Harriet Wilson, OST Beneficiary Process Compliance, Pine Ridge, SD and Waylon Black Crow, BIA Lower Brule Agency, SD assist with the joint OST outreach events at the Lakota Nation Education Conference booth.

Posted by Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians on Thursday, January 26, 2017
Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians on Facebook: Outreach at Lakota Nation Education Conference
National | Politics | Trust

Office of Special Trustee pitches President Trump’s lower budget request as 'taxpayer' savings

The Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians plans to spend fewer "taxpayer" funds as it carries out its trust responsibilities.

President Donald Trump is seeking $119.4 million for the agency in his fiscal year 2018 budget request. The figure represents a reduction of $19.4 million, or about 14 percent, from current levels.

“Serving taxpayer and tribal communities is at the core of our mission. This budget enables us to meet our core mission and improve the efficient management of our operations,” Debra DuMontier, a citizen of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes who serves as the "acting" Special Trustee for American Indians, said in a press release on Tuesday.

Yet the agency, which is part of the Department of the Interior, is one of the few in the federal government that has practically no dealings with the American taxpayer. Unlike the Bureau of Indian Affairs, whose activities in areas like energy, irrigation and leasing impact non-Indians, the OST almost entirely deals with managing trust funds owned by individual Indians and tribal nations.

Those funds run in the billions of dollars. According to the agency's most recent audit, accounts for individual Indians held about $846,018 at the end of September 2016 while the tribal accounts held $3.855 billion.

"The balances that have accumulated in the trust funds have resulted from judgment awards, settlement of claims, land use agreements, royalties on natural resource use, other proceeds derived directly from trust resources, and financial investment income," the OST's budget request states.

Despite the Trump administration's spin on the new budget, the trend in fewer funds for the OST actually started under former president Barack Obama. Tribes had complained that the agency grew too fast during the George W. Bush era, at the expense of the BIA.

Obama responded by reducing the OST's budget starting in 2010 and by holding it steady in years following. He then sought additional funds for the BIA to make up for the setbacks seen during the Bush administration.

The Trump team is not following that pattern. Both the BIA and the OST are seeing cuts in the 2018 request.

"The President's budget saves taxpayers by focusing program spending, shrinking bureaucracy, and empowering the front lines." Secretary Ryan Zinke, the new leader of Interior, said in a press release. The department's overall budget is being reduced by nearly 11 percent.

Congress established the OST through the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act of 1994. The original goal was to provide oversight of the way the BIA and other agencies at Interior carry out their trust responsibilities.

The OST instead morphed into an implementing agency as it assumed more and more programs that were previously run by the BIA. By the end of the Bush era, its budget rose to $193 million.

Tribes would rather see those funds and programs transferred back to the BIA. That's why they supported H.R.812, the Indian Trust Asset Reform Act, which was signed into law by Obama last June. The new law opens the door for the closure of the OST, following consultation with tribes and a study of the issue, but does not mandate it.

Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Documents:
Budget in Brief |Indian Affairs Highlights | Department Office Highlights [includes OST]

Related Stories:
Special Trustee Vince Logan joins financial education committee (November 3, 2016)
Interior Department updates information about trust reform talks (August 3, 2016)
Interior Department consults tribes about new trust reform law (July 22, 2016)
Jay Daniels: New law takes us backward in serving Indian Country (July 18, 2016)
Major trust reform bill supported by Indian Country signed into law (June 22, 2016)
Tribes pressure President Obama to sign trust reform legislation (June 15, 2016)
Congress passes first comprehensive Indian trust bill in decades (June 10, 2016)