March 13, 2009

Indian Leaders Support Thrust of Obama Budget, Suggest Some Improvements

Representatives of some of the nation’s largest Indian organizations told the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee Thursday they applaud President Barack Obama’s new investments in Indian Country, but suggested a number of improvements to the budget outline for Indian programs.
Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (D-ND) called the hearing as part of his on-going effort to consult closely with Indian Country about federal policies and programs that affect Indians. The purpose of the hearing was to provide the committee with tribal reaction to funding priorities as it prepares its formal reaction to the President’s budget proposals for Indian programs.
Testifying at the hearing were: Jackie Johnson-Pata, Executive Director, National Congress of American Indians; Jessica Burger, Health Director, Bemidji Area, National Indian Health Board; Robert Cook, President, National Indian Education Association; and Cheryl Parish, Vice Chairperson, National American Indian Housing Council.
The Indian leaders said they are pleased that, even in tough economic times, Obama’s budget outline recognizes the need to make substantial investments in Indian Country. They said Obama’s budget is a welcome change to stagnant and even declining funding levels in previous years, but noted the committee must remember substantial ground remains to be covered in order to catch up from years of funding neglect.
Specifically, the leaders said Indian health, education, housing and public safety funding all need to be strengthened even beyond Obama’s increases. They also asked for rules and regulations that would provide enough flexibility to allow Indian tribes to better determine how to meet local needs.
Dorgan said he shared many of the views voiced at the hearing. He said he is especially pleased that the Obama budget outline calls for substantial support for Indian education and the largest increase in funding for the Indian Health Service in 20 years. Dorgan has been a frequent critic of Indian health care funding levels. He often describes health care delivery in many Indian communities as “rationing,” and says it is “shameful” given the federal government’s treaty commitments and trust obligations.