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Effects of trust budget on Indian programs debated

The head of the nation's largest inter-tribal organization is defending recent Congressional testimony that criticized the Bush administration for taking money from Indian programs to pay for trust reform.

At a Senate hearing last week, National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) president Tex Hall said $71 million in tribal programs and $32 million in education funds was being cut. Yet at the same time, he noted that the Office of Special Trustee (OST) will receive a more than 50 percent increase -- from from $152 million to $275 million -- next year.

"You cannot ask for a more symbolic and ironic example of the government's callous indifference to our needs," Hall told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee last Wednesday. "We are literally being asked to pay for the government's mistakes with our children's education money."

But two Department of Interior officials disputed Hall's account the following day on Native America Calling. Special trustee Ross Swimmer and Aurene Martin, the acting assistant secretary for Indian affairs, said Hall's information was wrong.

"None of that testimony was true," Swimmer, who heads OST, told host Harlan McKosato. "I don't think it was intentional. I think it's just a misunderstanding."

Responding to the radio show remarks, Hall said the only misunderstanding was with the Interior. "As I have said before, NCAI is not opposed to reorganization, we just want to see it done right," he said. "And right now, the Interior Department plan is flawed, too expensive, and being implemented without tribal consultation."

Hall pointed to Secretary Gale Norton's own testimony to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. On February 11, she acknowledged that education funds were being eliminated due to trust reform.

"For many of our programs, we had to weigh things against the Indian trust allocation because that was our highest priority," she testified. "We had to look closely at other programs."

Martin, in a March 5 appearance before the Indian affairs committee, also agreed that there was shifting of funds. "I regret that, to some extent, our tribal services programs may be affected," she said. "We're doing everything we can to minimize that."

Overall, the Interior's fiscal year 2004 budget request is $10.7 billion, a record high. Nearly half of the increase is for trust programs at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the OST, which officials say points to the high priority placed on resolving historical problems.

Members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, have questioned the fairness of placing trust reform on the backs of Indian Country. "It seems clear that exiting problems in trust management have been caused not by Indian beneficiaries but by the government," Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) told Martin at the March hearing, "and this goes back in history."

"Indian tribes have no other resources to build their schools or for funds except for the federal government," Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) told Norton. "It's our responsibility. They have no taxes, they can't raise the mill levy, they can't do anything."

Besides Hall, other tribal leaders have echoed the same complaint. Last week's hearing was filled with criticism of OST's expanding budget. OST, they noted, was envisioned as a temporary office.

"Tribes have made it clear that DOI should not use program dollars to help fund the mistakes of the administration," said Keller George, president of the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET). "Tribes have stressed that the BIA's funding should not be diminished in order to fund the trust effort of the OST."

Relevant Links:
Trust Reform, NCAI - http://www.ncai.org/main/pages/

Office of Special Trustee - http://www.ost.doi.gov
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com

Related Stories:
Swimmer: Tex Hall's testimony 'was not true' (5/23)
Tribes oppose OST expansion into Indian County (5/22)
Daschle testimony on Indian affairs reorganization (5/22)
Swimmer: Don't fear changes at Interior (5/22)
On trust, Swimmer turns to private sector (5/14)
Bush reform plans debated in trust fund trial (05/02)
Reorganization: Meet the 'new' BIA (04/30)
DOI begins second transition period on Indian affairs (04/29)
Bunker metality evident in trust reform fight (04/22)
Bush reorganization faces more obstacles (03/14)
BIA initiatives to impact Indian education (03/11)
Norton says trust forced 'tough choices' in budget (02/12)
At Interior, Indian affairs in a state of flux (02/11)
Bush budget restricts spending on Indian Country (02/10)
BIA agencies face new trust rating system (02/10)
New Bush budget aims to improve trust fund (02/04)
McCain asked to halt BIA reorganization (01/16)
Tribes debate response to trust reform plans (01/13)
Swimmer was promised BITAM job (1/16)
Tribes moving to oppose Swimmer nomination (01/06)
Unfit officials stick it to Indians again (12/09)
A super assistant secretary, in all but name (05/03)
Swimmer legacy still haunts BIA (02/12)
Reagan's Indian chief is back (11/20)

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