A drum group performs at a Department of Housing and Urban Development conference on Indian Country. Photo: HUD

President Trump confirms Indian Country's fears with budget request

President Donald Trump is confirming Indian Country's worst fears by seeking drastic cuts in education, health, housing and other key programs.

As expected, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service are among the many losers in Trump's fiscal year 2018 budget. Details released on Tuesday show both agencies being reduced to levels not seen in nearly a decade, essentially setting the clock back on gains seen during the Obama era.

But even though tribes and key lawmakers knew the cuts were coming, the new president still managed to pull out some surprises as he departed the Middle East for the Vatican on his first foreign excursion. He proposed the outright elimination of a grant program that tribes nationwide have used to improve housing and economic development opportunities in their communities.

“President Trump's budget proposal for programs affecting Indian Country is extremely troubling because of its disregard for the federal government's responsibilities and its troubling lack of understanding of the challenges facing tribal communities,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in a press release. “I'm concerned that it would violate the federal government’s trust and treaty obligations to provide even basic health, education, public safety and other core services to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians.”

Even Republicans expressed concerns, although in a different fashion. They quickly pointed out that Congress -- not the president -- has the final say over funding levels for the BIA, the IHS and other federal agencies.

“As the appropriations process moves forward, I will work to provide our agencies with the resources necessary to fulfill their missions while also finding efficiencies to ensure taxpayer dollars are being used judiciously,” Rep. Ken Calvert (R-California), a key member of the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement.

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Calvert chairs the House Appropriation Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, which is responsible for writing the bill that funds the vast majority of tribal programs. Just last week, he presided over a series of sessions in Washington, D.C., where nearly 80 Indian Country leaders called on Congress to fulfill the federal government's trust and treaty responsibilities.

"The federal government has a fiduciary trust responsibility under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 to provide adequate resources to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe," Lisa White Pipe, a council member for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, told Calvert's subcommittee last Wednesday.

According to Trump's Cabinet, the 2018 request fulfills those kinds of responsibilities, just not at the levels tribes want. Secretary Ryan Zinke, the new leader of the Department of the Interior, was upbeat even as his agency took at 10.9 percent hit in the budget.

"We fully support and fund our trust responsibility with a focus on self-governance, self-determination and sovereignty," Zinke said during a conference call with reporters.

The Department of Health and Human Services is slated for an even larger cut of 16.9 percent. Secretary Tom Price linked the reduction in funds to Republican efforts to overhaul the nation's health care system, which impacts revenues at the IHS.

“More money isn’t the answer; replacing a broken system is,” Price said in a statement.

Over at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the proposal calls for the complete elimination of $60 million in funds for the Indian Community Development Block Grant Program, which benefits a wide variety of projects. The much larger Community Development Block Grant is also on the chopping block.

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“This budget reflects this administration’s commitment to fiscal responsibility while continuing HUD’s core support of our most vulnerable households,” Secretary Ben Carson said in a press release. “We will work very closely with Congress to support the critical work of our agency as we vigorously pursue new approaches to help work-eligible households achieve self-sufficiency.”

Typically, the House Appropriations Committee starts working on funding bills in June. The goal is for Congress to enact the bills into law before the start of a new fiscal year on October 1.

Due to partisan disputes over budget priorities, that's rarely happened in recent years. Instead, Congress has resorted to "omnibus" bills that have included only modest gains for Indian Country programs.

Still, the proposal released by Trump fails to match even those levels. A summary of the request, in comparison to fiscal year 2017, follows.

Bureau of Indian Affairs
• $2.083 billion for most Indian programs, a reduction of $181 million.
• $241.1 million for contract support costs, a reduction of $34.5 million.
• $143.2 million for construction, a reduction of $50.3 million.
•When land claims, water settlements and other payments are added, the BIA's budget request rises to $2.48 billion, or $303.2 million less than the 2017 level.

“President Trump’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget request for Indian Affairs strongly reflects his proposed investments in education, energy development, and infrastructure which focus on enhancing tribal prosperity through tribal, rather than federal efforts,” Michael Black, the "acting" Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, said in a press release. “We will achieve that by refocusing our resources into those programs that are most effective in supporting tribal self-determination.”

Indian Health Service
• $4.898 billion overall, a reduction of $55 million.
• Modest increases for clinical services, preventive health and contract support costs
• Increases offset by $59 million construction, maintenance, medical equipment and sanitation facilities.
• $150 million for the Special Diabetes Program for Indians, which Congress has yet to renew.
• The budget, however, promises that the cut in in infrastructure is a "one-time" occurrence.

"The Secretary is cognizant of the budget constraints, but protects medical services, holding the budget even with FY 2016, proposing one time reductions on parts of infrastructure projects and management activities in the facilities appropriation account," a justification document reads.

Department of Housing and Urban Development
• $600 million for the Native American Housing Block Grant Program, a reduction of $50 million.
• $0 for the Indian Housing Loan Guarantee program, also known as Section 184, due to carryover funds from prior fiscal years.
• $0 for the Native Hawaiian Housing Block Grant due to carryover funds from prior years.
• $0 for the Community Development Block Grant and for the Indian Community Development Block Grant, a reduction of $3 billion.
Earlier this month, President Trump released a signing statement that questioned the legality of funding for Indian housing programs.

Department of the Interior Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Documents:
Budget in Brief |Indian Affairs Highlights | Department Office Highlights [includes Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians]

Department of Health and Human Services Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Documents:
Budget in Brief | Indian Health Service Justification

Department of Housing and Urban Development Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Documents:
Congressional Justifications | Native American Housing Block Grants | Indian Housing Loan Guarantee Fund (Section 184)

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