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Senate Indian Affairs Committee seeks better budget

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee is seeking some significant increases in the federal budget in order to accommodate high-ticket priorities like Indian health care and settlement of the trust fund.

In its annual "views and estimates" letter, the committee outlined four priorities for the budget. They were: reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, settlement of Cobell v. Norton, annual increases for the Indian Health Service and infrastructure development in Indian Country.

"Native Americans, a group that includes American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians, continue to confront tremendous challenges in obtaining basic services such as health care, housing and education," the March 2 letter signed by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota) stated.

"Poverty of services and opportunity continue to haunt Indian people," the chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the committee wrote.

In order to improve the situation, the letter asks the Senate Budget Committee to ensure the federal budget resolution contains money for some big-ticket items. Reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, for example, could cost $31.8 billion from 2005 through 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

And while figures are still being discussed, settlement of the Cobell trust fund lawsuit could also cost billions. "We wanted to call this very important issue to the Budget Committee's attention, and ask that the Budget Committee provide a reserve fund in the budget resolution to accommodate settlement legislation," the letter stated.

Annual increases for the IHS are needed to account for inflation, pay costs, population growth and staffing requirements, McCain and Dorgan argued. While the committee supports a $156.7 million increase in the FY2007 budget, the lawmakers said the budget needs to ensure increases are maintained every year.

"We believe that similar increases need to be included in the budget resolution and in projected budgets (the 'outyears') in order to maintain current services," the committee wrote. The budget resolution typically projects spending for the next five years.

Finally, the committee opposed a slew of President Bush's budget cuts to education, health, housing, law enforcement and other programs. "The need for infrastructure in Indian Country -- whether for schools, health centers, housing, detention facilities, courts, water and sewer systems -- is dire," McCain and Dorgan said.

The letter goes on to detail opposition to cuts at the Department of Health and Human Services, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Justice. In every case, the committee said the Bush administration has failed to request adequate funds to fulfill the federal government's trust obligations.

Both McCain and Dorgan spoke to tribal leaders last week at the winter session of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C. They said the would work to restore the budget cuts and prevent the elimination of programs like Johnson O'Malley education grants and urban Indian health care.

"We're very disappointed in the president's budget," McCain said last Tuesday.

In years past, lawmakers have succeed in reversing the administration's Indian cuts. Members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee also sit on the Appropriations and Budget committees, putting them in a strong position to revise the budget.

"When you tackle the issue of budget cuts and try to deal with this budget deficit, you don't start with respect to the most vulnerable Americans. You don't start with those who are living in poverty and say, 'Let's cut their programs,'" Dorgan said last Monday.

Senate Indian Affairs Committee Letter:
Views and Estimates (March 2, 2006)

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

FY2007 DOI 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]

FY2007 IHS Budget in Brief:

White House OMB Report:
Major Savings and Reforms in the President's 2007 Budget (February 2006)

Relevant Links:
Senate Indian Affairs Committee -
White House Office of Management and Budget-