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Johnson expects tough times for Indian initiatives

Getting pro-Indian legislation through the Republican-controlled Congress will be difficult, a leading Democratic senator said last week.

Sen. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota) promised to work with both parties on initiatives to benefit Indian Country. Health care, trust reform and economic development were some of the priorities the state's senior senator laid out during a conference call with the Native media this past Wednesday.

But he said tribes and their allies will face some "severe challenges" during the 109th session that began on January 4. With the GOP is firm control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, Johnson expects appropriations -- or the lack of them -- to be a major issue in the next two years.

"I think it is simply being candid that we will be facing some tight budget problems," he said.

Johnson sits on the Indian Affairs Committee and the Appropriations Committee. Both panels are key to the survival of tribal education, housing, health care and other programs.

For the past few years, tribal leaders have complained that funding hasn't kept up with inflation or has been reduced. The problem worsened when President Bush began funneling more money into trust reform at the expense of other Indian programs.

Johnson said he sympathizes with these concerns. "Some are just outright cuts in funding," he noted. "The president has attempted, for instance, to cut funding for tribal colleges. We've been able to beat that back but it's been an annual battle."

"Other areas," he added, "the president doesn't actually cut but he doesn't keep up with inflation." Johnson said the IHS budget is only about half the level it should be.

According to Chester Carl, chairman of the National American Indian Housing Council, the trend is also evident in Indian housing. He said funding has remained stagnant over the past five years, causing tribes to lose ground in their battle against overcrowding and unsafe homes.

"That is not enough for all the tribes in the U.S. to meet the housing needs, even with smart leveraging of basic funds to expand their resources," Carl said earlier this month.

The Bush administration won't release its new budget until early February but members of both parties are expecting reductions in domestic programs. Johnson said he will go over the budget "with an eye at correcting" any shortfalls affecting Indian Country.

"We have our work cut out for us," he said. "Past experience says we oughta scrutinize it carefully."

Johnson also said he plans to work closely with Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the new chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, on trust reform. In the 109th Congress, the two co-sponsored legislation to improve the way Indian trust funds are managed. Johnson will reintroduce the bill, which he expects McCain to support.

The Government Accountability Office [formerly the General Accounting Office] is continuing its "thorough and far-reaching" investigation of the Office of Special Trustee, Johnson added. The probe is tracking how the agency spends its ever-increasing budget. Johnson expects a report sometime this year.

Johnson said he is paying close attention to how the Interior Department carries out trust reform in the Great Plains. Tribes in the region are opposed to the reorganization of the BIA and the expansion of the OST, which they say won't address key problems such as probate, fractionation and understaffing.

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