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Norton says trust forced 'tough choices' in budget

Cuts in the Bush administration's new budget can be attributed to historic funding for Indian trust operations, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton said on Tuesday.

Testifying before a Senate panel, Norton said the Department of Interior's fiscal year 2004 request of $10.7 billion was a record high. But in response to questions from Democrats, she repeatedly blamed cuts in programs -- including those to tribal colleges -- on the trust debacle.

"For many of our programs, we had to weigh things against the Indian trust allocation because that was our highest priority," Norton told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "We had to look closely at other programs."

According to Norton, the department's $481 million request, a $168 million increase over money currently tied up in a Congressional spat over the 2003 budget, will help the government meet its obligations to American Indians. She referred to $130 million for an historical accounting owed to individual beneficiaries as a "major down payment" but didn't mention the limits she has imposed nor legal arguments she is advancing that would cut off the initiative despite earlier pledges to go back as far as 1938.

"This money should eventually resolve the dispute over the management of trust funds over time and whether the department's books are off by billions of dollars or the much smaller amount we expect," she asserted.

No members of the committee said the trust operation budget wasn't needed. But they questioned why conservation programs, rural water projects and post-secondary Indian education didn't seem important enough to fund.

"This budget is really reckless in its presentation," charged Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) during a testy spat with Norton.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) focused on a $3 million cut to the United Tribes Technical College, an off-reservation institution that serves tribes in North Dakota. The administration for two years now has zeroed out the college's account. For 2003, Dorgan restored the money.

"As I look at a broader context of critical choices and judgments, the choices include exempting dividends from taxation and closing an Indian college," he said, referring to plans to give an $80,000 tax cut to wealthy Americans. "Somehow it doesn't all match to me."

Norton in her response cited the cut as one of the "tough choices" made in light of the trust. "I am very supportive of Indian education," she said. "Our approach has been to focus more of our resources on the elementary and secondary schools."

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) lavished praised on Norton for her efforts. He also challenged the department to include more funds for K-12 Indian schools.

"Indian tribes have no other resources to build their schools or for funds except for the federal government," he said. "It's our responsibility. They have no taxes, they can't raise the mill levy, they can't do anything."

Norton's appearance yesterday was her first on the fiscal year 2004 budget. She is expected to go before Senate appropriators in the coming months while other members of the Interior will appear in the House.

Relevant Documents:
BIA Budget | Departmental Offices [for OST] | Trust Budget Overview | DOI Budget [from OMB]

Department of Interior Fiscal Year 2004 Request:
Budget in Brief (DOI February 2003)

Related Stories:
Budget not kind to Indian Country (2/10)
Trust programs see historic increase (2/4)
Bush budget cuts funds at tribal college (2/4)

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