Sunday, March 20, 2011

Budget Debate for Office of Indian Affairs Represents Responsible Process

As we’re hearing all of the discussions about the budget, there have been a lot of discussions about how the cuts proposed by the House Republicans will have a negative impact on our economy. Instead of trying to simply focus on spending reduction by cutting $1.1 billion from Head Start or defunding NPR, the Obama Administration has proposed moving forward with a program that could spur our economy by investing in crucial programs that could spur job creation at the same time it saves money by cutting inefficiencies and reducing funding to programs that aren’t as crucial to the American people. A prime example of these tactics can be found in the Administration’s proposal for Indian Country.

The Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, Larry Echo Hawk, recently testified before Congress about his department’s budget request. While speaking before the newly created Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, Echo Hawk spoke about how his three priority initiatives: Strengthening Tribal Nations, New Energy frontier, and Cooperative Landscape Conservation.

One of the major aspects of strengthening tribal nations is investing in Indian Education. One of the primary reasons for doing this is because there is incredibly high unemployment on Indian reservations and many of people living on reservations haven’t received a high school diploma. Investing in providing a quality education for Indian Country could therefore greatly improve the lives of thousands of people living on reservations. As a result, the office of Indian Affairs is asking for an increase in funding for education so that Native Americans can have the skills necessary to enter the 21st Century job market. In the long run, these investments will save the country money by creating a highly skilled workforce that will result in less people to be dependent on social services from the federal government.

One of the important aspects in improving the Bureau of Indian Education is investing in the actual school buildings that are used by students. When you consider that conditions haven’t improved too much since almost 75% of schools in Indian Country where listed as in poor condition back in 2001, it shouldn’t be too surprising that many committee members were concerned about the state of Indian schools. Based upon what we heard from the witnesses, they recognize this concern and are doing what they can to invest in improving schools. While they reduced the overall budget request, for example, one area they targeted for increased investment was in their requests for Operations and Management. This funding will help to ensure that the schools at least stay in the same condition (instead of getting worse) during these tough economic times.

While the Office of Indian Affairs is increasing funding in education, Echo Hawk also testified that he realizes we’re in touch economic times and his office has therefore proposed cutting funding from several programs. They are cutting “$41.5 million for a detention center new facility construction due to a similar program within the Department of Justice and a reduction of $22.1 for administration cost savings and management efficiencies.” These are just some of the savings that will help to reduce the budget request for the department by 4.5% when compared to the FY 2010 levels.

In addition to the amount of money that’s being requested by the department, there was a fair amount of discussion about how the funding is implemented. During the hearing, for example, Rep. Bosar said that he’s hearing from some people at the local level that they would actually prefer block grants instead of the BIA running programs at the federal level. In response to this Secretary Echo Hawk pointed out that about half of all BIA programs are operated at the tribal level. That percentage increases to about 2/3 when you’re talking about programs run through the Bureau of Indian Education. Furthermore, the number of federal employees at the BIA has gone from over 18,000 in 1973 to just over 8,000 now. In other words, Echo Hawk is already working extremely hard to make sure that tribal leadership has their voice heard in the process and that the best possible solutions for everyone involved are utilized.

Of all of the hearings I’ve been to on the budget, this was one of the few where I walked away feeling as though everyone involved is relatively satisfied with the administration’s proposal. While there are always going to be some disagreements, the committee members appear to be truly committed to investing in Indian Country and coming together in a bipartisan manner to produce results. When I spoke to Secretary Echo Hawk after the hearing, it appears as though he shared those sentiments. One of the things he told me, for instance, is that he sees this new subcommittee as an additional legislative body that can help draw attention to the concerns of the Native communities. Furthermore, he highlighted how many of the members had already been working with various tribes and how the ranking member even had 17 federally recognized tribes in his Oklahoma district. In other words, this won’t just be another bureaucratic step in the law making process but will be a subcommittee that can truly advocate for Indian Country.

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