Shelly to feds: keep your promises

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Shelly to feds: keep your promises

By Alysa Landry
Special to the Times

WASHINGTON, May 2, 2013

Navajo President Ben Shelly joined other tribal leaders in the nation's capital last week to engage lawmakers in conversations about federal trust responsibilities and obligations to tribes as Congress considers the 2014 budget.

Shelly was one of 85 tribal leaders to testify during a two-day hearing hosted by the House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies. Tribes encouraged Congress to continue investing in key programs that face cuts under President Barack Obama's Fiscal Year 2014 budget proposal.

"Any reductions in overall funding must be subject to meaningful tribal consultation before cuts are implemented," Shelly told the subcommittee. "The current method of federal program funding reinforces a perpetual state of poor financial planning for tribes and other local governments."

Shelly also advocated for greater local control of federal dollars.

"The Navajo Nation wants to be more energy independent," he told the subcommittee. "We have the natural resources, the ability to create jobs. We have the sun and the wind. We're tied up with federal red tape. If you get rid of that, we can do more job creation. Direct funding means jobs on Navajo."

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs also held hearings last week, during which tribal leaders and representatives of tribal organizations asked Congress for continued funding and enough flexibility to allow tribes to determine and meet their local needs.

The hearings came two weeks after Obama unveiled a $3.78 trillion budget proposal that would cut $1 trillion in spending and raise $800 billion in new revenue over the next 10 years. Hearings will continue as the executive and legislative branches wrangle over how to best spend federal dollars. The budget comprises 12 individual spending bills passed by Congress and signed by the president.

The Senate committee on April 25 reviewed funding priorities for Indian Country, including budgets for healthcare, education, infrastructure and public safety services. In her opening remarks, Chairwoman Maria Cantwell, D-Wash, called attention to the federal government's trust responsibilities to tribes.

"The trust responsibility is grounded in the United States Constitution, in treaties, in federal statutes, in Supreme Court decisions, so it's important that when we look at how we fund tribal programs, we understand that tribal programs are an acknowledgment of a government-to-government relationship that exists between tribes and the federal government," Cantwell said.

Budget cuts on the federal level can have devastating impacts in Indian Country, where some of the most vulnerable programs exist and economic opportunities already are scarce, Cantwell said. 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, she said.

The National Congress of American Indians analyzed Obama's budget proposal and identified concerns about cuts that threaten progress in critical areas, including reduced spending for education, school construction and low-income housing.

"Now is not (the) time to slow the progress we have seen in Indian Country," Jefferson Keel, president of NCAI, said in the analysis. "We've experienced decades of the federal government falling short, and while we understand the limitations of the federal government, the federal trust responsibility to tribal nations and our people is not a line item."

In his statement to the Senate committee, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn outlined specific cuts and boosts in funding to Indian Country.

Obama's budget calls for $72.3 million in tribal program decreases, Washburn said. That includes cuts of $2.6 million for Law Enforcement Special Initiatives and $16.5 million for the Indian Student Equalization Program.

But the budget also proposes new funding of $15 million for a turnaround school pilot program and $107.1 million for construction projects, including $52.3 million for schools.