Today, U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-WA) encouraged the Administration to continue to invest in key programs for Indian Country, during a Committee oversight hearing on the President's Fiscal Year 2014 budget proposal.
During today's hearing, Cantwell applauded the Administration's support for Indian health programs, energy development and public safety programs for Tribal governments. Cantwell also expressed concerns about proposed budget cuts to Tribal economic development programs. Eight of the ten poorest counties in the United States can be found in Indian Country and unemployment rates can be as high as 80 percent. Cantwell also expressed concern about the Administration's budget proposal to zero out investments for new school construction in Indian Country, even though half of the schools in the Bureau of Indian Education system are considered to be in poor or fair condition.
"For Tribal communities to thrive now and into the future there must be economic development opportunities and workforce opportunities," said Cantwell at today's hearing. "This year's budget request contains a decrease in economic development funding for Indian Country, despite a moderate increase in overall education funding, and it contains no funding for school construction."
The Committee heard testimony from U.S. Department of the Interior and Department of Health and Human Services officials, president of the National Congress of American Indians, chair of the National Indian Health Board, and a representative of the National Tribal Contract Support Cost Coalition. Click here for a full list of witnesses.
Today's witnesses also described the severe impact sequestration is having on their Tribal communities. Sequestration, which took effect on March 1, 2013, required across-the-board cuts at federal agencies. Tribal programs are being reduced at the Department of the Interior by $120 million and at the Indian Health Service by $220 million. These cuts will lead to decreased staff at Tribal schools, reduced health care at Indian Health facilities, and cuts to the general assistance program which provides food rent and clothing to those most in need.
Witnesses at the hearing also emphasized the need for the federal government to honor the unique legal obligations the federal government has towards Indian Tribes. The government-to-government relationship is grounded in the United States Constitution, treaties, federal statutes and Supreme Court decisions.
The Committee also heard from John Sirois, Chairman of the Business Council of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation of Nespelem, Washington: "In the current budget climate, we believe that existing resources for economic development can be leveraged and maximized with more formal coordination between federal agencies," Sirois said. "Businesses are often hesitant to locate their operations on Indian lands because of the administrative burdens, both real and perceived, that accompany federal approval requirements applicable to many activities on Indian land."