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In Indian Country, federal budget dysfunction takes a toll

Savannah Maher Apr 9, 2024
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Participants line up to check in for the first day of the 2024 Reservation Economic Summit. Just two days earlier, Congress passed the first of two packages to fund the government — including many services to Native nations — through September. Courtesy NCAIED

In Indian Country, federal budget dysfunction takes a toll

Savannah Maher Apr 9, 2024
Heard on:
Participants line up to check in for the first day of the 2024 Reservation Economic Summit. Just two days earlier, Congress passed the first of two packages to fund the government — including many services to Native nations — through September. Courtesy NCAIED
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The annual Reservation Economic Summit brings thousands of tribal leaders to Las Vegas. This year, a lot of them were breathing easy for the first time in a while. Two days before the summit began and just hours before a March deadline, Congress passed the first of two packages to fund the government through September.  

“It’s the federal budget process. So it’s not always the easiest thing to navigate,” said Justin Barrett, treasurer of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. 

Barrett watched this year’s budget drama closely because lots of vital social programs in his community are federally funded. That includes the Eastern Shawnee Child Care Development Fund.

“That funds childcare for any person in Ottawa County below the poverty line, and then it also funds our early childhood learning center,” Barrett said. “So that is about a $2.5 million budget a year that is funded through the federal CCDF program.” 

If the federal government shuts down, Barrett said the Eastern Shawnee Tribe has to find a way to float that program out of its own coffers.

In many tribal communities, everything from police and fire departments to medical clinics to K-12 schools are paid for with federal dollars. That’s because of the United States’ trust and treaty obligations to tribal nations. That also means those nations’ yearly budgets and economic fates are entangled with the federal government’s at a time when Congress has struggled to pass spending bills on time.  

Between October and March, Barrett said a long, drawn out budget cycle marked by stopgap spending measures and the constant threat of a shutdown took a toll. 

“You know, it doesn’t provide a lot of stability. And we don’t know what resources will be available,” Barrett said. 

That uncertainty makes it difficult for tribal leaders to budget for the coming year. And every time Congress kicks the can down the road, they spend valuable time making and re-making shutdown contingency plans. 

“It gets frustrating,” said Andrew Alejandre, chairman of the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians. “We’re trying to plan for the future. When [lawmakers] aren’t making decisions or moving at the pace they’re supposed to, that really puts us in a bind.” 

The Paskenta Band has reserve funds set aside in case of a government shutdown or other financial emergency. It also self-funds many of its services with revenue from its enterprises. 

“We’ve been pretty fortunate. We’re a 300-member tribe,” Alejandre said, highlighting that they have fewer citizens to serve than most tribal nations. “We’re in California, right on the Interstate 5.” 

That’s where the tribe’s casino, golf course and equestrian center get plenty of foot traffic. The Paskenta Band also runs a construction and engineering contractor, and Alejandre said it’s looking to diversify its economy even more and reduce its reliance on federal funding. But most tribes can’t insulate their economies that way. 

“Since we are in a very rural community there is not a lot of economic opportunities here,” said Bill Trepanier, secretary treasurer of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band Lake Superior of Chippewa. “Most of our services right now are funded almost entirely by grants and government assistance” 

Trepanier said those federally-funded services also employ lots of tribal citizens who can’t just find other work in rural northern Wisconsin in the event of a shutdown. 

The Lac Courte Oreilles tribe has some reserve funds set aside. Still, Trepanier said even a brief shutdown would be majorly disruptive. 

“I think about it a lot. Sometimes it stresses you out to the point of not sleeping at night,” he said. 

For now, Trepanier can turn back to the tribe’s other economic priorities. 

“It’s not that long, though, before we have to worry about [a shutdown] again,” he said.

Federal funding for tribal housing, healthcare, education and other social programs in tribal communities are owed to those nations that ceded tens of millions of acres of land in exchange. 

Melanie Benjamin is chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and board secretary with the Native American Finance Officers Association. She said provisions laid out in treaties between tribal nations and the United States are protected by the constitution. 

“In today’s terms, those are contracts and they’re valid. They’re the supreme law of the land. When you’re in a shutdown, how are you supposed to uphold that contract?” Benjamin said. 

Last year, for the first time, Congress funded the Indian Health Service with advance appropriations to provide a bridge between funding impasses. That way, at least tribal clinics and hospitals remain open during a shutdown. Benjamin said all federal programs that serve tribes should be funded on the mandatory side of the budget to ensure the federal government’s trust and treaty obligations are met. 

“Tribes are always the last thought. We need to be considered essential,” Benjamin said. 

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