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Appropriations measure takes on Alaska Native funding
Thursday, December 4, 2003

The $328 billion omnibus funding bill that faces important tests in Congress in the coming weeks includes provisions that might surprise some in Indian Country.

First, the good news. Language that would have forced the Bureau of Indian Affairs to pay for 21 tribal trust mismanagement lawsuits appears to have been deleted. The rider would have used at least $3.1 million in Indian program funds to reimburse government attorneys.

Second, the bad news. A provision requiring a report on "possible illegal activity" of Indian casino has been retained. But lawmakers adopted it by reference -- meaning it's still in there, it's just not as noticeable.

Third, the interesting news. If the bill passes, the White House Office of Management and Budget will be required to consult with Alaska Native corporations. This rider, which has not been seen before, treats the corporations "on the same basis" tribes under Executive Order 13175, the government-to-government consultation order.

Finally, the big news. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has dropped a rider that would have outright denied federal funding to Alaska Native tribal courts and law enforcement. He faced heavy criticism, including accusations of racism, for saying the tribes threatened the state by exerting their sovereignty.

What he's drafted now is something more complex. The new version will deny funding to tribes with less than 25 members. But it also applies to tribes located within a specified list of seven municipalities, cities and boroughs. A number of Native villages with more than 25 members -- for example Seldovia with more than 300 members -- are located within these jurisdictions yet they would be denied money.

To address the greater issue of funding to more than 220 Alaska tribes, Stevens is calling for the creation of the "Alaska Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission." It would be composed of tribal, state and federal representatives.

At the annual Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) conference in October, delegates endorsed this concept. They sought to examine ways to improve accountability and delivery of services. But that's about where AFN and the new rider depart.

The commission would be charged with reviewing all civil and criminal matters affecting tribes and villages. By May 1, the panel will make recommendations on creating a "unified law enforcement system, court system, and system of local laws or ordinances for Alaska Native villages and communities of varying sizes including the possibility of first, second, and third class villages with different powers."

The rider goes on to require a General Accounting Office (GAO) study on how federal funding for rural Alaskan communities is being used. GAO "shall determine the number of houses built by each Native housing authority including the cost per house," it states, a reference to claims made by Stevens that tribes are wasting federal funds.

"[W]e found one area of Alaska, we did fund those and there wasn't a house built in four years, but there's all those people out there hired to help them," he told Alaska reporters in October.

The omnibus appropriations act, H.R. 2673, is set to go before the House on Monday. According to press accounts, Republican leaders will try to pass it without a roll-call vote.

A similar tactic in the Senate is seeing resistance from Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He said yesterday that he would not agree to a unanimous consent motion when the bill is brought up next year.

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Related Stories:
Tribes lobbying against 'harmful' appropriations riders (11/10)
Stevens unapologetic in speech to Alaska Natives (10/27)
Stevens remarks on Alaska Natives draw fire (10/7)

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