WASHINGTON —Versions of a new appropriations bill have passed both houses of Congress, that increases funding to Indian country, one that must still be signed by President Trump, and has some “partisan toxic riders,” according to Minnesota Congresswoman Betty McCollum, which she said could threaten the environment and public health.
Although characterized as a rejection of Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) cuts proposed by Trump last year, HR 6147, on June 19, was voted against by every Democrat in the House. McCollum explaining: “We owe it to the American people to do better. I look forward to working with the chairman and my colleagues in the Senate to bring a better bill back to the House floor.”
Given the Congressional history of slipping controversial riders into bills that the public would find objectionable, were they considered in their own right, McCollum is perhaps justified in fearing for the environment and public health. Trump’s energy policy in Indian country, such as with the Converse County flaring and fracking in Wyoming, has not been tribal friendly, and he is closely aligned with North Dakota Congressman Kevin Cramer, a clever and competent opponent of tribal sovereignty, and also of the 1968 Civil Rights amendment to Public Law 280, preventing states from establishing jurisdiction over reservations without a majority referendum vote of approval from enrolled tribal members, which is highly unlikely they would ever get under any circumstances.
Interestingly, the new bill provides an additional $13 million to address the needs of tribes affected by PL 280. Tribes in states where that law has been implemented have long expressed frustration that it has led to decreased funding and opportunities to grow their tribal court systems. Trump can’t be happy about any part of a bill that undermines Cramer’s efforts to increase state jurisdiction on reservations, as a prelude to eliminating tribal sovereignty altogether.
Trump’s historic hostility to tribal economic activity was highlighted in a 2016 Washington Post article, detailing his conflict with Indian gaming interests going back more than two decades. In addition, according to a 2018 Los Angeles Times article, the “Trump administration’s move to scrap federal rules mandating cleanup” of toxic coal ash has allegedly caused major health problems for the 225 member Moapa Indian community an hour’s drive from Las Vegas.
A former high level staffer at the Interior Department, and Mohegan councilwoman, Sarah Harris said, “It feels as if we are going backwards. This is not how it works with most administrations. I can’t think of another time in recent history when the relationship has been this bad.”
Last year President Trump unveiled proposed cuts that alarmed Indian country: more than $303 million from the BIA and $252 million from the Indian Health Service (IHS). While relieved most Republicans in Congress rejected these proposed cuts, two things remain clear to tribes across the country: Trump is not a friend of tribal interests, and he has the power of the veto, and HR 6147 is still not law, despite the Senate passing their own version of it on August 1. The bill will now go before a joint congressional committee to be hammered into final form starting in September, and then sent on to the president.
The question is mostly whether GOP support of increased tribal funding is a cover to get decreased regulation for environment and public health concerns, present regulation costing the energy industry profits and opportunity. But part of the question is also whether, to get the approved riders he favors, and the Democrats object to, Trump will swallow his pride and allow the increased funding agreement to replace his proposed decreased funding.
Democratic Senator Tom Udall, vice chairman of the Indian Affairs committee, supports the bill and helped write it: “This bill represents real progress for Indian Country, significantly increasing our investments in Native health care, infrastructure, economies, and communities. It rejects the president’s dangerous proposed budget cuts and instead provides funding increases that will lead to healthier communities and better outcomes across Indian Country.”
While taking a shot at the president, Udall, in the spirit of bipartisan cooperation, does not address the “toxic riders” which so alarmed House Democrats, but clearly, when representatives of both bodies meet in joint committee, these differences must be addressed, and the committee will have thirty days before the fiscal year begins on October 1, to submit a reworked bill to the president. If these toxic riders are eliminated or watered down, the question then becomes will that be enough to prompt Trump to oppose his own party and veto the bill they just approved?
Here are the proposed budget considerations from the House bill:
Bigger budgets— A ten percent increase for the IHS and a seven percent increase for the BIA and Bureau of Indian Education.
Water and public safety— Increases BIA irrigation and water projects by 84 percent, and public safety facilities at BIA by 212 percent.
Substance abuse funding- A six percent increase for mental health services and a four percent increase for alcohol and substance abuse program funding at the IHS. Expands Tribal access to federal opioid response programs at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), including a new Tribal set-aside of $50 million in SAMHSA’s Opioid Response Grant fund and a $5 million Tribal set-aside in SAMHSA’s Medication-Assisted Treatment for Prescription Drug and Opioid Abuse Program.
Public Safety – A five percent increase in public safety funding for Tribal law enforcement, authorization of funding for school security, and a three percent Tribal set-aside within the Crime Victims Fund. The Tribal Victims of Crime Act set-aside will address the longstanding issue raised by Tribal leaders of inadequate Tribal access to funding for victim resources.
“As members of Congress, we have an obligation to meet the safety and justice needs of Indian Country,” said Mc- Collum. “I am proud that we are taking a big step forward today by allowing tribal nations, whose communities suffer from the highest rates of victimization in the country, to directly access the Crime Victims Fund and build a better network of support and services for survivors.”
Other increases include:
• A $322 million increase to HIS infrastructure, includes $5 million for the Alamo HIS clinic in New Mexico.
• $2 million for the Gallup Detox Center in New Mexico
• Increase of 2.5 percent, or $914 million for Indian education at the Interior Department
• Increase of nine percent, or $180 million, for elementary and secondary Indian education programs at Department of Education.
• $2 million for the BIA for Violence Against Women Act implementation.
• $9 million more for the BIA for criminal investigations and police services.
• Increase of $10 million, or $55.5 million, for land and water claim settlements, including $21.7 million for the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project and $4 million for the Navajo Water Resources Development Trust Fund.
• $24.6 million for irrigation project construction – four times the FY 2017 funding level – and $38.2 million for dam safety projects.
• $3.4 million in new funding is included to implement the NATIVE Act to promote tribal tourism and economic development.
• $2 million in additional funding for anti-trafficking enforcement, including work to address the rampant problem of counterfeit Native American art in New Mexico and across the country.
• Transfer of funds from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to the BIA for the reconstruction or repair of BIAowned roads needed as a result of cooperative security efforts on the border.
• Maintains financial support at current levels for the Tiwahe initiative, a program begun under the Obama administration that integrates social services and job training programs in order to address poverty and family welfare. Another $3 million will be provided to reduce recidivism through the Tiwahe initiative.
• Request that the BIA work with tribes, whose federal recognition was terminated but later restored, to help them secure law enforcement funding through self-determination contracts.
• Urges support for Native language preservation and revitalization efforts and provides $2 million for capacity building grants to BIA- and tribally operated schools to expand existing language immersion programs or create new ones.
• Urges Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to reorganize the BIA to consolidate control and accountability of the Bureau of Indian Education within that department. Lawmakers cited Government Accountability Office reports that have detailed problems within the K-12 Indian education system related to organizational structure, accountability, finance, health and safety, and student performance.
• Set aside $58 million to address “accreditation emergencies” created when the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services terminates Medicare or Medicaid agreements with IHS or tribally operated health care facilities. And they expressed concern about deficiencies recently identified at the Gallup Indian Medical Center by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Joint Commission and called on IHS to ensure patient safety and quality health care at that facility.
(James Giago Davies is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He can be reached at skindiesel@ msn.com)