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Congress not ready to embrace Bush accounting plans
WEDNESDAY, JULY 16, 2003

Although a controversial provision to settle the Indian trust fund lawsuit has been axed from the Department of Interior's budget bill, there are still problems ahead for a proposed historical accounting.

For fiscal year 2004, the Bush administration requested $130 million for various accounting activities. Of the amount, $100 million was to be used to analyze Individual Indian Money (IIM) funds while the rest was dedicated to resolving a select group of tribal trust fund accounts.

But the House and Senate committees responsible for the appropriations have slashed funds for the project. Each has agreed only to provide $75 million to the Office of Historical Trust Accounting, which is overseeing the five-year, $335 million effort.

The move reflects the lawmakers' concern with the spiraling costs of trust reform. Since 1994, more than $700 million has been spent to fix the broken system but little concrete progress has been made. In particular, the government has yet to satisfy its obligation to account for individual- and tribally-owned trust funds.

According to the House Appropriations Committee, whose leaders were responsible for the now-defunct settlement language, the money was essentially wasted. "These funds could have been better used to fund health and education programs in Indian Country or directed towards reforming the outdated trust systems in the department," a report accompanying the panel's version of the bill states.

The Senate Appropriations Committee took on a similar tack, but also endorsed the use of statistical sampling to resolve the accounts, a method that has been overwhelmingly rejected by Indian beneficiaries. "Past accounting efforts have illustrated few mistakes within the individual accounts being audited, and it is the committee's belief the funding level provided will allow the department to utilize a statistical sampling model sufficient to further illustrate the department's performance in managing trust accounts," the report states.

Such language puts the Interior in a "conundrum," Associate Deputy Secretary Jim Cason said last week. At a hearing called to address potential settlement of the seven-year-old Cobell case, he testified that Congress has sent conflicting messages about what to do.

"One of the things that we have to decide . . . is what is fair to do for our Indian beneficiaries, and then can we reach an accommodation with Congress to fund whatever that fairness is," he told the House Resources Committee on July 9.

Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the suit, said the department's plan was a waste of money and that it shouldn't be funded at all. Instead, the plaintiffs have asked a federal judge to adopt their accounting proposal, which is based on a technological model of oil, gas, mining, timber, agriculture and other revenues derived on Indian lands. There is no indication on when a ruling might be handed down.

Debate in the House version of the Interior spending bill, H.R.2691, is set to occur later this week. Funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is $2.3 billion while the amount for the Office of Special Trustee (OST) is $219.6 million. The House Interior Appropriations Committee endorsed the reorganization of BIA and expansion of OST despite the cut to the historical accounting project.

The Senate's the appropriations bill, S.1391, provides $2.32 billion to BIA and $219.6 million for OST.

Get the Bills:
H.R.2691 | H.Rept.108-195 | S.1391 | S.Rept.108-89

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust

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