Indian budget targeted at Senate hearing

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FRIDAY, JUNE 14, 2002

Congressional leaders on Thursday pushed Secretary of Interior Gale Norton to spend more money on Indian Country in order to fight dire living conditions and fix the broken trust fund.

Education and trust reform were frequent topics at a cordial hearing held to address the Department of Interior's fiscal year 2003 budget. Released earlier this year, the $9.4 billion package includes $2.1 billion for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and $160 million for the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians.

But tribal advocates who sit on the Senate Appropriations Committee said the money wasn't enough. "We want to make sure we are doing all we can for for Indian Country especially," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.).

Norton's budget eliminates funds at several tribal colleges, a move which miffed commitee members. Sens. Dorgan, Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo. and Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) implored Norton to restore money to the higher educational institutions serving Sioux, Navajo and other tribes.

"They really provide a service to people who are living in an area where they have no other options," said Campbell. "They really provide a community service to everybody."

Campbell also focused on construction, maintenance and repair at the 185 schools that educate 50,000 Indian children. Of the $284.6 million requested, he said: "It's not nearly enough. We have more needs than we have money available for that."

Norton drew compliments for working with tribal leaders to come up with a solution to more than a century of trust asset mismanagement. "I hope you will continue to make tribal consultation a priority," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.)

The Interior holds $3.1 billion in trust funds but resources to carry out its fiduciary duty to tribes and 300,000 American Indians have been lacking historically. Hoping to change that, the new budget seeks an additional $84 million in trust reform funds.

"We certainly face difficult and complex challenges in our management of trust assets," said Norton.

Welcoming the increase, committee members still noted that significant problems remain in light of mandates from Congress and the courts. This contributes to joblessness, high poverty rates and poor health conditions of the 1.4 million American Indians and Alaska Natives the department serves, they argued.

"In light of an array of perplexing circumstances in Indian Country," said Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), "the issue of trust funds is beyond shocking."

"It's profoundly unacceptable," he added.

A task force of department and tribal representatives has outlined a set of organizational options for Norton to consider as she moves to restructure. But Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) warned that bureaucratic shuffling alone won't bring about true reform.

"You can't solve problems with the people that created the problems," he said.

The overall budget of the BIA also remains largely unchanged, lawmakers noted. Dorgan, who ran the hearing in the absence of Interior subcommittee chairman Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), urged Norton to rethink her department's priorities and consider shifting money from other areas to Indian programs.

"These are urgent, urgent needs," said Dorgan. "We must address it."

"Shame on us if we don't."

Relevant Budget Documents:
Interior Budget in Brief [DOI] | Budget Highlights: Service to American Indians [DOI] | Budget Highlights: Bureau of Indian Affairs [DOI] | Interior Overview [OMB] | Interior Details [OMB]

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