Norton hit on environment budget
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APRIL 25, 2001

Weeks of widespread criticism of the Bush administration fell on Secretary of Interior Gale Norton on Tuesday, as she defended the President's environmental decisions and her department's proposed budget to Republican and Democrat lawmakers.

The primary subject of yesterday's hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Interior Appropriations was the Department of Interior's fiscal year 2002 budget. At $9.8 billion, the department would see a 4 percent cut from 2001 should Congress enact it as proposed.

But Senators from both sides of the aisle, including Chairman Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Ranking member Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), criticized a number of proposed cuts. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Chairman and member of the Indian Affairs Committee, questioned the administration's general priorities and support for Indian Country.

"I would hope that you are prepared to take a bill that's much different from the one you've given us," summed up Harry Reid (D-Nevada), another Indian Affairs member, to Norton.

Norton was hit on Bush's withdrawal from a global warming treaty, his decision not to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and his delay of strict arsenic in drinking water standard, issues outside the immediate authority of her department. But she didn't stand down from the criticism, casting blame on the Clinton administration for the quandaries.

"I certainly believe this administration has done a good job in responding in a very careful and thoughtful way to what has been put on the table for us," responded Norton. "We've seen the past administration essentially govern for seven years and 11 months with a status quo on environmental issues."

Within the Interior budget, however, cuts to environmental programs were a primary focus of the hearing. Norton defended proposed slashes by pushing Bush's investment in the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Norton said the fund lets tribes and states develop their own programs, thus allowing the federal government to fulfill its environmental obligations. Senators, however, weren't buying her explanation and cautioned that the fund can't be used as a safety net.

Within the Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs is one of the few to see an overall increase. But while Dorgan and Campbell welcomed the administration's investment in school construction, they urged Norton to increase Indian Country funding.

"Our responsibility to provide for the education of Indian children is a trust responsibility, not an option," said Dorgan. "Its mandatory."

Dorgan specifically pushed for more investment in tribal colleges, citing that the government spends $2,000 less on Indian college students than others. The budget request for post-secondary education is $39.1 million, an increase of $1 million from 2001. The budget does include some cuts to education programs, however.

Campbell questioned the new administration's support for self-determination, citing a small cut to self-governance grants. But Norton said that self-determination funds are seeing a net increase.

Campbell also said the administration needs to work on the backlog of land and water claims. Most of the BIA's proposed increase of $65.9 million is dedicated to payments to tribes.

"I've been very concerned of entering settlements and not following through on them," responded Norton.

Norton goes before the House Subcommittee on Interior Appropriations today. Members of the subcommittee last month criticized Special Trustee Tom Slonaker and BIA Commissioner Sharon Blackwell over trust reform.

Relevant Links:
Senate Subcommittee on Interior Appropriations -

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Interior: Trust reform is working (3/22)
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