Indian Country politics and public policy

Commentary by Mark Trahant

Trahant Reports

Updated list of candidate for Congress and statewide offices. Working now on the list of candidates for state legislatures. (Drop me a line if you know of a candidate who ought to be in this database. Thanks. Mark.)

This is a Google fusion table with three tabs. The first is a spreadsheet; second is note cards for each candidate, and tab 3 is the interactive map.

 

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Grid: Yellow pins are Independents; Red, Republicans; Blue, Democrats and Green for Green Party. (Trahant Reports)

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Minnesota Rep. Peggy Flanagan, D- St. Louis Park.

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

There is an uncomfortable, even painful re-balancing going on across so much of society. The old world of male hegemony is slowly coming to an end. Minnesota’s Sen. Al Franken lost his office because of his own actions — and that broader change.

“I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office, and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party,” Sen Franken said.

Yet this is a tough issue for many Democrats. Franken was the kind of senator that folks wanted, especially on issues involving American Indians and Alaska Natives. As Tara Zhaabowekwe Houska wrote on Facebook:  “Al Franken has resigned, leaving a massive gap of progressive values in Congress. None of the victims who stepped forward called for his resignation. His decision to step down speaks volumes of his character and recognition of the bigger picture.”

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton will appoint Franken’s replacement who then will have to run in a special election next year. The most likely pick is Lieutenant Governor Tina Flint Smith, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The appointment of Smith causes another problem: A Republican would automatically replace her as the Lt. Gov. That situation also presents challenges for an administration. But then again, time is short.

Two other names — both historic choices– are also possible, Reps. Ilhan Omar and Peggy Flanagan (White Earth Ojibwe).

Flanagan is currently running for Lt. Gov. But because of her deep experience in politics, Flanagan could hit the ground running. She already knows her way around Capitol Hill. Since this would be a short term gig, that’s critical. There is another reason why Flanagan should get the nod: Since 1789 there have been 12,244 people serving in Congress. Never has there been a Native woman. Not by election. Not by appointment. This would be a chance to start a new era, one where indigenous voices are heard.

This is an important time in Congress. In addition to all of the challenges that the country is facing in the Trump era, there is also the issue of how Congress, as an institution, handles abuse by its members. The line needs to be sharp and absolute. Just this week four members from both parties have resigned, retired or are being investigated. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said he would resign after sexual misconduct allegations. The House Ethics Committee is investigating Texas Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold for using taxpayer funds for an $84,000 sexual harassment settlement.  And Michigan Democrat John Conyers retired Tuesday from a House seat he had held for more than fifty years.

And to top it off Congress has an institutional problem. A payoff system that was both secret and a way for powerful members to act with impunity. As Rep. Susan Brooks, a Republican from Indiana, told Time magazine: “We were asking for anything related to sexual harassment. The response received today indicated that due to the confidentiality requirements of the statute, they cannot provide us with that.”

Transparency is the only way out of this mess.

But voters in Alabama are considering a candidate, Roy Moore, who would start his job in the Senate already knowing about these issues. The Washington Post reported about Moore’s sexual misconduct with multiple minors. A candidate who is not only backed by President Donald J. Trump but by the official apparatus of the Republican Party.

And, of course, Trump himself has been accused by at least sixteen women of misconduct.

Congress, the White House, government, Hollywood, journalism, business, tribes, all have stories about the corrupt use of power. Enough. It’s time for a re-balancing of power. And most certainly, transparency.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

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Rep. Paulette Jordan announces her bid for governor in Moscow, Idaho. (Photo via Facebook)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Paulette Jordan is running for governor of Idaho. This is a big deal in so many ways. First, there have been very few Native Americans who have ever run at that level (Alaska’s Byron Mallott, Idaho’s Larry EchoHawk, and Peggy Flanagan in Minnesota).  Second, she’s the first Native woman who has the audacity to ask citizens to run their state. Yay!  And third: She already knows how to win over conservative voters.

Two years ago when Democrats were losing across the country, Jordan captured her second term as a state representative, winning by 290 votes. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but she won her race during a Republican wave. She was the only Democrat to win any office in North Idaho.

Jordan announced her candidacy Thursday night in Moscow, Idaho. She is a native of Idaho and a citizen of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Idaho. (She served on the tribal council from 2009 to 2012.

“I grew up in a farming family and my grandparents showed me that cultivating the land was a continuation of our ancestral traditions of caring for homelands,” Jordan said. “Coeur d’Alene peoples have cared for Idaho homelands since time immemorial and Idahoans today practice the same combination of self-sufficiency and cooperation that my grandparents did. This reminds me of how connected we are to one another, it reminds me that Idaho is my family.”

Rep. Jordan is currently serving her second term in the Idaho House of Representatives. She is a member of the Idaho House Resources and Conservation Committee, State Affairs Committee, and the Energy, Environment & Technology Committee.  She is also an appointed Idaho Representative to the Energy and Environment Committee of the Council of State Governments for the Western Region.

At her announcement, Jordan said, “when asked, what are you going to do next to improve this world? I am going to run for governor.”

Idaho once regularly elected Democrats to state office, including former Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus (who won office a record four times). These days it’s a super-majority Republican state. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Idaho is also state where the legendary National Congress of American Indians President Joe Garry served in the state senate and was a candidate for the U.S. Senate. It’s where Jeannie Givens served in the legislature and ran for the U.S. House of Representatives (likely the first Native woman to do so). Both Garry and Givens are also Couer d’Alene tribal members. It’s also a state that that sent Larry EchoHawk, a Pawnee, first to the legislature, and later elected Idaho’s state’s Attorney General. He did lose a bid for governor. But the point is that Jordon has an uphill climb. And she could win.

One telling story about Jordan is that she lost her first race for the legislature in 2012 by less than a hundred-fifty votes. She went back to work — and won two years later. And again four years later.

Jordan said there is even an advantage to being a member of the minority party. “The majority party can be insular and keeps their circle small, because they do not need to cooperate to advance their goals,” she said in her announcement news release. “But, members of the minority party must engage colleagues across the aisle, and develop meaningful comprehension of policies and positions held by others, so that the shared work of governing can succeed.” Jordan continued, “In my family, our circle can always get bigger, and that’s what I see for Idaho. A bigger circle is what achieving justice for all looks like.”

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please do so. Just credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com #IndigenousNewsWire #NativeVote18

 

 

 

A lot on my plate.

But I will be writing because there is a new deadline for Congress to fund the government this week. There are serious issues that go beyond money, partly because Republicans will need to either hold their caucus together or win votes from Democrats. Tough roads. Which one is the less traveled?

Recent piece in Yes! Making the case for a shutdown …

The tax bill, it turns out, was written so hastily that there are errors. Who knew? This means that the House must go to conference and work on a compromise with Senate. (The easy option would have been to pass the Senate bill and send it on to the president). A conference stirs the divisions that exist within the Republican Party. If the House gets its way, the bill could lose Senate votes (and be defeated).

I will post before the weekend. Mark

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Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon championed tax cuts for the wealthy — and sharp budget cuts — in the years before the Great Depression. (Treasury Department photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Turns out we’ve been worried about the wrong, Andrew. The Republican tax plan, President Donald J. Trump’s signature legislation, would make Andrew Mellon proud.

Andrew Mellon was a wealthy industrialist who served in government as the Secretary of Treasury. Here’s what Trump’s own Treasury Department says about Mellon: “As the Nation embarked on the most materialistic period in its history, Mellon’s philosophy was one of debt reduction, tax reduction, and a balanced budget. His tax reform scheme, known as the Mellon Plan, reduced taxes for business. His theory was that big business would prosper in proportion to the lightening of its tax load and its profit would be transferred to the rest of the Nation. During much of his tenure, general prosperity and times of peace enabled Mellon to implement his measures. The Great Depression, however, beginning in 1929, undercut Mellon’s prestige and brought him under increasing criticism. Despite the downturn in the economy, Mellon continued his policy of balancing the budget by cutting spending and increasing taxes, which worsened the effect of the Depression on the ordinary citizen.”

History is prologue. Damn. You hardly have to change a word to know that this sentence is about now. Swap today’s Treasury Secretary Steven Terner Mnuchin for Mellon and the story still answers, what’s next?

Both the House and the Senate have now passed the legislation to cut taxes so that business will prosper by the lightening of its tax load and its profit would be transferred to the rest of the nation. The funny thing is that people really believe this load of crap. Then self-delusion was a common thread in the Senate debate. Maine Sen. Susan Collins voted yes because Mitch McConnell promised her budget cuts (including cuts to Medicare) would not follow. She even tweeted proof, a McConnell letter saying Congress has the power to waive such acts. But, does he have the will or the votes to do so?

The conservative wing is, at least, honest about this. When the tax cuts result in a massive expansion of debt they want sharp budget cuts. This is a core belief. And has been since Mellon’s time. Or as the Treasury Department puts it: “Despite the downturn in the economy, Mellon continued his policy of balancing the budget by cutting spending and increasing taxes, which worsened the effect of the Depression on the ordinary citizen.”

Or there was Arizona’s John McCain, the so-called champion of regular order, voting for a 479-page bill with handwritten amendments. A bill that will add (by Congress’ own estimate) about a trillion in debt was passed in a few weeks without the usual hearings or independent scoring. The maverick did not care about process. Get it done.

How bad is this bill? It’s right up there as one of the most unpopular bills ever. An average of polling shows its popular support at about one-third. And, get this, FiveThirtyEight reports that this bill is even more unpopular than tax hikes.

A couple of things about Indian Country: So many of our tribal citizens are the low end when it comes to earning. This bill does nothing to lighten that tax load. Indeed a late night effort to increase tax credits for children, making them refundable. (Remember nearly half of all Americans don’t pay income tax, it’s the payroll tax that is the burden. This would have helped.)

And instead of turning the dial back on fossil fuels this bill aligns the tax code for more development. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has made this part of the legislation her signature, not health care, and certainly not climate change (as she so eloquently talked about during the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in October.) She owns this.

The Atlantic magazine says this bill “could forever alter Alaska’s Indigenous communities” by development. “The issue still divides Native villages, counties, and Native nations in Alaska. It also sets tribes with differing claims to Alaska’s North Slope against each other.”

This bill also strips the mandate to buy insurance. A win for freedom, right? Perhaps. But it also means that healthy people will not buy as much insurance leaving sicker, older people to pay the bills. It will weaken the insurance framework. At least 13 million fewer people will carry health insurance as a result.

However there are winners: Big corporations, rich would-be heirs (like the Trump children) and religious schools (an amendment by Ted Cruz expands tax-free savings for this purpose).

The process ahead: This bill will still have to be reconciled with the House. There are differences, such as taxing graduate students and deducting medical expenses.

But cutting taxes (and then the budget) is something Republicans have championed long before Andrew Mellon. So this bill is likely to become law soon. President Trump can make both Andrews proud.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

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Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

How does the national press cover Indian Country? That’s often an easy question to answer because it’s so rare for the media to weigh in on events that matter. And when they do? Damn.

The White House ceremony to honor code talkers turned into a frenzy. As ABC News reported, “MOMENTS AGO: Pres. Trump at White House event honoring Navajo code talkers, makes joke about “Pocahontas” Sen. Elizabeth Warren.”

That, of course, became the story. It sells. It’s the president disrespecting veterans, history, and Native Americans. It also fits the narrative of the president’s incompetence. This story had This Will Go Viral encoded into every frame.

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But the telling of the story missed. Hundreds of media outlets from National Public Radio to  The Washington Post reduced the event to one that only honored Navajo code talkers. Headline after headline. (Interesting: Just a week ago the Post advanced the story broadly. “While the contributions of Navajo code talkers have been honored by Congress and featured in films, the role of dozens of other Native American tribes has been overlooked. But on Wednesday, Congressional Gold Medals, the nation’s highest civilian honor, were awarded honoring the service of hundreds of overlooked code talkers from 33 tribes,” the Post said.)

Perhaps it’s ignorance, right? The news media doesn’t write about these issues often. (And the diversity in the White House press corps is right up there with, say, the Trump cabinet in terms of hearing Native voices.) But here’s the thing: Several media reports quoted the National Congress of American Indians news release. And in paragraph one that says: “Today was about recognizing the remarkable courage and invaluable contributions of our Native code talkers. That’s who we honor today and everyday – the three code talkers present at the White House representing the 10 other elderly living code talkers who were unable to join them, and the hundreds of other code talkers from the Cherokee, Choctaw, Comanche, Lakota, Meskwaki, Mohawk, Navajo, Tlingit, and other tribes who served during World Wars I and II. We also honor the service and bravery of all of our veterans and those currently serving from Indian Country. Native people serve in the Armed Forces at a higher rate than any other group in the country, and have served in every war in this nation’s history.”

The information was in front of the reporters. Did they miss nuance? Or facts?

To me this story is disheartening because of what the national media does not cover. There was hardly any reporting about the hiatus of Indian Country Today Media Network (with the exception of one NPR post and Mary Annette Pember’s excellent Columbia Journalism Review piece). But nothing in The New York Times or Washington Post (and therefore nothing on network television).

And there are so many critical stories worth writing about now, such as the tens of thousands of Native children who will lose health insurance soon unless Congress acts. This might sound bureaucratic to reporters, but when the Indian health system runs short of funds many, many patients will be denied medical treatment unless it’s life or limb. That should be an outrage worth the front page.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please do so. Just credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com #IndigenousNewsWire #NativeVote18

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Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Congress has yet to reenact the Children’s Health Insurance Program and states will soon run out of funds to prop up the program. That will mean that thousands of American Indian and Alaska Native children will lose their health insurance. And, the result is the Indian Health Service will have to stretch its already thin dollars to try and cover the budget hole.

The Children’s Health Insurance Program expired Sept. 30. This federal program insures young people and pregnant women who make just enough money not to qualify for Medicaid (but can’t afford private insurance). The idea is to make sure that every child has the resources to see a doctor when they are ill.

It’s hard to break down precise numbers because agencies lump funds from the Children’s Health Insurance Program or CHIP into Medicaid data. But we do know that the law worked really well. We also know there are more than 216,000 children that have health insurance because of Medicaid and the CHIP. Indeed, Native American children rely on Medicaid and CHIP at much higher percentages than other population groups. A study by Georgetown reported that 54 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native children were enrolled in Medicaid or CHIP as compared to 39 percent of all children. “Even though much progress has been made in extending Medicaid coverage to American Indians and Alaska Natives, the uninsured rate for American Indian and Alaska Native children and families remain unacceptably high,” the report said.

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Source: Georgetown University Health Policy Institute. Coverage Trends for American Indian and Alaska Native Children and Families.

Overall the uninsured rate among non-elderly American Indians and Alaska Natives fell by 7 percentage points from 24 percent to 17 percent, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

This is a big deal and here’s why: The Indian Health Service is a health care delivery operation that works best when insurance (third-party billing in government-speak) pays for the medical costs. Medicaid, CHIP, Medicare, and other third-party billing now accounts for 22 percent of the IHS’ $6.15 billion budget.

But if Children’s health is no longer funded (because Congress did not reauthorize the legislation) then the Indian Health Service will have to make up the difference. That means taking money away from other patients and programs. It will be a critical problem for clinics because by law dollars from third-party billing (or Medicaid and CHIP) remain local.

Alaska is the state most impacted by Congress’ failure to act because two-thirds of the children in the Native health system are covered by Medicaid or CHIP. Other states where there will be significant hits: Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, New Mexico, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and California.

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Source: Georgetown University Health Policy Institute

The House of Representatives passed a CHIP reauthorization in early November. But that bill included a $6.35 billion budget cut to other health programs, including the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which provides money for vaccines, smoking cessation, and other initiatives to improve public health. The House would also ban lottery winners from being insured by Medicaid, tighten the timetable for people to sign up, and to change other rules.

It’s unlikely the Senate will agree. But the Senate is not moving quickly to pass its own legislation. The Senate is too busy working out tax cuts that will benefit large corporations and the very wealthy. (Previous post: What matters? Tax fight is about seven competing values.)

Across the country, some nine million low- and middle-income children rely on CHIP for health coverage. And, according to The Hill newspaper, States have asked the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for funding to hold them over in the interim, and the agency has awarded about $607 million in redistributed funds to states and U.S. territories. Tribes will also lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in CHIP-related grants.

Last month, Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, who chairs the Senate committee responsible, called CHIP a “top priority” that had bipartisan support. The committee passed the bill October 2. But it’s up to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to bring the legislation to the floor for enactment. Then the House and Senate would have to iron out and agree on their differences before the bill can become law.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please do so. Just credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com #IndigenousNewsWire #NativeVote18

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Original federal tax return in 1913.

Why Indian Country should have a voice in this debate

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

There is no better way for any legislature — be it a tribal council, a state assembly, or a Congress — to telegraph what’s most important to a society than through tax policy. How a government collects revenue says what constituent groups are seen to matter. And, conversely, what groups and issues are insignificant. And, that of course, is Indian Country.

As Adrian Sinclair wrote in Cronkite News: “Indian Country once again does not have a seat at the table.” Tribes “aren’t treated the same as state and local governments across the board on a whole series of issues,” John Dossett, general counsel for the National Congress of American Indians, said after the hearing. “Tribes are … either ignored or they’re an afterthought.” He said there are many cases where state governments have more power than tribal governments, like the federal Adoption Tax Credit, which gives a credit to parents who adopt a child with special needs. But the credit only applies when a state court, not a tribal court, rules that a child has special needs.

So Indian Country is a perfect illustration for my larger point: A country’s tax policy shows what it values. The key to this idea is simple when a nation wants more of something, then taxes it less. And, other hand, if a nation wants less of something? Tax it more.

All interest on debt was deductible when the first income tax was created in 1894. Why? Because Americans did not like to borrow. It was almost immoral. As a writer for Harper’s Weekly warned a man in debt “must smile on those he hates, he must extend his hand where he would strike, he must speak pleasantly with a curse in his throat … He wears dependence like a yoke.”

But Congress made debt a better deal. You could borrow money for that new farm, or especially a home, and the government would subsidize the loan by making it a tax deductible transaction. By the 1920s car loans were the bigger deal. Americans were borrowing, buying and deducting. Congress created a monster with that policy and today debt is one of America’s great loves. Then in 1986 Congress switched gears: Today individuals can only deduct mortgage interest. But even that single benefit was generous. You could buy a big house. A bigger house. A ginormous house. And deduct 100 percent of the interest up to the cost up to $1.1 million of debt. And that tax deal includes second homes.

So as a policy the Congress was telling we the people buy bigger houses. And go ahead, get that second house in the woods or on the lake.

That’s what tax reform is, setting parameters for what the elected leaders think important for a national policy. So, if it becomes law, this tax reform will change the way we consumers spend money. Perhaps we’ll buy and build smaller houses and rent a cabin on the lake instead of purchasing one. This might be a good outcome for all of us. This is actually a pro-climate policy (please don’t tell Congress.)

This same priority process is true for renewable energy. Congress created incentives for wind, solar and other renewable energy. But, now the Republican plan is to reverse course, and reward oil, gas, and especially coal. Tax policy will favor fossil fuel development and renewable energy will therefore cost more. But will companies still invest? Who knows? We do know the calculations will be way more complicated. And, did I mention, renewable energy will cost more.

Let’s consider the overarching messages, the narrative, that will form policy in the tax bill before the Senate and the one already passed by the House of Representatives.

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ONE: The bigger the corporation, the bigger the break

The tax bills paid by corporations are driving the legislation in both the House and the Senate. Republicans argue that if taxes are lower, companies will invest more in the United States (instead of other countries) and hire more people at higher wages.  This debate is complicated because the current tax code is full of loopholes (something that Republicans say will be fixed). But the bottom line is that U.S. companies have a higher tax rate than what other countries charge, but, and this is huge, the companies actually pay less in federal taxes than what other other countries charge.

As the Harvard Business Review says: “First and foremost, corporate taxes are important because they help pay for government services. While they don’t account for as much U.S. tax revenue as they once did, they remain one of the central ways the government raises funds. According to the Tax Policy Center, “The corporate income tax is the third largest source of federal revenue, after the individual income tax and payroll taxes.”

The House bill cuts the top rate that large corporations pay from 35 percent to 20 percent. It would be the largest one-time drop in the big-business tax rate ever. And it’s a permanent change (the individual rates expire after a decade) at least until there’s another tax bill.

Companies will also get more deductions for purchasing new equipment. And there is an incentive for companies to move their profits back to the United States from low-tax countries.

The Senate bill is evolving. It also rewards big business. But in order to reduce the cost of the entire package, it delays reducing the corporate rate until 2019. (Imagine every business in the country holding off on just about any new activity because the tax laws changed next year.)

The metaphor: Multinational corporations rule.

TWO: It’s tough being rich

The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof writes that it’s hard being a billionaire these days. “Why, some wealthy folks don’t even have a home in the Caribbean and on vacation are stuck brooding in hotel suites: They’re practically homeless! Fortunately President Trump and the Republicans are coming along with some desperately needed tax relief for billionaires.”

One way this works is be reducing the tax when someone inherits a wealthy estate. Both versions start this tax at $11 million. The House eliminates the so-called “death tax” in 2024 while the Senate keeps the tax but raises the exemption.

A second provision changes what’s called the Alternative Minimum Tax. The way that works is that after a tax return is completed, and there’s a whole slew of deductions, there is a calculation to see if that taxpayer should still pay something. The idea is to make sure that people earning more than $130,000 a year still pay an income tax, even if they find deductions in every corner. That goes away.

And there is one more goody for the rich. Charitable contributions can still be deducted.

The metaphor: Wealthy families so need our help. OMG.

THREE: Why work?

This part of the debate starts with the corporate tax rates. The Trump administration argues that cutting corporate taxes will benefit workers because companies will reward workers with better wages.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin claims that “many, many economic studies show that more than 70 percent of the burden of corporate taxes are passed on to the workers.”  However economists are divided. As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities points out “this claim is misleading … the evidence indicates that most of the benefits from a corporate rate cut would go to those at the top, with only a small share flowing to low- and moderate-income families.  Mainstream estimates conclude that more than one-third of the benefit of corporate rate cuts flows to the top 1 percent of Americans, and 70 percent flows to the top fifth. Corporate rate cuts could even hurt most Americans since they must eventually be paid for with other tax increases or spending cuts.”

The bottom line is that the tax bill will not make life easier for people earning under $75,000 a year. The income tax portion might go down (depending on family size, smaller in this case is better) but costs will go up for education and health care.

And, on top of that, this tax policy will sharply reduce federal spending across the board. Last week the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and the Native American Finance Officers Association (NAFOA) came out against both the House bill and the Senate Finance Committee bills in part because of this point. “NCAI and NAFOA view it as deeply regrettable that neither the House nor the Senate bill takes seriously Indian Country’s priorities for tax reform,” a news release said.  “With respect to tribal nations, unless tribal provisions are included, the current tax reform legislation amounts to little more than a $1.5 trillion increase in the federal deficit over the next ten years. This deficit increase will inevitably create pressure to cut federal programs and services that are extremely important to tribal communities. Deficit-financed tax cuts that lead to austerity budget cuts would affect all Americans, but would disproportionately impact American Indians and Alaska Natives who rely on federal funding of the trust responsibility as well as social programs.”

The metaphor: Workers don’t matter.

FOUR: Help mom and pop sell stuff

Most people who own a small business structure their entity as Limited Liability Corporations, S-Corps, or a partnership. This means that the income generated is reflected on the individual’s tax return. The House lowers the taxes on profits from 39.6 percent to 25 percent and has a 9 percent increase on the first $75,000. The Senate goes a different route with a new incentives for small business. This is “pass through income” because of the structure. And this part of reform really does solve a problem. Small business is critical — especially in Indian Country — but does not get the attention (or the breaks) that large corporations do.

Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Oklahoma, said last week, “As a former small business owner, I understand firsthand how burdensome the current tax code is on Main Street. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act delivers relief to mom-and-pop shops in our communities so that they can hire more individuals, grow their business, and invest more in our local economy.”

The metaphor: Small business is cool, too.

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FIVE: Elite colleges? Or is it, college only for the elite?

The House bill is an all-out attack on higher education. This is nonsense. Especially when the country needs to be competitive in a digital, knowledge-based world.

First up: Tax private universities’ endowments with a tax of 1.4 percent on portfolios that exceed $250,000 per full-time student. Only about a hundred schools would be affected, and it penalize colleges that have resources. Since those university operating costs will not go down, it’s not likely that this will result in more financial aid for students. The House also makes it impossible for tax-exempt bonds from private — and some public — institutions. This will make campus construction projects more expensive.

The House bill eliminates the deduction of interest for student loans. Americans now owe more than $1.4 trillion on student loans. It already is making it more difficult for young college graduates to buy homes, and transition into the middle class. This provision will be just one more thing. (And student loans are already stacked against the borrower. You can’t get rid of them in bankruptcy.) So instead of solving a problem, Congress is making it worse.

The House bill also repeals the Lifetime Learning Credit, eliminates the Coverdell savings accounts, but does expand the American Opportunity Credit.

The House bill would also classify tuition waivers as income (making a graduate student wealthy for tax purposes.) Imagine a “bump” in student’s income that is equal to tuition, some $30,000, $40,000 or even more. 

Laurie Arnold, Colville, director of Native American Studies and an Assistant Professor of History at Gonzaga University, remembers trying to explain this to Congress when she was in graduate school. “Many members of Congress had children enrolled in large/research universities, yet had no idea that graduate students teach the majority of introductory classes at those institutions. In general, the disconnect about this was broad, and many Members fell back on the language that not taxing the stipends was simply another tax break.”

Stipends are now taxed. And Congress is keen to add tuition waivers to the tax revenue pool. This will make it more difficult for people to pay for graduate school, and increase the debt levels for those who do. As a national policy this makes no sense. None.

As UCLA neuroscientist Astra Bryant told Wired magazine:  “I mentor two underprivileged undergraduate women, and my concern for them is that an increased tax burden would make it financially impossible for them to afford to pursue a PhD.”

And for Indian Country? There is already a shortage of graduate students and PhDs. Why should it be made more difficult?

The metaphor: College is stupid.

SIX: The growing gap between rich and poor

The gap between rich and poor is growing wider. “The wealthier you are, the more likely you are to benefit from the proposed tax changes. The poorer you are, the less likely you are to leave poverty,” writes Camille Busette for the Brookings Institute.

“Let me distill that: over one third of American households had trouble putting food on the table, putting a roof over their heads, or getting medical care; blacks and Hispanics are falling further behind whites in net wealth; and 99 percent of Americans hold a diminishing 76 percent share of income in the U.S. These are all alarming trends, but to have one-in-three consumers report that they cannot regularly put food on the table in the U.S., one of the wealthiest countries in the world, is the most deeply disturbing,” Busette writes. “Such a miserly budget, in combination with the tax reform plan, could mean the loss of some very important services for low-income and poor Americans.”

The tax reform measures will require massive budget cuts. Soon. Tribal governments will be hit hard. We already know how difficult sequestration was for tribes a few years ago. The kinds of cuts that will be needed to pay for these tax cuts will cost significantly more than sequestration.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities pegs these coming budget cuts at $5.8 trillion, $800 billion in cuts below sequestration levels.

The metaphor: You can’t afford to be poor.

SEVEN: Obamacare? Really? Again?

A serious question: Which house of Congress hates healthcare more?

The House kept the Affordable Care Act insurance mandates, but eliminates medical deductions. So a family that is dealing with a catastrophic, expensive medical event won’t be able to offset any of those costs from their tax bill. Already this provision is limited to higher income taxpayers. It’s only open to people who itemize their deductions, an estimated 8.8 million claimed it on their 2015 taxes, according to the IRS. But for those families that need this break, it’s a big deal.

Then the best thing Congress could do to help people with medical debt is to legislate another expansion of Medicaid. As Kaiser Health News reported: “A study from the Urban Institute may shed light on why Medicaid eligibility remains a pressing problem: medical debt. While personal debts related to health care are on the decline overall, they remain far higher in states that didn’t expand Medicaid. In some cases, struggles with medical debt can be all-consuming.”

The Senate is using tax reform to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act. Again. The Senate would “save” money by ending the requirement to purchase insurance. It saves tax dollars because the government would not have to pay the subsidies for those who sign up under the plan (including those from Indian Country who get no cost plans under the exchanges).

And, repeating myself here, should a form of these bills become law there will be cuts across the board. The Indian Health Service (as well as Medicaid) will need to restructure because it will have so many fewer dollars.

The metaphor: Healthcare is only for those who can afford it.

 

A cold December

Congress wants to wrap up this debate before the end of the year and begin the provisions in the new tax year.

One more thing about values. The two tax bills define what’s important to a society. Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski was a champion on health care and was a key vote to stop the last Affordable Care Act repeal effort in the Senate. But this time there are competing values. She has also been a longtime supporter of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development. That’s in the bill. It’s her provision. So is she willing to give up on health care for more oil? And what about climate change? Murkowski was eloquent at the Alaska Federation of Natives saying that she is witnessing first-hand the impact in northern communities. This tax bill gives fossil fuels a boost — at the expense of the climate.

What’s really important? We are about to find out.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please do so. Just credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com #IndigenousNewsWire #NativeVote18

 

 

 

Updated.

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Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Here we go again. The Congress is hell bent on wrecking the Affordable Care Act.

This time the mechanism is the so-called tax reform bill that will be voted in the U.S. Senate. The logic is rich (and, yes, “rich” is absolutely the right word and sentiment) because this tax cut will wreck the individual health insurance market so that the rich will pay less in taxes. But the problem gets at the core of insurance itself. How do you make sure there is a large enough pool to cover high cost patients? The Affordable Care Act did this by requiring everyone to buy health insurance or pay a penalty. Without that provision people who are healthy are free to skip out. But sick people always want coverage. And that creates an imbalance that does not work.

Senate Republicans added the provision because it saves money, some $338 billion according to the Congressional Budget Office. It estimates 13 million people will drop health insurance.

“We’re optimistic that inserting the individual mandate repeal would be helpful,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday.

The Senate bill is now being shaped into its final form. Wait. That’s funny. That’s what they say. But both the Senate and the House will change these tax bills all the way up until the final vote (unless it’s a sure thing, anyway). One of the reasons the bill will evolve is what’s called the Byrd Rule. This Senate is using the reconciliation process, like the Affordable Care Act repeal bills, so only 50 votes are required to pass. But that means the bill has limit of $1.5 trillion in new debt over 10 years and cannot add more after that. None of the bills, so far, accomplish that.

So the health care fight is back. And the Senate majority is confident this time they have the votes to pass the legislation.

There are other provisions in Senate tax bill that will impact American Indians and Alaska Natives.

One of the key ideas is to increase the size of the standard deduction so that fewer taxpayers will have to itemize. But to pay for that the simplicity the Senate bill is getting rid of some popular deductions, including the ability to deduct state and local taxes from your federal tax return. The bill also gets rid of deductions for dependents. The math works out so that families with fewer than three children will pay about the same. But if your family size is larger, then you will pay more. This is Indian Country. The average American family has 3.2 children, but in Indian Country it’s 4.2 children per family.

Update: The Joint Committee on Taxation released its findings on Thursday. Its research shows that taxes will increase for those earning less than $30,000 per year. And by a wide margin. The calculation is based, in part, on the current subsidy to purchase health insurance.

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And this is where it gets weird. The Senate bill does increase a tax credit, from $1,000 now to $1,650 per child. But, and this is huge, the additional $650 credit is only available to those who owe federal income taxes. It’s not refundable. This is important to people who are not rich because so many pay more in payroll taxes (Social Security, Medicare, etc.) than in income taxes.

Add it all up and the Senate bill would increase taxes on 13.8 million moderate income households. But, hey, at least the rich get a break, right?

The House of Representatives passed its version of tax reform Thursday by a vote of 227-205. No Democrats voted for the bill, while 13 Republicans opposed it.

The House bill is similar but takes a different tack on mortgages and the deduction of state and local taxes. The House would also eliminate the ability of families to deduct medical expenses. (Think about that when matched with the Senate’s plan to mess up health insurance.)

And the House bill really goes after university graduate students.

Many graduate students earn a small stipend for working on campus, doing research or teaching, and get a break on tuition. The stipend is already taxed. But the House would tax the tuition waiver, thousands of dollars. The average cost of graduate school is $30,000 a year at a public university and $40,000 at a private school. The Washington Post explains the problem this way: “Say you’re a married graduate student at Princeton. Your spouse has a full-time job and makes $50,000 a year; you have two school-age children. You’re filing a joint tax return. For sake of simplicity, you have no other deductions beyond the standard. According to H&R Block’s tax calculator, you would owe about $5,000 under the current law. Under the proposed Republican plan, you would owe about $15,000.”

The House bill also eliminates the deduction for interest on student loans and it eliminates tax credits for higher education.

This is terrible public policy. The digital age demands more education, not less, and the tax code should be in alignment. The House bill does the opposite. It will make higher education more expensive and less likely for too many people.

And just to make sure that higher education gets the message about what the country values, the House bill also would tax the larger university endowments, such as Harvard, Princeton, and even smaller colleges that have reserves of more than $250,000 per student.

But both the House and Senate do have one group in mind when writing this new tax code, business. The total “tax cuts” in the bill add up to $1.4 trillion over the next decade and of that amount, $1 trillion goes to businesses and corporations. It does this by reducing the corporate tax bracket from to 20 percent.

The other side of this tax debate is that it will reduce the amount of revenue that goes into the federal treasury. That means that soon after one of these measures passes, Congress will be required to look again at cutting spending.

Already the Congressional Budget Office estimates the tax bill will require $136 billion cuts from Medicare, Medicaid, and other entitlement programs. “Without enacting subsequent legislation to either offset that deficit increase, waive the recordation of the bill’s impact on the scorecard, or otherwise mitigate or eliminate the requirements of the [pay-go] law, OMB would be required to issue a sequestration order within 15 days of the end of the session of Congress to reduce spending in fiscal year 2018 by the resultant total of $136 billion,” CBO said Tuesday.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities pegs these coming budget cuts at $5.8 trillion. “These include $1.8 trillion in cuts in Medicaid, Medicare, and other health care entitlement programs and $800 billion in cuts below the already austere sequestration levels in ‘non-defense discretionary’ programs, the budget area that includes education and training, transportation, scientific and medical research, protection of the food and water supply, child care, low-income housing assistance, services for frail elderly people, and much more,” the center reports.

So we are just at the beginning of the debate. The conservative dream is to sharply cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy — and then to shrink government. The House and Senate tax bills do just that.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please do so. Just credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com #IndigenousNewsWire #NativeVote18

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