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Funding levels flat in new Interior budget
Tuesday, February 3, 2004

Interior Secretary Gale Norton unveiled an $11 billion budget on Monday that provides a limited set of new funds for Indian Country programs.

At a press conference in Washington, D.C., Norton said the fiscal year 2005 request enables the Department of Interior to fulfill its "inspiring" and "challenging" mission. She cited construction of Bureau of Indian Affairs schools and trust reform as top priorities of the Bush administration.

"Our budget will allow us to achieve our vision of healthy lands, thriving communities and dynamic economies," she said.

The new budget reflects an increase of just $250 million, or 2 percent, above current levels. Two agencies, the National Park Service and the Office of Special Trustee, are receiving the bulk of that increase.

That leaves the BIA with an overall cut of $52 million. At $2.3 billion, the agency is seeing decreases in education and resources management.

The cuts are offset by increases for trust related activities, although a large portion, $29.1 million, is going to build a new computer network for the BIA. In addition, the budget requests $5.5 million for new hires at BIA agencies and $4 million for specialists and attorney decision-makers who will reduce the backlog of Indian probates.

"This work will not be easy," said Lynn Scarlett, the assistant secretary for policy, management and budget.

Overall, the trust budget is $616.4 million, an increase of $161.1 million over current levels. Some of the money goes to BIA but the bulk ends up at OST, which was created by Congress to oversee reform efforts.

OST has expanded its mission in recent years, and the new budget reflects the change. At $322.7 million, the agency is seeing a $113.6 million, or 54 percent, increase above current levels.

Most of the money, $109.4 million, will fund historical accounting activities for Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts, although officials believe a pending court appeal, or possible Congressional action, could change the amount. The Office of Historical Trust Accounting expects to use $29.4 million on tribal trust accounts.

Within BIA and OST, there are two initiatives of interest. One is the creation of a new Office of Tribal Consultation at BIA with a $1.1 million budget.

Principal deputy assistant secretary Aurene Martin said she saw a great need for the office. "One of the things I noticed was that we didn't do the whole process of consultation very well," she said in an interview. "So I wanted to find a mechanism for providing a point of contact and continuity for tribes when we do have consultations."

Martin said the office will most likely be operated out of Washington, D.C., and will have a staff of five, including a director. The office will report to the assistant secretary for Indian affairs, which does not follow the Indian preference policy.

The second initiative is a major expansion in efforts to consolidate the Indian estate. Over generations, Indian allotments have become fractionated among many different owners, reducing the financial viability of the land and, government officials say, increasing administrative burdens.

The budget seeks $75.0 million for land consolidation, an increase of $53.3 million. Special Trustee Ross Swimmer said current funding levels are insufficient to made a dent in the issue.

"When we look at the statistics, that won't even keep up with the rate of fractionation," he said in an interview yesterday.

A Congressional requirement forces the money for consolidation to be given to OST, which then transfers the funds to BIA. Martin said consolidation will continue to be overseen out of the Great Lake regional office, which has run a pilot program for five years to limited success -- while a large number of fractionated interests were purchased, an even larger number were generated in the same amount of time.

In other areas of concern for Indian Country, the tribal priority allocation (TPA) request is $775.6 million, a small increase of $4.9 million. TPA funds are critical because tribes use them to carry out day-to-day government programs and functions.

For the first time in recent years, the BIA budget includes money for staffing detention centers. An increase of $7.8 million will help eight jails that are being completed in fiscal year 2005.

Five BIA schools are up for construction in 2005. The Bread Springs Day School, Ojo Encino Day School and Beclabito Day School in New Mexico; the Leupp Boarding School in Arizona; and the Chemawa Indian School Dormitory in Oregon will receive $68.5 million.

But overall, the BIA school construction account is being cut by $65.9 million. "The funding level has been reduced in order to allow the program to focus on building the schools already funded for construction," the budget states.

Relevant Documents:
Fiscal Year 2005 Budget in Brief | Unified Trust Budget | Serving Tribal Communities | BIA Highlights | Departmental Offices [for Office of Special Trustee]

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Tribes and Bush administration still apart on trust (11/20)
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Battle brews in House over DOI budget bill (10/30)
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