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BIA takes a hit as Bush releases latest budget

The Bush administration announced a major cut to the Bureau of Indian Affairs on Monday, the second year in a row that the agency's budget has been reduced by the White House.

The fiscal year 2007 budget request for the BIA is $2.33 billion, a cut of $65 million from current levels. This represents a 2.8 percent reduction in the agency's total budget authority.

Programs that took big hits include construction, human services, education, natural resource management and economic development. Others were outright eliminated, such as the Johnson O'Malley ducation program.

Meanwhile, the budget for the Office of Special Trustee grew by $21.7 million to a total of $244.5 million, representing a 9.7 percent increase. Of this amount, the administration requested $59.5 million for the Indian Land Consolidation Program, an increase of $25.4 million.

At a press conference in Washington, D.C., Interior Secretary Gale Norton said the budget would enable the department to meet its responsibilities to 1.4 million American Indians and Alaska Natives. She emphasized the $536.7 million being sought to continue the administration's trust reform efforts.

"From 1996 through 2006, the department will have invested $3.4 billion in the management, reform and improvement of Indian trust programs," Norton said.

The focus on trust has come at the expense of other Indian programs. Tribal leaders, supported by key members of Congress, have repeatedly blasted the administration for this approach, with renewed criticism coming after associate deputy secretary Jim Cason late last month announced a $3 million cut to the BIA in order to pay for "unplanned" expenses related to the Cobell v. Norton trust fund lawsuit.

"The fact that the Cobell litigation remains unsettled impedes our progress with the federal government on nearly all other issues," Joe Garcia, the new president of the National Congress of Americans, said last week in his State of Indian Nations address.

At yesterday's rollout, BIA officials said they worked closely with the Tribal Budget Advisory Committee to develop the budget. They said this relationship led to a request for $151.7 million in contract support funds, an increase of $19.0 million.

Contract support funds are used by tribes to carry out self-determination contracts and self-governance compacts for programs and services formerly managed by the BIA. Tribes have repeatedly complained of being shortchanged, a position upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a unanimous decision in 2004.

But with no new money coming into the BIA, the increase had to be offset with cuts elsewhere. One of the biggest was a $16.5 million elimination of Johnson O'Malley, a unique program that helps Indian students who attend public schools.

Welfare assistance suffered an $11.0 million cut while funds to implement the Indian Child Welfare Act were reduced by $742,000. Several natural resource programs, including irrigation, rights protection implementation, tribal management development and endangered species, saw cuts.

Elementary, secondary and post-secondary education suffered a total cut of $16.3 million. This was offset by $9.1 million increase to beef up the bureaucracy of the Office of Indian Education Program by creating new management positions.

Community and economic development also saw a reduction of $12.6 million. Road maintenance and community development programs were cut by the administration.

Finally, school construction saw a $49.3 million reduction to fund two construction projects -- the replacement of the Muckleshoot Tribal School in Washington and replacement of the Dennehotso Boarding School in Arizona. Money for this account, which President Bush has called a priority, has slowed steadily over concerns that tribes are not completing projects as quickly as the White House would like.

"BIA programs have rarely, if ever, been funded at adequate levels and these additional cuts continue that unfortunate trend," said Rep. Stephanie Herseth (D-South Dakota). "Last week's decision to extract legal fees from BIA programs coupled with today's budget request is another unjust disservice to Indian Country"

Overall, the Interior Department request was $10.5 billion, a decrease of 332 million or 2.9 percent below current levels. "Within the context of the president's plan to reduce the deficit, this budget will enable Interior to fulfill its key responsibilities through collaborative approaches and partnerships, facilitate energy production, and continue Indian trust reform," Norton said.

In the coming weeks, Bush officials will be heading to Capitol Hill to present and defend the budget. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on Tuesday, February 14, on the 2007 request. Last year, the committee criticized the administration for shifting Indian program money to trust reform.

FY2007 Budget Request:
Bureau of Indian Affairs Budget | Departmental Offices [includes Office of Special Trustee]

FY2007 Budget Documents:
Fulfilling Trust Responsibilities | Serving Tribal Communities | Protecting Lives, Resources, and Property [includes Safety in Indian Country] | Budget in Brief | Interior Department [from the White House]