Youth from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe lead a march to the White House as part of Native Nations Rise in Washington, D.C., on March 10, 2017. Photo by Indianz.Com / Available for use under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Donald Trump brings bad news to Indian Country with first budget

Republican President Donald Trump is promising to "Make America Great Again" by making major cuts to Indian Country programs.

In his very first budget blueprint, Trump seeks a 12 percent cut at the Department of the Interior and a 17.9 percent cut at the Department of Health and Human Services. While the 62-page document is just a proposal -- it's up to Congress to appropriate the money -- it spells major trouble for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service, which have historically been underfunded due to competing priorities and lack of interest from leaders in the nation's capital..

“We need mandatory funding, not discretionary,” Ed Thomas, a Tlingit leader who serves as the co-chair of the Tribal/Interior Budget Council, said at the winter meeting of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C., last month.

The blueprint does not offer specifics on the amount of funding that Trump is seeking for the BIA. Details aren't expected to be sent to Capitol Hill for another month or two.

But the budget marks an important test for Secretary Ryan Zinke. In his first speech to Interior employees last month, he vowed to "fight" for the department's funding.

"I think I'm going to win at the end of the day," Zinke, who is an adopted member of the Fort Peck Tribes, said on March 3.

Based on the blueprint, Zinke lost the fight. The $11.6 billion budget, which represents 12 percent reduction, matches the amount that was being circulated around Washington prior to his confirmation as Secretary of the Interior.

The picture at the IHS was just as cloudy. While the blueprint describes the agency, which provides care to more than 2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives, as a "safety net" provider, the $69.0 billion budget represents a major turnaround from the Obama era.

Between 2009 and 2016, the IHS budget grew by nearly 50 percent but officials and tribal leaders acknowledged even that wasn't enough to meet the need. Key Republican lawmakers also have been convinced that the agency has been neglected for decades under presidents of all political stripes.

“At the current appropriation levels for facility construction, if a new facility were built today, it would not be replaced for another 400 years," Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-California), the new chairman of the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, said at a March 9 hearing that focuses on infrastructure needs in Indian Country.

Despite the bad news in the blueprint, tribes and lawmakers are hoping Trump will invest more money in Indian Country when he sends his $1 trillion infrastructure proposal to Congress. In addition to LaMalfa's hearing, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hosted a roundtable on Wednesday to look at transportation, water, technology and community development needs on reservations.

"We certainly want to make sure Indian Country is part of any infrastructure bill that gets passed," Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the new chairman of the committee, said at the roundtable.

In releasing the budget, Trump acknowledge he made "tough choices" in order to focus on his priorities, which include building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, addressing immigration and combating crime. Beyond those areas, the only programs that would see major increases are those for the defense and the military.

"There is a $54 billion increase in defense spending in 2018 that is offset by targeted reductions elsewhere," Trump wrote in the budget, putting an exact figure on the funding cuts that other agencies will be seeing.

"We are going to do more with less, and make the government lean and accountable to the people," Trump added.

In the Interior section, the blueprint promises a budget that "[s]upports tribal sovereignty and self-determination across Indian Country by focusing on core funding and services to support ongoing tribal government operations. The budget reduces funding for more recent demonstration projects and initiatives that only serve a few tribes."

Over at HHS, the the budget "[s]upports direct health care services, such as those delivered by community health centers, Ryan White HIV/AIDS providers, and the Indian Health Service. These safety net providers deliver critical health care services to low-income and vulnerable populations."

White House Office of Management and Budget Document:
America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again (March 16, 2017)

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