Members of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs take part in a business meeting and legislative hearing in Washington, D.C., on June 19, 2019. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs approves two bills at business meeting

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A bill to improve aging roads and bridges in Indian Country and another to correct a failing of the disastrous tribal termination era are advancing on Capitol Hill.

By a voice vote the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs approved S.1211, the Addressing Underdeveloped and Tribally Operated Streets Act, at a business meeting on Wednesday. The bill, also known as the AUTOS Act, streamlines federal procedures and funding mechanisms used to fix infrastructure in tribal communities.

“To address the significant backlog of deferred maintenance, the AUTOS Act would provide needed resources to the Department of Transportation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the chairman of the committee, said after approval of the measure.

The updated version of S.1211 authorizes the appropriation of additional funds to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, according to Hoeven. He said the change was made at the request of tribes and tribal organizations.

“At our committee hearing in April, we heard about the importance of maintaining, constructing, and repairing roads and bridges throughout Indian Country," Hoeven said. "Tribal communities rely on this vital infrastructure daily to transport patients to hospitals, deliver children to school or commute to work. Investing in this vital infrastructure will help improve public safety and is also important to economic development in these communities.”

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs - Business Meeting to consider S.1211 & H.R.1388 - June 19, 2019

The committee followed up the April 3 hearing regarding tribal self-governance and safety of Indian roads with another one that focused specifically on S.1211. Chairman Jamie Azure of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians said the bill will improve educational and economic opportunities in Indian Country.

"It is of the utmost importance that the facilities that service our education system are up to health and safety standards," Azure told the committee on May 15. "Improving and maintaining our tribal roadways aid in the path to education and prosperity by removing physical obstacles that make it difficult for tribal members to succeed."

To aid in that goal, the AUTOS Act does the following, according to the committee:

· Aligns the Department of the Interior’s process of expediting environmental reviews for tribal transportation safety projects to be similar to the Department of Transportation’s process.

· Authorizes $50 million for the Bureau of Indian Affairs Road Maintenance Program, with increases of $2 million per year.

· Reinstates the Tribal Transportation Bridge Program as a standalone program instead of a 2 percent carve out in the Tribal Transportation Program.

· Increases funding available for the Tribal Safety Transportation Program Safety Fund from 2 percent to 4 percent.

· Directs the Secretaries of the Interior and Transportation to work with Indian Tribes in developing a standard and uniform crash report form.

· Directs BIA law enforcement to use one standard crash report form.

A view of the Lytton Rancheria's land-into-trust site in Sonoma County, California. Photo: Lytton Residential Development Environmental Assessment

In a second voice vote, the committee approved H.R.1388, the Lytton Rancheria Homelands Act. The bill bill help the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians reclaim a small portion of the homelands they lost at the hands of the federal government during the disastrous termination era.

“H.R.1388 will take 511 acres of land into trust for the benefit of the Lytton Rancheria to provide housing and governmental facilities, and economic development opportunities for its tribal community,” Hoeven said during the meeting.

The Lytton Rancheria Homelands Act passed the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives on March 26. So action at the committee level brings it one step closer to passage in the U.S. Senate, which is in Republican hands.

A prior version of the bill, however, faltered at the same step during the last session of Congress. A handful of other tribal homelands legislation suffered the same fate in the Senate despite gaining quick passage in the House.

This time around, H.R.1388 is moving along more quickly than it did in the 115th Congress. Of the six bills already passed by the House since January, it's the only one that is advancing in the Senate.

"Having a permanent homeland for our people provides a continuity for the tribal government and for taking care of our members," Chairwoman Margie Mejia told the Senate committee during a hearing on the bill in April 2018. "Indian people think seven generations ahead so having this land enables the tribal government to plan for the future of its members."

The tribe lost all of its lands in Sonoma County as a result of being terminated by the federal government. A small parcel, currently being used for the San Pablo Lytton Casino, was acquired further away through an act of Congress in 2000.

The tribe subsequently filed a land-into-trust application to return to its homelands. But the Bureau of Indian Affair has never finalized the request.

"Neither the Obama nor Trump administration has provided a reason why the Tribe's application has not been approved in the last 10 years," Rep. Paul Cook (R-California), the top Republican on the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States, said during debate on H.R.1388 in March.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice
Business Meeting to consider S. 1211 & H.R. 1388 (June 19, 2019)

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