Indian Country politics and public policy

Commentary by Mark Trahant

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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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Green Party candidate Eve Reyes-Aguirre is running for the U.S. Senate in Arizona. She is co-chair of the Global Indigenous Women’s Caucus. (Campaign photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Three lessons from  last week’s election results.

First: Gerrymandering can be defeated. The election districts in Virginia were designed to support incumbents, and especially Republicans. The Atlantic described the “well-documented” Republican operation to gain “control of the mapmaking process in 2010 (and) saw their share of legislative seats steadily grow, even as their actual vote shares decreased. In other words, these maps helped Republicans retain majorities even when they earned substantially fewer votes.”

That changed Tuesday. Voters swamped the supposedly safe districts and Democrats gained significantly. Perhaps even control of the legislature (votes are still be counted and will be recounted in a key race). So turnout beats districts drawn by one side to win. (The definition of gerrymandering.)

Second: Minority parties can win in this election cycle. It’s always tough to run as a third or fourth party candidate in the United States. The deck is stacked. The system is rigged to favor the two established parties. However some twenty-plus self-described Democratic Socialists (ala Bernie Sanders) won on Tuesday, including Denise Joy in Billings, Montana. Joy was elected to the city council.

This could be an interesting trend.

Some states, California and Washington, have top-two primaries. That means a candidate can win even without party affiliation. But in most states — unless the rules change — the biggest opportunity for socialists, independents and Green Party candidates is for offices such as school boards and city councils. Another mechanism that makes it easier for third party candidates is ranked choice voting (where you pick your favorite, second favorite, etc.) Several cities, such as St. Paul, Minnesota, now use that approach. Maine also voted to adopt ranked choice, but has not yet implemented it because of opposition from the legislature (and entrenched parties).

In Arizona, Eve Reyes-Aguirre (Calpolli)  is running for the U.S. Senate on the Green Party ticket. She is a co-chair of the Global Indigenous Women’s Caucus and a co–founding Mother of the newly formed World Indigenous Women’s Alliance. She was also a representative at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women for the American Indian Law Alliance- 2015, 2017. Reyes-Aguirre is also running against the two-party system. Her web site says: “The two-party system has allowed wealth inequality to skyrocket to it’s highest point since the 1920’s. Eve is committed to developing an economy that promotes a equal sustainable quality of life for more families through the enactment of a living wage, limitations on corporate tax incentives, and a truly progressive tax structure. We must all be treated equal to live equal.”

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That brings to eight the number of Indigenous candidates running for the U.S. House or Senate so far in 2018 election. Three Republicans — Rep. Tom Cole (Choctaw), Oklahoma; Rep. Markwayne Mullin (Cherokee), Oklahoma, former state Sen. Dino Rossi (Tlingit), Washington — and four Democrats — former state NM state Democratic Party chair Deb Haaland (Laguna), Carol Surveyor (Navajo) in Utah, Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols (Cherokee), and J.D. Colbert (Choctaw) in Texas.

Lesson three. This is the “when” to jump and run in 2018 races. So much about politics is timing. Good candidates sometimes, no often, lose because their timing is off. It’s not the right cycle. There are too many headwinds. Barack Obama generated turnout that encouraged Native voters and candidates. The chaos of 2016 with Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump did just the opposite. Turnout was down, especially in Indian Country. But we know most Native American candidates are already outsiders. So we need a little luck. And good timing.

The 2018 election ought to be that. President Trump and his Republican Party have to defend infighting plus legislative failures from healthcare to possibly taxes. And the president’s popularity is only about a 38 percent approval rate. Awful numbers. On top of that, even popular presidents lose midterm elections. Democrats lead in the average of generic polls, 47 percent to 38 percent.

But Indian Country needs more candidates, especially in districts that can be won in this climate.

My top pick: Alaska’s at large district. Several Alaska Natives have challenged Rep. Don Young for this seat over the years, including Willie Hensley (Iñupiaq), Georgianna Lincoln (Athabascan), and Diane Benson (Tlingit). And Young seems invincible. He was first elected in 1973 and is the longest serving member of the House. But, if this is a wave election, then no member of the House is invincible. And, even better, there are some really strong potential Alaska Native candidates. 

Alaska will already have an interesting election field that includes Gov. Bill Walker and his running mate Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott (Tlingit).

And in Minnesota another high profile race will feature state Rep. Peggy Flanagan who is running for Lt. Gov. with U.S. Rep. Tim Walz.

At one point during the 2016 election cycle (which we now know was not good timing) there were more than a hundred Native American candidates. We need those kind of numbers again. Especially this time around. There are more than 62 Native Americans serving in state legislatures around the country and many of those will be running for re-election.

So that brings me back to rule 3, part A. It’s my favorite rule in politics because it’s so simple: You gotta run to win.

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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Roxanne Murphy beat hate at the ballot box by winning nearly 80 percent of the vote in a race for Bellingham City Council. (Facebook photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

A year ago ballots from across the country were being examined by citizens, journalists, and politicians, who were all wondering, “What the hell just happened?” The nation woke up to a President-elect Donald J. Trump.

And this morning? The Trump brand is like an overpriced hotel where you would never, ever stay a second time.

Voters from Maine to Washington and all points in between rejected Trumpism. They voted for Democrats, flipping legislatures in Washington and possibly Virginia. They voted for Medicaid. Medicaid! They voted for higher wages. And there is a clear message to Congress (if members pay attention) that governing still matters.

It was a good night for Native American candidates, too.

In Washington, Roxanne Murphy, Nooksack, won a second term on the Bellingham City Council with nearly 80 percent of the vote. What’s striking is that she ran against the ugly words of an opponent who called on hate instead of discourse. Murphy wrote on Facebook: “Got through so much racism and misogyny during this run for office. But that was all worth it for me to defend our Bellingham community, the work of our current Bellingham City Council, to mutilate a deplorable person at the polls, get more people to vote the whole ballot, and it proved that love can win over hate. Thank you for RoxingTheVote!”

Several other Native candidates won office in Washington. Chris Roberts , City of Shoreline, Zachary DeWolf, Seattle School District,  and Candice Wilson, to the Ferndale School Board.

Washington voters also flipped the legislature from red to blue. The entire West Coast is now governed by Democrats.

Renee Van Nett, Leech Lake Ojibwe, won a seat on the Duluth, Minnesota, city council. She will be the first Native American woman on that body. She told the Duluth News Tribune that her victory was a credit to “traditional issues that people are worried about … they want someone who’s accessible, someone they can call and talk to, someone who will address their needs. They want economic development. They want to be heard.”

Across the country “diversity” was a theme from election night. The “first” is a phrase that seems odd in 21st century America. Yet the first African American Lt. Governor in New Jersey. Another in Virginia. (Hint: The first Native American woman to serve in that capacity should be be next up, Peggy Flanagan in Minnesota.)

The first Sikh mayor in Hoboken (who had to run against overt hate). The first immigrant from Liberia in Montana. The first openly lesbian mayor in Seattle. (Huffington Post has a list of many of the firsts.) The main take away: This was a rejection of the narrow world view of the Trump. The diversity that is the future of America, won. Bigly.

On the policy debate ahead, perhaps the most important vote came from Maine where voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of expanding Medicaid. Maine is one of 19 states whose Republican governors or legislatures have refused to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. This is an initiative — and a process — that could move to other states. “This will send a clear signal to where the rest of the country is on health care,” Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of the Fairness Project, told The Washington Post. This vote is important because it could tip the scales in states where the legislature says one thing and the people another. Alaska. Cough. Alaska. Put Medicaid expansion on the ballot: And it will win.

Elections, of course, are always snap shots. It’s dangerous to think this rout means more of the same a year from now. But the groundwork is there. And this election night will further divide many Republicans from Trump — as well as those who fund elections. There is now real evidence from the best poll of all that voters are not happy with the direction of Congress or the White House.

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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House Speaker Paul Ryan says the tax cut legislation is on track. He projected that nearly a million new jobs would be created. (House photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Two serious debates in Washington right now: Climate change and taxes. These are connected. And the decisions made over the next few days and weeks will impact you and your children’s future.

The federal government is required by law to publish a climate assessment. The report is out and it’s troubling. “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present. Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington State, and maple syrup producers in Vermont are all observing climate-related changes that are outside of recent experience. So, too, are coastal planners in Florida, water managers in the arid Southwest, city dwellers from Phoenix to New York, and Native Peoples on tribal lands from Louisiana to Alaska.”

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The National Climate Assessment concludes that the evidence of human-induced climate change continues to strengthen and that impacts are increasing across the country. This bill was required by Congress in 1990 to “understand, assess, predict and respond” to global warming. It represents the best science from across the federal government.

So how is the Congress and the Trump administration responding to the report?

Well, the White House basically said, no worries, the climate is always changing. Especially because the president and Congress are focused instead on tax cuts.

Tax policy is, of course, an important concern for tribal governments and enterprises. As Adrienne St. Clair reported for Cronkite News about a complaint from tribal leaders about not being included in the discussion. “Tribes struggle with economic growth because of things like basic federal tax law, dual taxation from state governments and budget cuts from the federal programs that serve them. They urged lawmakers to push for legislation that will help Indian Country, including increasing investment incentives and allowable tax credits,” St. Clair wrote.

And it’s not just tribes. A restructuring of federal taxes will impact American Indians and Alaska Natives in all sorts of ways.

I get tired of the debate being about “middle class” taxpayers. First of all, I (and most policy makers) don’t really know what that means any more. Most working families consider themselves middle class. And what about a young single mother trying to raise a family on $25,000 a year? In an ideal setting she would not pay any income taxes.

And the Republican proposal (that party distinction is important because there were no open hearings, or amendments, this is a Republican bill designed to win or lose on Republican votes) on the surface will save many American Indian and Alaska Native families money. The tax proposal would double the standard deduction to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for joint filers. That’s the amount of money you can earn sort of tax free. But the plan takes away deductions for children — so a larger family could end up paying more from the start because of the fewer deductions. (So less than half needed for the scenario of a single mother raising children.)

And that’s not all. The tax cuts for families don’t last. The Joint Committee on Taxation (the congressional agency that does the math) reports that families earning between $20,000 and $40,000 a year and between $200,000 to $500,000 would pay more in individual income taxes in 2023 and beyond. Republicans argue the tax measure would result in a million new jobs.

The total cost is not a bargain either, the tax cuts would add some $1.5 trillion to the debt over the next decade.

Let’s be clear: The goal of this tax measure is to cut taxes for businesses. Individuals are a side debate. Nonetheless, as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, points out 70 percent of that tax cut would flow to the top fifth of households, with one-third flowing to the top 1 percent alone.

There is another problem for Indian Country.  This tax proposal is linked to a budget measure that has already passed Congress. And that budget calls for deep spending cuts across federal programs — think sequester times two or three. And because of the process used: the Senate will need just 50 votes to implement these severe budget cuts.

Congress’ budget also opens up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development — and an increase in fossil fuel production (the very cause of climate change).

This is a tough moment for that. The National Climate Assessment says Alaska is already at risk. “Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the nation, bringing widespread impacts. Sea ice is rapidly receding and glaciers are shrinking. Thawing permafrost is leading to more wildfire, and affecting infrastructure and wildlife habitat. Rising ocean temperatures and acidification will alter valuable marine fisheries.”

The Trump administration and the Republican leaders in Congress have made tax cuts their most important initiative. But the divide is similar to what we saw in the bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act. So the outcome is uncertain at best. And, unlike health care, there might be enough votes in either the House of Representative or the Senate to tank the tax bill.

However on Fox News Sunday Speaker Paul Ryan said the House is “on track” to pass this legislation before Thanksgiving. Hashtag: #TurkeyAlert.

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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Deb Haaland is a candidate for Congress in New Mexico. Diane Benson has run in four statewide races in Alaska, including a congressional seat.

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

New Mexico congressional candidate Debra Haaland is criss-crossing Indian Country determined to get her name out there — and to raise enough money to be competitive. She began in Milwaukee at the National Congress of American Indians annual convention and she ends the week in Anchorage at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention.

Politics is a tough business. Most Native American candidates cannot dip into their personal wealth to run for office (at least the Democrats). It’s raising money five bucks at a time. A good haul is when someone writes a check with more than one zero. Yet it’s hard to understate how important that money hunt is to a campaign. Haaland, unlike most Native American Democrats, is running in a district with a lot of other Democrats. That means she has an excellent shot at capturing a seat in Congress — the first Native American woman to do that — but first she must win a crowded primary. Haaland is Laguna Pueblo.

A Thursday night fundraiser in Anchorage was typical. It was much more of an introduction than a call for hard cash. That’s important. It was great to hear stories. We need that in politics. But it will take money, too. If we really want to see more Native Americans in Congress, thousands of  five-plus dollar donations will make all the difference.

At that event one of the most touching moments was when Diane Benson, who ran for Congress in Alaska against Rep. Don Young, talked about why she ran. Her son had been injured in the military and yet politicians were making war and peace decisions without an understanding of the consequences. Benson is Tlingit.

I have been collecting information about Congress and Native American representation. And, it turns out, I was wrong about the actual numbers. I checked this morning and according to the House of Representatives historian since March 4, 1789, there have been  10,273 people elected to that body. (I was using a smaller number.) There has never been a Native American woman. Ever.

This is my “I am wrong post” because I also was missing an important name, Georgianna Lincoln, from my list of Native women who have run for Congress. Lincoln, a former state Senator, is Athabaskan, and she also ran against Rep. Young in Alaska.

So here is my list, starting in 1988, Jeanne Givens, a Couer d’Alene tribal member in Idaho was the first. Then Lincoln in Alaska, Ada Deer, Menominee, in Wisconsin, Kalyn Free, Choctaw, in Oklahoma, Diane Benson, Tlingit, in Alaska, and Denise Juneau, Mandan Hidatsa Arikara, in Montana. Three Native women have run in the Democratic primary in Arizona: Mary Kim Titla, White Mountain Apache, Arizona Rep. Wenona Benally, Navajo, and Victoria Steele, Seneca. And in this election cycle, Carol Surveyor, Navajo, in Utah and Haaland.

I better stick with “at least” because I am sure more names will surface. But the point remains: It’s long past time to elect the first Native American woman to Congress. After 10,273 (add another 435 for next November) elections we need a first. And a second. And more, real representation.

Let’s do the numbers.  We have the first round of campaign finance reports out and there are seven Native American candidates for Congress, three Republicans and four Democrats.

And in the money chase, it’s the Republican candidates raising the dough. Former Washington state Sen. Dino Rossi, running in Washington’s 8th, in this quarter reports $578,822. To put that amount in perspective: That’s more than the incumbent, Rep. Markwayne Mullin, and nearly as much as Rep. Tom Cole. Mullin raised $511,017 this quarter. And Cole is at $640,649 (with $1.7 million cash on hand).

Rossi is Tlingit, Mullin is a member of the Cherokee Nation, and Cole is Chickasaw.

On the Democrats’ side the numbers are smaller.

Haaland has raised $262,098 so far in this election cycle. She’s second in the money race in her Albuquerque district. Remember this election is as much about the June primary as it is the general election because it’s a Democratic-leaning district.

Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols, Cherokee, is running against Rep. Mullin. He has yet to file any campaign reports. No reports are listed for Carol Surveyor in Utah and J.D. Colbert in Texas.

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

 

This article was corrected to fix a misidentified candidate.

ICYMI: My first audio election special is on iTunes or Soundcloud. Download here. 

 

SheRepresents

 

 

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A thermal image of Hurricane Maria captured by satellite on Sept. 20 at 2:12 a.m. EDT. The image showed very cold cloud top temperatures in the powerful thunderstorms in Maria’s eyewall. Maria’s eye was just east of the American Virgin Islands, and its northwestern quadrant stretched over Puerto Rico. (NASA photo)

A corrupted word, a corrupted government

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

 

Let’s play with a word and an idea. “Hegemony” means the dominance of one political group over all others. That, at this moment, is the Republican brand. President Donald J. Trump, a Republican Senate, a Republican House, and a conservative, if not Republican, court system that will judge the law and Constitution for years to come. Hegemony.

But that word has been corrupted. Once the Greek word, “hegemon,” meant to lead. But the root word “heg” in English later became to seek, or better, to “sack,” as in ransack.

So hegemony is a fine word to describe the Trump era. The goal is to ransack (instead of lead). Ransack the government. Or at least the idea of government.

There is no better example of hegemony than the debate about the climate. The Republican brand from top to bottom is bent on grabbing as much natural resource loot that can be carried away in short period of time.

Except this: Hegemony is an illusion. What seems like absolute power is not.

This should be easily evident from hurricanes, fires, and other growing climate threats. You would think this is the moment for a pause (at the very least). A time out to examine what’s going on around the world and then a consideration about what should be done.

But the Republican brand, including the people who manage federal Indian programs, are willfully hostile to facts.

The World Meteorological Organization reports that natural disasters have tripled in number and the damage caused by them have increased five-fold. “Today, there is scientific proof that climate change is largely responsible for the dramatic increase in the intensity and devastation caused by the hurricanes in the Caribbean and by many other phenomena around the world,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres after a tour of Dominica. That island, including the Kalinago Indian Territory, was hit with successive category five hurricanes. “I have never seen anywhere else in the world a forest completely decimated without one single leaf on any tree,” said Guterres, who flew by helicopter over some of the most affected areas, including Kalinago Territory.

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Two hurricanes destroyed much of Dominica. (United Nations photo)

And Puerto Rico still waits for clean water, sanitation, electricity, and basic infrastructure more than a month after its storms. Yet President Trump told reporters Thursday: “I’d say it was a 10” as he described the federal government’s response. “I’d say it was probably the most difficult when you talk about relief, when you talk about search, when you talk about all of the different levels, and even when you talk about lives saved. You look at the number. I mean, this was — I think it was worse than Katrina.”

The governor of Puerto Rico has a different take. “Recognizing that we’re in this together – US citizens in Texas, US citizens in Florida, US citizens in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands – we need equal treatment,” said Gov. Ricardo Rossello. “We need all the resources so we can get out of the emergency and of course the resources to rebuild.”

We know, yes, know, that climate change will leave parts of the earth uninhabitable (as we have already seen in tribal communities in Alaska, Washington and Louisiana.) How many times can you rebuild when storm after storm wipes out the life you know? How do we as a country, as a species, decide when we can no longer rebuild or stay? I’ve been thinking a lot about the Iranian city of Ahvaz where temperatures last summer reached 129 degrees. When will it become too hot, 130? 132? What’s the number that we just hit before we leave?

Who will be the next climate refugees?

Already in Puerto Rico that demographic transformation is occurring. “It could potentially be a very large migration to the continental United States,” said Maria Cristina Garcia, a Cornell University historian, immigration expert, and author on large-scale population shifts, which includes a forthcoming book on climate refugees in Scientific American. “Whether that migration will be permanent or temporary is still anyone’s guess. Much depends on the relief package that Congress negotiates.”

Puerto Rico has 3.4 million residents. Think of the magnitude of so many people, half a million or more, moving to Florida, Texas or any other state. Only then will the fecklessness of Congress be clear.

So much of the debate now only focuses on the “relocation.” But Indian Country (that’s had too many experiences with forced relocation) knows that’s only the beginning of the governmental and social costs. There will be costs ranging from demands for behavioral health to increased joblessness and poverty. The fact of hundreds of thousands of American refugees should be seen as a dangerous crisis worthy of our immediate attention.

Right now we don’t even think of Californians as climate refugees, but we should. At least 100,000 people were evacuated and nearly 6,000 homes and buildings were destroyed. And this number will grow and it ought to raise more questions about where humans can and should live.

“An increasing body of research finds that the hot and dry conditions that created the California drought were brought on in part by human-caused warming,” writes Georgina Gustin in Inside Climate News.  “Higher temperatures pull moisture out of soil and vegetation, leaving parched landscapes that can go up in flames with the slightest spark from a downed utility wire, backfiring car or embers from a campfire.

California’s average temperature has risen about 2 degrees Fahrenheit during the second half of the 20th century. Altogether this has led to more “fuel aridity” — drier tree canopies, grasses and brush that can burn.”

Gustin writes that research from the Pacific Northwest National Labs and Utah State University projects more extreme drought and extreme flooding. “If global carbon emissions continue at a high level, extreme dry periods will double, the study finds—going from about five extreme dry “events” during the decade of the 1930s, to about 10 per decade by the 2070s.  Extreme wet periods will increase from about 4 to about 15 over the same periods, roughly tripling.”

Again, raising the question of where people can be? Think of the tension about immigration now — and multiply that by a factor of ten or a hundred to get a sense of the scale ahead.

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The failure of coal

There is another dimension to hegemony — or the lack of that in the federal government. Cities, states, tribes, corporations, and individuals, are ignoring the ransacking of the climate and moving forward with a global community focused on solutions. Markets are exercising power, too.

One example of that is the Trump administration’s failure to revive the coal industry. This was one of Donald J. Trump’s main campaign promises. The chief executive of a private coal company, Robert Murray, sums up the illogic. Just a week ago he said on the PBS’ News Hour: “We do not have a climate change problem” and 4,000 scientists told him that “mankind is not affecting climate change.” Murray’s former lobbyist has been nominated as the deputy director of the Environmental Protection Administration. Already the EPA has proposed rolling back the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan. But the new coal regulations (or more likely, non-regulations) will still be challenged through the regulatory process and in court.

And its the markets for coal that are dictating the terms of surrender. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports coal consumption picked up after President Trump’s election but has started to decline again. “The recent decline in production was a result of weaker demand for steam coal, about half of which is mined in Wyoming and Montana. Production of metallurgical coal, which is used in steel manufacturing and makes up about 8% of total U.S. coal production, increased for the third consecutive quarter,” the EIA reported. “Demand for steam coal, which in the first half of 2017 made up more than 90% of U.S. coal production, is driven by coal-fired electricity generation. In recent years, coal has lost part of its electricity generation share to other fuels, but it still accounted for 30% of the U.S. electricity generation mix in the first half of 2017 compared with natural gas and renewables (including hydro) at 31% and 20%, respectively.”

And the jobs that were promised? There are now under 60,000 people employed nationwide by the coal industry. And about a thousand jobs, at most, were created since Trump took office. By comparison during that same time frame one of the fastest growing jobs, wind turbine service technician, created 4,800 new jobs at an average salary of $52,260. But the big numbers are in health care (where we should be growing jobs) an industry that created 384,000 new jobs as home health aides in the last year.

Hegemony? No.

But Congress acts as if it has all the power over nature. The budget the Senate just passed would open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development. Instead of a pause, and a rethink of climate policies, there is a hurry up and drill mentality. (Even if you love oil: Why now? Why not wait until it’s worth something? The answer is because it will never again be that valuable. The era of extraction is over.)

Sen. Lisa Murkowski is an interesting position. She’s fought hard for Medicaid and for the Alaska Native medical system. She deserves credit for that. But the budget she now champions could undo all of that work because the generous tax cuts will have to be eventually paid for by cutting from social programs, especially Medicaid. And what will the new costs be for more development in the Arctic in terms of subsistence hunting and fishing, potential relocation, higher health costs, and increased strain on the environment?

A group of elders from the Bering Sea recently published a report on their Ecosystem and Climate Change. “The cold, rich waters of the northern Bering Sea and Bering Strait form the foundation of culture, food security, and economy for coastal Yupik and Inupiaq peoples, who have relied on the abundant marine resources of this region for thousands of years,” the report said. “But this unique ecosystem is vulnerable to ecological transformation and uncertainty due to climate change … climate warming is leading to change in seasonal ice, altering the abundance, timing,  and distribution of important species. The loss of sea ice is in turn causing a dramatic increase in ship traffic through these highly sensitive and important areas.”

How do we change course? How do get a pause? One way is to wait until it’s too late.

In Dominica there is a forced rethinking that followed the hurricanes. Roosevelt Skerrit, the country’s prime minister,  recently put it this way: “Our devastation is so complete that our recovery has to be total. And so we have a unique opportunity to be an example to the world, an example of how an entire nation rebounds from disaster and how an entire nation can be climate resilient for the future. We did not choose this opportunity. We did not wish it. Having had it thrust upon us, we have chosen actively and decisively to be that example to the world.”

A shining example, yes, but at a cost that has been extraordinary and painful. The price of hegemony.

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

ICYMI: My first audio election special is on iTunes or Soundcloud. Download here. 

** Updated to reflect Senate passing a budget.

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Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

It’s tempting to think of “news” as the business model for Indian Country Today. What are the stories? Does it represent an authentic voice (or voices) for Indian Country? Who are the great reporters? Where should they be? How much video? Text? Opinion? Is the story compelling? Does coverage match the experience of our readers? What’s on our digital front page? What stories do people want to read? What’s new?

These are great question for any editor. But they should be dismissed. For now. If Indian Country Today is to revive there are other questions that must be asked and answered. Starting with: Is there funding? Is Indian Country a viable market? If so, what does that look like? Where will the revenue come from? How much will it cost to produce? And how often? And, by the way, where is the money coming from?

There are really only two answers that need to be figured out: Where the money comes from and how that money is spent. Everything else is just detail.

When I first read that Indian Country Today lost (I’ll say invested) some $3 million in its last year, I thought, wow, that’s more than I lost running Navajo Times Today back in the day. Then I did the math. Uh oh. If you look at the value of a dollar now compared to 1987 then, well, let’s just say the total exceeds $5 million.

Problem: It costs a lot of money to produce news.

Then the media world is upside down. Today so many costs are a fraction of what they were in 1987. As a daily newspaper the Navajo Times Today, I still believe, needed about 4 years to break even and then would have been profitable. Our advertising projections were solid but what slowed us down was the costly nature of delivering the paper daily throughout the Navajo Nation. The internet has sharply reduced those costs — any organization can publish on the web for far less than what it cost us a generation ago. But, at the same time, advertising no longer works to pay the bills. (The funny thing: Had we been successful in 1987 … the paper would still be in deep trouble because so many of the elements required for a successful daily newspaper have evaporated.) 

The Navajo Times of today (owned by the tribe, but chartered and operated independently) is quite successful. It’s a weekly and it still attracts significant advertising and readership. But the strength of those ads are regional, not national.

The challenge for Indian Country Today is that it generated a large readership, at least by Indian Country’s standards, but not enough of a readership for a national advertising strategy which measures success by the millions. Most digital ads are sold using a measurement of cost per thousand or CPM. So if there are 100,000 readers and let’s say 2 percent click the ad, that could generate about $2,000. So it would take a whole lot of those kinds of ads to fund a newsroom.

I don’t think a subscription model works for Indian Country either. The problem is that a few people will pay, but not enough to cover the costs, so you end up producing a publication for the elite. I almost went down this road a couple of years ago for Trahant Reports. I was thinking of converting the report into a paid newsletter that probably would have sold to a few law firms, lobbyists, and tribes particularly interested in public policy. Hell, I might have even made money at it. But the true cost would have been high: I try to make public policy interesting for everyone. And those readers would have been gone. Fortunately a friend pointed this out to me — and I reversed course. My content remains free for readers and for other news organizations.

So what models are there that might work? How can Indian Country serve readers as an independent news organization? And, just as important, how will that enterprise get started?

I won’t explore the for-profit model here because it’s not an option. But that mechanism does work for News from Indian Country, Native News Sun, and many other regional publications. It’s also important to remember that there will be competition for resources and content. Any non-profit enterprise will compete for many of the same dollars raised by tribal radio stations, the Native Voice One network, Native Public Media, Native American Journalists Association, and on and on. The Indianz.com and Pechanga.net attract the same web readers with their content and aggregation. (See the Native Media Universe, an always unfinished database.)

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News that’s Not-for-Profit

Indian Country Today’s next chapter is likely to be some kind of not-for-profit venture. The Oneida Nation of New York, the owner of Indian Country Today Media Network, donated the assets of the venture to the National Congress of American Indians. It’s now up to NCAI to figure out what will happen next (starting with many conversations at the annual convention next week in Milwaukee).

This is a bit complicated because NCAI is an advocacy organization for tribes and its members. Just imagine the first time a journalist writes a hard-hitting story that a senator on the Appropriations Committee does not like. Or a tribal leader.

But this is a problem that can be solved.

One of the best news operations in Washington is Kaiser Health News, owned by the Kaiser Family Foundation. They are both non-profits. Kaiser Health News is in the same building as the Kaiser Family Foundation, often uses that research, or speakers, or other resources. Yet Kaiser Health News operates independently and partners with existing mainstream media such as National Public Radio or The Washington Post. Another hybrid, Think Progress, operates independently of its sponsor, the Center for American Progress. There is another model — a completely different approach — that works in Seattle, the Sightline Institute. This organization focuses on actionable research about the Pacific Northwest region and its view of a sustainable future. This could be something that the NCAI Policy Research Center could do. It’s a smaller operation that builds on existing scholarship.

But Kaiser Health News and Think Progress do something else that’s essential: They employ dozens of journalists. Indian Country Today did that too. And that ought to be at the top of the list in terms of developing a “what’s next?” plan.

Two other non-profits that have a significant presence in Indian Country’s media universe are Yes! Magazine and High Country News. Both publications treat Indian Country as an important beat and pay freelancers for coverage. High Country News also has a Native issues editor, currently Graham Lee Brewer, a member of the Cherokee Nation. Yes! invested significant resources into covering Standing Rock. Both of these non-profits have a long track record. High Country News began in Lander, Wyoming, in 1970. And Yes! started in 1997.

There is a newer model to consider, ProPublica. This is an independent, stand alone, news organization that’s funded by philanthropy. Imagine a bunch of journalists being hired with an agenda to do news. The work is done by professionals and then given away to other news organizations. There are several regional variations of ProPublica throughout the country that lay out a road map for the how to operate Indian Country Today as a non-profit enterprise.

That’s the money out. Spending it will be simple. There are a lot of talented people who would love the opportunity to keep doing what they’ve been doing, or better, to do more. The distribution of the news could be by web, a wire service, through other media, or all of the above. Technology has made distribution much easier.

A summary of the money out: The cost of a staff, buying freelance, travel, and some administrative costs. But how much money, who decides who gets the jobs, and how much will freelancers be paid?

The data is interesting. According to Pew Research, 73 percent of all non-profit news sites employ less than three people. Only 19 percent have between five and ten employees. “Small budgets tend to mean small staffs and that is the case for a large majority of the digital native news outlets,” according to a Pew Research survey of nonprofit outlets.

What about the money in? As I have already written: I don’t believe there is a national market for advertising. Indian Country’s numbers are just too small for a mass market. There could be, from time to time, some ads. But nothing comprehensive and not in amounts that would make a difference. I also think a subscription model won’t work for the reasons I’ve already said.

So what does that leave?

I’d start with the public media model. It doesn’t matter who “owns” Indian Country Today. We all do. We have a stake in an intelligent account of the day’s events in a context that gives them meaning.

So a public Indian Country Today could challenge us with semi-annual fundraisers, crowdfunding, and a call to action. Twice a year at least. And, like other public media, that means raising additional money from foundations, companies, tribes, basically, any group willing to write a check.

One recent Pew Research report estimated that roughly $150 million in philanthropy now goes to journalism annually.

And much of that comes from crowdfunding. Pew Research: “From April 28, 2009 to September 15, 2015, 658 journalism-related projects proposed on Kickstarter, one of the largest single hubs for crowdfunding journalism, received full – or more than full – funding, to the tune of nearly $6.3 million.”

Then if that sounds like a lot of money, Pew also reports, “the journalism projects produced and revenue gained from these crowdfunded ventures is still a drop in the bucket compared with the original reporting output that occurs on any given day and the roughly $20 billion in revenue generated by newspaper ads alone.”

But as a revenue stream — perhaps not the only one — crowd funding could be significant for Indian Country Today. If, the news operation is credible and compelling. If.

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There is a lesson from ProPublica that ought to apply to any model (or blend of models) that eventually surfaces, and it raises another question, what business are you in? No, really?What business?

At a recent Google Hangout with the Online News Association, ProPublica’s Vice President of Business Development and ONA Board Member Celeste LeCompte drew parallels between the news industry and other enterprises. She said she visited a go-kart factory in China and she discovered they also made trampolines. Why? Because she said the company was “not a go-kart business. It was this crazy machine-bending, metal-piping, powder-coating and spring-attaching business. And that got me thinking about the ways in which companies make their money.”

That same principle applies to information. ProPublica, for example, collects a lot of data as part of its reporting. It then sells that data to other clients for other uses.  “We are storytellers in this business,” she said. “That’s all we’re asking to do in the business side as well. When you’re creating real value for an audience, you probably have an opportunity to ask them to compensate you for that.”

What parallel market exists from information in Indian Country? And, what are the prospects and the ethics of marketing that information?

Of course the minute you have the answer, the rules change. One funder — even a good one — can keep an operation going for some time (as in the case of Indian Country Today) but what happens when priorities change? Is there a route to sustainability that includes lots of sponsors and supporters?

Answering these questions is difficult in the media world we all know. Newspapers. TV. A little web. Podcasting. The familiar. But that world is vibrant. And it’s gone. The challenge is to invent a news ecosystem for Indian Country that builds on models that do not yet exist.

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

ICYMI: My first audio election special is on iTunes or Soundcloud. Download here. 

Previous: When the Native press is strong, so is Indian Country

Indian Country Today had its beautiful moments

Disclosures: I have been working in Native media since 1975 — so I have a long list of disclosures for this piece. I am currently a board member for Yes! magazine. I am a former board member of Sightline and a long time ago, High Country News. I was editor and publisher of the Navajo Times Today in the mid 1980s (and was fired from that job.) I had a fellowship with the Kaiser Family Foundation. And I am a former president of the Native American Journalists Association. And, finally, my weekly radio commentary is distributed via Native Voice One. I am also an owner, stockholder in News From Indian Country. 

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President Donald J. Trump announces executive orders that will end a subsidy for health insurance purchases and allow people to buy less expensive plans that cover fewer medical issues. (White House photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

The chaos that is now Trump Care continues.

First, Congress tried to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act by rolling back that law plus the decades long public health insurance known as Medicaid. That effort failed in the Senate. Twice. And Congress hasn’t given up. There are all sorts of proposals floating that would try yet again through the budget or another mechanism.

Meanwhile the Trump administration is trying to unravel the Affordable Care Act using administrative authority. And, in the process, guaranteeing a network of insurance chaos. The President signed an executive order that eliminates payments to insurance companies to subsidize the cost of health insurance for families that cannot afford the full cost. Insurance companies will likely increase health insurance premiums — and by a lot — or get out of the individual health insurance market all together.

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This policy change impacts American Indians and Alaska Natives who get their health insurance through the exchanges. Under the Affordable Care Act, many tribal members and Alaska Native shareholders quality for a “bronze plan” from exchanges at no cost. A silver plan could also have been purchased, depending on income, using subsidized rates.

The Kaiser Family Foundation figures that insurers will need to raise silver premiums between 15 and 21 percent on average to compensate for the loss of the subsidy payments.

It’s interesting: Ending the subsidy will cost consumers more in states that have not expanded Medicaid (such as Oklahoma) since there are a large number of marketplace enrollees in those states with incomes at 100-138 percent of poverty who qualify for the largest cost-sharing reductions.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the total payments were $7 billion in fiscal year 2017 and would rise to $10 billion in 2018 and $16 billion by 2027. The House of Representatives sued the Obama Administration to try and stop these insurance subsidies arguing that Congress never appropriated the money.

The CBO also said that ending the insurance subsidies will increase federal deficits by $6 billion in 2018, $21 billion in 2020, and $26 billion in 2026.

A second administrative order will change the way insurance companies write policies. The Affordable Care Act set out standards so that basic health care issues, including women’s reproductive health, would be covered. But the new rules will make it easier for people to buy limited policies that cost less, but cover fewer medical issues.

“Congressional Democrats broke the American healthcare system by forcing the Obamacare nightmare onto the American people. And it has been a nightmare,” the president said. “You look at what’s happening with the premiums and the increases of 100 percent and 120 percent, and even in one case, Alaska, over 200 percent. And now, every congressional Democrat has blocked the effort to save Americans from Obamacare, along with a very small, frankly, handful of Republicans — three. And we’re going to take care of that also because I believe we have the votes to do block grants at a little bit later time, and we’ll be able to do that.”

But the actions by the administration will only lower the cost of health insurance for one group of Americans, young, healthy ones. Insurance costs for nearly every other plan will sharply increase because of these actions. And especially at risk: Patients who are facing expensive medical treatments such as cancer.

Earlier in the week, the administration also rolled back Affordable Care Act coverage requirements for access to birth control. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation: “These new policies, effective immediately, also apply to private institutions of higher education that issue student health plans. The immediate impact of these regulations on the number of women who are eligible for contraceptive coverage is unknown, but the new regulations open the door for many more employers to withhold contraceptive coverage from their plans.”

The actions of the Trump administration mean two things: There will be chaos in the insurance markets as companies and individuals rebalance the value of those policies; and there will be litigation ahead because every one of these policy shifts will be challenged in court.

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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Minnesota Rep. Peggy Flanagan and Congressman Tim Walz team up in Minnesota. Flanagan is running for Lt. Governor and Walz Governor as Democratic Farmer Labor Party candidates. (Campaign photo)


Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

It’s easy to get discouraged reading the news or looking at the political landscape. It’s a frightening mess: Mass murder, climate change, an election system that at its roots is unfair, and on and on.

But the thing is every new challenge is matched by opportunity. Our legacy — and the definition of legacy, is a gift — are the platforms where Native leaders come together and solve problems. The world of politics is one such platform. And so often it may seem like it’s only a far off promise, but yet, that legacy kicks and we see a new generation answer.

Too much philosophy? Ok. I’ll get to the news: Rep. Peggy Flanagan is running on Congressman Tim Walz’ gubernatorial ticket for Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer Labor party. Gubernatorial? That’s a funny word. It’s from the Latin gubernator, common in the 1500s, but pretty much only used by journalists these days. Yet such a stuffy word is also a good metaphor because of what Flanagan’s candidacy represents on at least two levels.

First, it’s another breakthrough race (think back to that word legacy). As a citizen of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, Flanagan would be the first American Indian woman to serve as a state Lt. Governor and would be the highest ranking Native woman ever in a state constitutional office. (The only other one is Denise Juneau when she was the State Superintendent of Public Instruction.)

The second level shatters the word “gubernatorial.” Back in the day, well, pretty much since the 1500s, the power of office was represented by a single man making big decisions. There is even an explanation of history, the Great Man Theory, that aligns a singular moment with a Napoleon or a Winston Churchill. But Walz and Flanagan would be different (a product of our times) and the Lt. Governor’s office represents a partnership. Partnerships and involving more people is how the best teams will govern from here on out. 

“Peggy’s vast knowledge and expertise will be something I rely on daily,” Walz said in his campaign news release. “Walz and Flanagan first met at Camp Wellstone in 2005, where she taught him how to knock on doors during his first Congressional run. They’ve maintained a friendship ever since.”

She taught him. Three words that ought to redefine politics.

The idea of a partnership in governing is recent but growing more common. Bill Clinton and Al Gore changed the nature of the presidency. It’s certainly true now in Alaska where Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott swap issues and sentences with ease. (Walker and Mallott are also up for re-election next year.) But these are all bros. It’s still a boys club.

Flanagan represents the challenge — and opportunity — for political representation by (and for) Native American women. This country has never elected a Native American woman to lead a state, or even as a Lt. Governor. And we still have never elected a Native American woman to Congress despite some really fantastic candidates. That, too, could be a barrier to fall in this election cycle. If you look at the number of elected Native American women across the country in legislatures, and in county governments, or in city hall, then you see the possibility of a slow wave, real change unfolding over time. (Previous: She Represents.) It’s not a question of if … only how long do we wait?

There are two groups within Indian Country that are underrepresented by a lot, women and urban residents. Most Native Americans live in cities and suburbs yet most of the elected representation comes from reservation and rural communities. We need both. In the Minnesota legislature, and in public life, Flanagan has been that voice for urban Native Americans.

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Back to that word, legacy.

Flanagan is prepared to govern. She already knows how government works, and, more important, why government matters. She’s currently the state representative from District 46A, representing St. Louis Park, Golden Valley, Plymouth and Medicine Lake. She is a partner in the Management Center, and has trained progressive candidates on how to run for office through Wellstone Action. She is the former director of the Children’s Defense Fund – Minnesota.

Flanagan was a speaker at Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia where she read a letter to her daughter, Siobhan. “Because, despite everything that has happened to our people, and no matter what Donald Trump says, we are still here. And I want you to grow up with our people’s values: Honoring our elders, showing gratitude to our warriors, cherishing our children as gifts from the Creator.”

Legacy.

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

ICYMI: My first audio election special is on iTunes or Soundcloud. Download here. 

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