson said there were concerns about the makeup of the commission -- there are more federal and state representatives than tribal. And of the four tribal spots, only one would actually represent a federally-recognized tribe. The other tribal spots go to AFN, a non-profit Native corporation and the Alaska Native Justice Center.

The commission has just four months to review federal, state, local and tribal jurisdiction in order to make recommendations on creating a "unified law enforcement system, court system, and system of local laws or ordinances for Alaska Native villages and communities of varying sizes including the possibility of first, second, and third class villages with different powers." Recommendations are due by May 1.

The rider also directs the General Accounting Office (GAO) to review all federal programs going to rural Alaska. A report is due by April 30.

Get the Bill:

Roll Call:
Senate (January 22, 2004) | House (December 8, 2003)

Related Stories:
Democrats block approval of spending bill (1/21)
Congress returns to session after holiday break (1/19)
Senate Republicans seek passage of spending bill (1/16)
Native firm leases Stevens building for $6M (12/18)
Supreme Court rejects appeal of Native preference case (12/16)
GAO report reviews funding for Alaska Native villages (12/15)
House passes massive appropriations measure (12/09)
Appropriations measure takes on Alaska Native funding (12/04)
Tribes lobbying against 'harmful' appropriations riders (11/10)
Stevens unapologetic in speech to Alaska Natives (10/27)
Alaska Native: 'We became the other N-word' (10/21)
Stevens remarks on Alaska Natives draw fire (10/7)
Stevens files Alaska Native gaming rider (01/24)

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