A roof is among the infrastructure needs at the Cheyenne Eagle Butte School, a Bureau of Indian Education institution in South Dakota. Photo: Bureau of Indian Education
Education | National | Politics

Trump administration includes Indian schools in infrastructure plan

New fund promises big investment in Bureau of Indian Education

Tribes largely left out elsewhere in infrastructure proposal
By Kevin Abourezk

President Donald Trump’s ambitious plan to rebuild America’s infrastructure appears to offer little more than a nod to tribal governments, though his new budget promises support for fixing deteriorating Indian schools.

The president’s infrastructure plan – included within the proposed budget he unveiled Monday – calls for tribal inclusion in the Rural Infrastructure Program, a $50 billion plan designed to generate infrastructure investments in rural areas. The plan calls for dedicated funding to the Department of Transportation for distribution through the Tribal Transportation Program, and to the Department of the Interior for distribution through grants or awards to tribes determined by a process created in consultation with tribes.

Trump’s infrastructure plan otherwise says little else about tribal inclusion.

“In 2018, no infrastructure bill should pass unless it includes Indian Country’s priorities,” Jefferson Keel, the president of the National Congress of American Indians, said on Monday during his State of Indian Nations address in Washington, D.C.

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Congress now must decide whether to approve Trump’s fiscal year budget. Lawmakers could decide to pass portions of his budget, such as the proposed Rural Infrastructure Program, or none of it.

"The budget request from the administration is just the first step in the annual appropriations process," Rep. Ken Calvert (R-California), one of the key players on the House Committee on Appropriations, said in a statement.

"In the weeks and months ahead, I will be working with my colleagues on the Appropriations Committee to determine the resources our agencies and programs require to fulfill their missions," Calvert said.

Public Lands Infrastructure Fund

Trump’s proposed budget does include a plan to pay for fixing Bureau of Indian Education schools, which suffer from $643 million in deferred maintenance costs. Additionally, replacing or renovating the worst of those schools could cost billions of dollars, according to some government estimates.

The president’s plan would create a new Public Lands Infrastructure Fund for the Department of the Interior to support investments in BIE schools, national parks and refuges, all of which have more than $16 billion in deferred maintenance. Energy development on federal lands would pay for the fund.

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With the new administration pushing to expand energy development, both on- and off-shore, Interior projects the initiative could generate up to $18 billion over 10 years. That would represent a huge investment in BIE schools.

The federal government has a responsibility to "uphold our treaty obligations with our Native American kids," Secretary Ryan Zinke said on a conference call with the media on Monday afternoon.

The Public Lands Infrastructure Fund could be used to improve such schools as Cheyenne Eagle Butte School, one of the largest BIE schools in South Dakota. The school serves students in two of the poorest counties in the country and is in urgent need of repairs, including its deteriorating roof and foundation.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke speaks with a student at the Riverside Indian School, a Bureau of Indian Education institution in Anadarko, Oklahoma, on January 18, 2018. Photo: Office of Public Affairs - Indian Affairs

“As our Indian schools are in desperate need of repair, it is reassuring that the president’s budget calls for a real way to fix them through the proposed Public Lands Infrastructure Fund,” said John Tahsuda, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, said in a news release. “This budget prioritizes improving the infrastructure that will create a stronger foundation from which we deliver our programs to tribal communities. This will allow us to continue to restore trust with them and ensure that sovereignty regains its meaning.”

Elsewhere in the Indian Affairs budget, the Trump administration is seeking $26.4 million for dam safety and another $3.3 million for irrigation projects. The backlog on dams on and near reservations has been put at $500 million.

A Tribal Budget Plan

Schools and dams aren't the only infrastructure needs in Indian Country, though. Whether its roads or bridges, tribes must be treated the same as other governments and must be at the table when projects -- such as pipelines and utility lines -- impact their communities, President Keel said in his State of Indian Nations address.

"Offer us the same opportunities to raise capital as state and local governments," Keel said. "Invest adequate, equitable funding in our infrastructure needs. And remove barriers to us from making decisions at the local, tribal level. Reaffirm our right to consent to developments that affect our lands and our people."

Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, echoed similar sentiments. In his Congressional emphasized the need for tribal infrastructure investment in his response to the State of Indian Nations, he tied infrastructure to economic development.

"Let's not forget infrastructure. In an increasingly interconnected economy, we must include access to high-speed internet in our discussions to improve and strengthen our infrastructure,” said Udall.

Not content to let the federal government offer the only word on the needs in Indian Country, NCAI released its own fiscal year 2019 budget request on Monday. It calls for significant investment in tribal infrastructure.

Of nearly 160,000 miles of roads and trails in Indian Country, tribes own and maintain just 13,650 miles, of which only 1,000 miles are paved, the plan states. Of the 29,400 miles owned and maintained by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, 75 percent are graveled, earth or primitive, according to NCAI.

To address these and other shortcomings, NCAI is calling for $495 million for the Tribal Transportation Program, $5 million for tribal technical assistance programs, $35 million for the Tribal Transit Program, $30 million for tribal high priority projects and $35 million for BIA roads maintenance. All of the amounts are higher than those found in Trump's budget proposal.

"Native peoples are also builders and managers of roads and bridges, and other essential infrastructure. These projects are often in rural areas," Keel said in his speech. "They connect tribal and surrounding communities with each other, and the rest of the nation."

"Tribal infrastructure is American infrastructure," he said.

Department of the Interior Fiscal Year 2019 Budget Documents:
Highlights | Legislative Proposals [Public Lands Infrastructure Fund] | Indian Affairs