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House funding bill rejects administration's priorities

Tribal criticism of the Bush administration's latest budget turned into action last week when a House committee restored funding to several Indian programs.

The House Interior Appropriations Committee on Wednesday adopted a $19.5 billion funding bill for the Interior Department. While the total amount is below the White House's request, it included more money for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service.

A key provision of the bill is a restoration of a $65.5 million cut to the BIA school construction account. Tribal leaders had blasted the administration for reducing the account at the same time Bush officials praised themselves for improving the education of Indian children forced to attend substandard schools.

The panel also restored $50.6 million to the IHS facilities construction account. The administration had cut the money by noting that existing projects were being completed and that no new hospitals and clinics were in the works.

"Indian school and hospital and clinic construction funding is restored in the committee's recommendations for fiscal year 2005," House leaders wrote in its report accompanying the bill. "We must maintain our commitment to American Indian and Alaska Natives and the construction of critically needed school and health facilities is central to our ability to meet those commitments."

Earlier this year, the BIA official in charge of education said the White House Office of Management and Budget was not seeing results from the school construction program. Tribes were taking too long to complete projects, Ed Parisian said.

But the House panel dismissed the administration's solution to the alleged problem. The White House proposed to take over a tribe's funds if the project hadn't gotten off the ground within 18 months. The bill includes no language on the use of the account.

Elsewhere, the bill contained other rejections to the Bush administration's funding priorities. Overall, the BIA's budget was $81 million over the White House request while the IHS's budget was $66 million over the request.

Within the BIA, the House panel restored funds to United Technical Tribes College in North Dakota and Crownpoint Institute of Technology of New Mexico. Citing a legal technicality, the administration has zeroed out money for these two tribal colleges for the past three years.

The bill also cuts funding for the Office of Special Trustee (OST). Originally designed to oversee, but not implement, trust reform, tribal leaders say the office has become a bureaucratic monster that is taking money away from reservation-level programs.

In response, the House committee cut $51.4 million from OST's budget, reducing the money for the Office of Historical Trust Accounting to $58 million. Another Bush priority, a major boost to the Indian Land Consolidation Program, was cut by $28 million to $42 million.

The markup of the appropriations bill was not filed last week amid the funeral services for former president Ronald Reagan. A full copy should be available later this week, as House leaders may take the measure to the floor.

The Senate has yet to move any appropriations bills, in part due to a Republican-Democrat dispute over their handling. The Senate still has not approved the budget resolution, which sets out the overall funding limits for the budget.

The Senate's version of the Interior bill is likely to contain increases for the same programs. Several senators who sit on the Indian Affairs and Appropriations bill have expressed displeasure with the Bush administration's request.

Relevant Documents:
Summary of Interior 2005 Appropriations Bill