Trump complains. And signs the business-as-usual spending bill into law anyway

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President Donald J. Trump speaks about the $1.3 trillion Omnibus Spending Bill before signing into law. (Official White House photo by D. Myles Cullen)

Indian Health, Bureau of Indian Affairs see a budget increase

Mark Trahant / Indian Country Today

The federal government’s newly enacted budget is a massive “omnibus” act that spends $1.3 trillion and makes some members of Congress pleased and others angry. It’s a document that reflects a broken budget system. And, at the same time, it’s a business-as-usual document in a presidential administration that has promised structural change.

“There are a lot of things I’m unhappy about,” President Donald J. Trump told reporters at the White House Diplomatic Reception room. “But I say to Congress, I will never sign another bill like this again. Nobody read it, it’s only hours old.”

But the negotiations were not hours old. The back and forth between Democratic and Republican lawmakers was essentially a year late. This spending bill only funds the federal government between now and the end of September. But the process took so long because neither side had enough votes to pass the document on their own; Republicans needed votes from Democrats and to get those votes there had to be deals. Lots of deals. Business as usual.

And business as usual is good for Indian Country. Federal Indian programs, some of which had been slated for either elimination or deep cuts, continued on course.

The omnibus spending bill increases funding for the Indian Health Service by 10 percent, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Indian Education by 7 percent to $3.064 billion. The IHS budget line s $5.5 billion. When the budget is compared to the president’s request, the increases are even sharper, more than 16 percent for the IHS and 23 percent for the BIA.

At the BIA, according to an analysis by Amber Ebarb at the National Congress of American Indians, “Overall, the eliminations and reductions proposed in the president’s budget were rejected.”

Other budget items:

  • The bill includes a 3 percent set aside for Indian tribes within the funds available under the Victims of Crimes Act. The cap for these funds was set at $4.4 billion, which amounts to $133 million. As Ebarb wrote: “This is an important step forward for Indian Country, which has the highest rate of criminal victimization and had up until this point been left out of this funding. This funding will address the long standing inequity and meaningfully improve the landscape of victim services in Indian Country.”
  • The bill provides $50 million for grants to Indian tribes or tribal organizations to address the epidemic, and $5 million for tribes in the Medication-Assisted Treatment for Prescription Drug and Opioid Addiction program.
  • Infrastructure spending would increase for BIA and IHS construction, BIA road maintenance, and a $100 million competitive grant program is added under Native American Housing Block Grants in addition to the $655 million provided for the NAHBG formula grants.

 

President Trump said he signed the bill into law because it increased military spending. “I looked very seriously at the veto. But because of the incredible gains that we’ve been able to make for the military, that overrode any of our thinking.”

(The National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.)

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter: @TrahantReports (Cross-posted on TrahantReports)

ICTSpending

How much does climate change cost? Try $1.5 trillion and counting has only started

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Dominica’s capital of Roseau in the days after Hurricane Maria. (Photo by Timothy Fishleigh, Caapi Cottage Retreat Center.)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

The Trump administration, and its allies in Congress, are fighting a losing war. They continue to press forward for the development of oil, gas, coal, when the rest of the world understands the implication of that folly. Global warming is the most pressing issue for our time. Period.

The thing is governments really have two choices when it comes to managing the impact on its peoples from global warming: Spend money on trying to reduce the problem; or spend money on cleaning up the catastrophes.

The Trump administration is on the hook for the catastrophe. A report released Monday by The National Centers for Environmental Information pegged the total cost this year at $1.5 trillion, including estimates for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. (And that doesn’t even begin to count the human toll, lost lives, lost jobs, lost opportunity.)

I witnessed first hand the impact of Hurricane Maria on the island of Dominica last month. We keep hearing stories about the power grid being down (similar to Puerto Rico) and you think, why? It’s been months. Why aren’t the lights on? Then you see nearly every electrical pole on the island sideways. The entire grid needs to be rebuilt (or better, rethought) and that’s decades of infrastructure. So the figure of $1.5 trillion is far short of what will be needed. Nearly every electrical line, every other house, the damage was so widespread it’s impossible to overstate. And that’s just one island. Multiple the effect across the region. The planet.

Even the United States.

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The Centers for Environmental Information says there were sixteen weather and climate disasters  with losses exceeding $1 billion each across the country last year. These events included one drought, two flooding events, one severe freeze, eight severe storms, three cyclones, and one extraordinary wildfire. These “events” as the center defines them resulted in 362 deaths.

Turns out 2017 was a record-breaking year. “In total, the U.S. was impacted by 16 separate billion-dollar disaster events tying 2011 for the record number of billion-dollar disasters for an entire calendar year,” the report said. “In fact, 2017 arguably has more events than 2011 given that our analysis traditionally counts all U.S. billion-dollar wildfires, as regional-scale, seasonal events, not as multiple isolated events.More notable than the high frequency of these events is the cumulative cost, which exceeds $300 billion in 2017 — a new U.S. annual record.”

A similar report was published by the Government Accountability Office including a recommendation that Executive Office of the President “identify significant climate risks and craft appropriate federal responses.”

But instead of trying to reduce the impact — and the costs of weather-related catastrophe — the Trump administration continues on course for new development of oil and gas. The Interior Department announced new rules that, if enacted, will open up nearly all of the United States coastal waters to more oil and gas development beginning next year.

“By proposing to open up nearly the entire OCS for potential oil and gas exploration, the United States can advance the goal of moving from aspiring for energy independence to attaining energy dominance,” said Vincent DeVito, Counselor for Energy Policy at Interior in the news release. “This decision could bring unprecedented access to America’s extensive offshore oil and gas resources and allows us to better compete with other oil-rich nations.”

Or as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke put it: “The important thing is we strike the right balance to protect our coasts and people while still powering America and achieving American Energy Dominance.”

Dominance is such a funny word. How can any nation be dominant in the face of hurricanes that are ever more powerful and destructive? How does energy dominance work when tens of thousands of Americans will have to move because their homes are no longer there because of fire or storms? What happens if that number grows into the hundreds of thousands? Millions? How can we afford to spend trillions of dollars rebuilding what we have now?

A group of elders on the Bering Sea immediately condemned the Interior Department’s offshore drilling plan. “We told them that in person last October and again in writing, that there were 76 tribes in these regions opposed to this,” said the statement from the elders. “The draft plan implies that Bering Sea communities were ‘generally supportive of some’ oil and gas activity. This is not accurate and there is no evidence of this from Bering Sea communities. For decades, our people have opposed oil and gas activity and we continue to oppose it today. The northern Bering Sea is a very fragile ecosystem. The marine mammals that we rely on use it as their highway and they follow specific migration routes. That is how we know when and where to find them. The noise and vibration associated with drilling will interfere with their sonar and disrupt their migrations. Then we the coastal people will lose our primary food source.”

There is a connection between developing oil and gas and paying the high costs to clean up after a storm. One side of the ledger goes to a few; the oil and gas “industry.” The folks who bought and paid for this administration.

The other side of the ledger is the rest of us. The taxpayers who will foot the bill for this continued folly.

And on the Bering Sea? The folks who live there are one storm away from a tragedy. As the elders put it: “Our people and our way of life are being exposed to danger and we do not understand why.”

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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Government’s own report says climate change is getting worse … yet it’s taxes that are on Congress’ mind

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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

 

 

Hegemony is a fine word to describe the Trump era: Goal is to ransack the Earth

 

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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

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** Updated to reflect Senate passing a budget.

#NativeVote18 — Three fights ahead: A climate tax, a Senate seat, and the revival of a Canadian political party

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Quinault President Fawn Sharp, Manitoba NDP Party Leader Wab Kinew, and former Rep. Victoria Steele (Photos via Facebook, campaign)

Voting on a climate plan and a tax

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

There are two ways to impact public policy through the ballot box. First, people can choose to run for elective office. And, second, ballot initiatives can shape public policy.

The Quinault Nation in Washington is “gearing up for another strategic move to influence state policy,” Tribal President Fawn Sharp said. And that influence might come in the form of a 2018 ballot initiative on climate change that would include a steep carbon tax.

“We hope a citizen driven initiative will be a catalyst for other states to follow as we believe that’s the only path forward given the extent to which corporate interests influence our political institutions,” Sharp said. “What a narrative it will be when the First Stewards occupy the current leadership void in climate policy and influence the U.S. in a pivotal move from the grass roots level.”

The twist in this story is that another group in Washington has been promoting a similar initiative. But that measure left tribes out of the discourse. And the differences are not about style, but substance. Quinault wants to be certain that the tax raises enough money to invest in salmon recovery, forest restoration, and improving water quality.

The News Tribune in Tacoma said The Alliance for Energy and Jobs proposal would dedicate some 70 percent of a billion dollar fund to clean energy projects and only 30 percent to clean water and forest health. The Alliance said it did not do a good job of engaging tribes but there is “no final proposal.”

However Sharp said time is of the essence — so Quinault is moving quickly on its own plan. It will reach out to other tribes at the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians’ meeting in Spokane this week. Sharp is president of ATNI.

The Quinault Nation has a unique view of climate change. It’s an immediate threat. The tribe is planning the relocation of Taholah village to higher ground because of flooding and storm surges. Some 660 people live in that village.

Imagine what a climate fight that’s based on tribal values would look like. One where salmon, forests, and children take center stage.

Ready to fight back in Arizona

 

Former Arizona State House Representative Victoria Steele was a candidate for Congress in 2016. Now she’s set her sight on a state Senate seat representing Tucson (legislative district 9). The current senator in this district, Steve Farley, is a candidate for governor.

“Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that the Republican leaders in our country would turn on the people. It is hard to fathom how nasty and ugly things have become with the Trump Administration’s sexist, racist and dangerous agenda. No group of vulnerable people is exempt from their destruction,” Steele said. “I’ve noticed that when the Trump Administration and the Republicans in Congress can’t do their dastardly deeds in D.C., they push them to the states where Republican controlled legislatures do it for them one state at a time. I have to do something, so I’m rolling up my sleeves and I’m ready to fight back.”

As a state representative, Steele successfully built a coalition to add money into the state budget for Mental Health First Aid. And, during her second term, her campaign said that “out of the 1,000 bills introduced into the Legislature during this last term, only eight of those that passed were Democratic bills ─ and two of those eight were Representative Steele’s bills.”

Steele is Seneca. She is a former award-winning reporter and TV news anchor. After a 25-year career as a television and radio news anchor, including positions at KOLD-TV, KNST and KFYI Radio, she began a second career as a mental health counselor. She is the State Legislative Coordinator and co-founder of the Tucson Chapter of the National Organization of Women. Steele is a public speaker, teacher and trainer experienced in presenting on Native American Culture, empowering women, and a variety of public policy issues.

Renewing the New Democrats

 

Wab Kinew has been elected to lead the Manitoba New Democratic Party. Kinew, is a best-selling author, broadcaster, Hip Hop artist, and a Member of the Legislative Assembly from Fort Rouge in Winnipeg. He is a member of the Onigaming First Nation in Northwestern Ontario.

As the new party leader he will lead the New Democrats into the next election in 2020, and, if successful, would be the person responsible for forming a government. (Think governor.) In 2016 the New Democratic Party lost after nearly 17 years in government when the Progressive Conservatives won 40 out of the 57 seats in the legislature. Kinew’s task will be to revive the New Democrats.

“I chose to stand for leader of the Manitoba NDP because I am motivated by the core values we share as New Democrats. Values like love, equality, and social justice,” Kinew said on his web site. “I am so proud to be a member of a party that looks like Manitoba in all its inclusivity, and that represents Manitoba values. With your support, I know I can lead the renewal of our party, build a team that will offer Manitobans a progressive alternative to Brian Pallister and help bring about a brighter day for people in our province.”

Kinew has been open about his personal growth and a past that includes criminal convictions as well as a pardon. On his web site he says: “When I hear about a young person who got in trouble with the law, who is told every day he has nothing to contribute, I think: I was you.”

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Pallister’s Progressive Conservative Party is the current provincial government. A tweet from the PC’s links to a roundup of stories about Kinew’s past, including domestic violence. (It even made the allegation look new by tagging a 2017 date to a 2003 story.) Kinew has talked extensively about his own history.

An opinion piece by CBC News said: “While such websites are now common fare in politics, it does suggest that the Conservatives are at least somewhat concerned  about Kinew.” The post concluded: “The NDP has its new leader, warts and all. Can Kinew rise to the challenges ahead? It would be foolish to think he can’t.”

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 credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tribes respond to presidential withdrawal from climate pact

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A glacier on Mt. Anderson in the Olympic Mountain Range is gone as a result of climate change. Quinault President Fawn Sharp says that’s a clear sign that something is wrong. Four tribes said they would implement the Paris agreement even though President Donald J. Trump said he’s out. (Photo by Larry Workman of Quinault Nation.)

Protecting Mother Earth and tribal homelands

Trahant Reports

President Donald J. Trump announced last week that the United States was pulling out of the Paris agreement on climate change. That agreement includes every country in the world except Nicaragua, Syria … and now the United States.

The problems related to climate change are  enormous — so the thinking goes — and the best course is a planetary response.

But nearly every government will be involved, including tribal governments.

Shortly after the president’s announcement four Native Nations announced their plans to support the Paris agreement.

“For hundreds of years the pollution based economy has degraded our home,” states Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby in a news release. “We can no longer allow a failed system to continue to destroy the planet.  The Paris Climate Change Agreement reflects the global consensus that we must act together and we must act now.”

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the Quinault Indian Nation, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, and the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska said they will fill the vacuum and take aggressive action to protect the places we call home. The tribes said in a news release that climate change touches all aspect of life, from those who have no voice, the salmon, buffalo, seals and polar bears, to those who are suffering the impacts of water loss, shoreline erosion, drought and loss of homelands and waters.

Across North American tribes see climate change, or global warming, as real, human-caused, and something that is changing life right now.

The Quinault Nation is already experiencing an increase in ocean storm surges that requires the Lower Village of Taholah be relocated because of flooding and a potential catastrophe if there were to be a tsunami.

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Quinault President Fawn Sharp. (Photo by Larry Workman, Quinault Nation.)

Tribal President Fawn Sharp said: “We are talking about human lives here, and regardless of who is in office the fact is the federal government is our trustee … This responsibility is constitutionally mandated, and it’s not something the President or anyone else can wriggle out of.”

“Climate change is the definite direct cause of many other challenges as well, not just for us here at Quinault but for all citizens,” she said. “When a critically important glacier that’s thousands of years old totally disappears in a matter of a few years, it’s a sure sign that something’s wrong. And that something is man-caused climate change. The same goes for the massive algal blooms and the, warm areas and acidification problem in the ocean, the increased forest fire danger, slide and erosion  problems, invasive species  and low flows in our area rivers. These are very serious problems.”

Last year the Bureau of Indian Affairs awarded $8.7 million for tribal climate change projects for 63 tribes. But more than 200 tribes applied for the program and the Trump administration says it is ending all federal spending on climate change programs.

The president said that withdrawing from the agreement will support more energy resource development, including a revival of the coal industry. And a couple of weeks ago Vice President Mike Pence toured a working coal mine on the Crow Reservation promising new jobs. But that might be an impossible dream. The job losses in the coal industry have more to do with the low price of natural gas and changing global markets.

Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II says his tribe is actively moving away from fossil fuels. “Indigenous communities around the world are among those being most quickly and severely affected by climate change. Regardless of the official position of the United States administration, we will continue to stand together in agreement with the Paris Climate Change Agreement,” Archambault said. “Our tribe is actively working to move away from fossil fuels and we continue to battle those who disregard our efforts to protect our water and lands.”

People living in Alaska are also already seeing impact of a warming planet. “Alaska tribal governments are living with the early but significant effects of climate change. Our traditional knowledge learned over millennia within our aboriginal lands leaves us with no doubt that immediate action to reduce the impacts of climate change is our duty as sovereign indigenous governments,” states Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska President Richard Peterson, “such, we will seek to participate in the Paris Climate Change Agreement.”

This might be a moment for tribes to engage in global diplomacy. In the news release, Sharp said: “When we get a seat at that table people in this country who understand the climate change problem might be able to convey their concerns through us at the international level. We might also be able to sign on to the Paris Agreement. We are looking into that possibility. So it is possible that even though the US has backed out of that historic agreement, the tribal governments  from throughout the country could help fill the void,” said President Sharp.

 

 

Trump Reality Show is unbelievable, but hides the real off-screen Medicaid attacks

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The best moment for the new Trump Administration was the one where the president smiled in Saudi Arabia and said only 26 words in public. This was terrible reality TV but we all watched knowing that it was likely just a pause. Something outrageous must be coming up next. Meanwhile, beyond the distraction, Republicans work to dismantle the most successful government health insurance for the poor, Medicaid. (White House photo)

 

 

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Reality TV works for one simple reason: The antics of the characters are beyond what’s believable in fiction. It’s compelling drama because normal people do not do such things. So part of watching is to find out when the story arc ends, to discover when the situation becomes “normal” again. (Even though the story does go on and on and on.)

That’s why the presidency of Donald J. Trump would make a terrible novel or screenplay: There’s no mechanism to suspend disbelief. Tell the story about a four-month term in the White House, a time marked by so much chaos, unprofessionalism, and distraction, and a reader (and especially an editor or producer) would shake their head and say, “Try again. This story is not believable.”

That’s why only the metaphor of reality TV works. America the unbelievable.

Last week the best moment of the new Trump Administration was the one where the president smiled in Saudi Arabia and said only 26 words. This was terrible reality TV but we all watched knowing that it was likely just a pause. Something outrageous must be coming up next.

The White House Reality Show is entertaining.

Meanwhile more important stories are still being written and played off-screen. That’s why our focus must return to the policy fights ahead: How this country (and our planet) deal with climate change, how we stop the rigging of elections, and, how we make certain the court system is fair. Next week the White House will formally send Congress its budget plan for the next year. We already know this plan will be nonsense. Another distraction. The real work of budgeting will occur in Congress and it will require votes from both Democrats and Republicans to make it so.

At a House hearing last week, for example, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) said he was disappointed in a White House recommendation to cut  $5.8 billion from next year’s funding for the National Institutes of Health. He such a draconian cut would stall so much progress from recent investments.

In other words: No sale. Across the Congress, across the government, this same notion is being repeated. Eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcast? No sale. Down the list the message is much the same, eliminate the Denali Commission? No sale. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

Paying for health care

But while Congress might rewrite the budget in some areas, there are real dangers ahead. I’m obsessed with what this bunch is doing to the funding streams for health care, especially Medicaid.

This is what the Trump Show hides: The House’s American Health Care Act does much more than roll back the Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare as they like to say.) It ends a Medicaid program that works. It’s the single most effective form of “government” insurance that secures health care options for 62.3 million Americans. To add a little perspective here: Medicare — supposedly untouchable in politics — insures 43.3 million seniors.

These are huge numbers.  Medicaid is expensive. And we all pay for this plan. As we should. It’s one of the best things this country does.

So it’s no wonder that Speaker Paul Ryan and Republicans are eager to make this go away (both because it costs so much and because it requires a lot of taxes to pay for this enterprise).

This is an issue where the philosophical divisions run deep. Every Republican wants to spend less federal money on this program. Significantly less. Once you do that, there will be fewer people who participate in this public insurance program. That’s math, not politics. The House plan (according to the Congressional Budget Office) strips $880 billion from Medicaid funding in order to reduce health care taxes on wealthy people by $883 billion. Tit for tat.

Watch this debate closely. Parse every word. The Republicans in the Senate who say they champion Medicaid often only talk about Medicaid expansion. And that’s followed by, there should be a transition to something else (namely, block grants that states cannot afford). What else? How does that work? And who pays?

At a town hall in Anchorage last week, Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan followed this script to the letter. According to The Alaska Dispatch News the Republican senator told a contentious town hall, that he wanted to make sure the people who received health care coverage under Medicaid expansion “do not have the rug pulled out from under them.” Medicaid for now. Then something else. What else? How does that work? And who pays?

The answer is to protect the framework of Medicaid (and if we were smart, enhance and expand it). It’s the one part of Indian health funding that’s growing and already accounts for the insurance of record for more than half of all our children. (And, this is really important, third-party insurance billing, which includes Medicaid, is money that stays at a local IHS clinic or hospital. It does not go into the general budget.)

Medicaid is a partnership between the federal government and the states. So states set many of the rules, federal government then agrees or not, and pays only a portion of the bill. But patients within the Indian Health system are usually eligible for a 100 percent reimbursement.

So states set the rules for Indian Country — including limitations — yet don’t pay the cost. Already six states are already looking to tighten Medicaid rules. Arizona is keen on adding work requirements. Wisconsin wants drug testing (imagine the trap that sets for patients in opioid treatment programs). Maine wants to test assets beyond income. The goal of each new regulation is to shrink the number of people insured by Medicaid.

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Medicaid works, especially in Indian Country

I’ve heard Republicans say they like the results of Medicaid but that we as a country cannot afford it. That’s particularly troubling because Medicaid is more efficient that private insurance. (Even with its convoluted payments from the federal government to states and Indian health programs). How can that be? Julia Paradise, associate director of the Program on Medicaid and the Uninsured for the Kaiser Family Foundation, says Medicaid acts as a “high risk pool.” Because so many people are excluded (or out-priced) from private insurance Medicaid is the only option. “Among adult Medicaid enrollees who are not working, illness or disability is the main reason. By covering many of the poorest and sickest Americans, Medicaid effectively serves as a high-risk pool for the private health insurance market, taking out the highest-cost people, thereby helping to keep private insurance premiums more affordable.”

And, as Paradise notes in the recent report, “10 Things to Know about Medicaid: Setting the Facts Straight,” evidence continues to mount that Medicaid improves health outcomes. This is especially true when it comes to detecting and treating diabetes, mental health programs, and research has found that Medicaid expansions for adults were associated with significant reductions in mortality.

The Senate is now busy rewriting the House’s awful health bill. It will be a different entity, that’s for sure. But will the Senate protect (and if they are smart, enhance and expand) the best basic public health insurance program that we have now? There is no evidence to suggest that. And too many people are watching reality TV to even notice.

 

 

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 credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com

 

 

The new deal for tribes: Resource extraction & toxic waste (minus the jobs)

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No coal here. The Native Village of Tyonek, Alaska, celebrated the suspension of a project by PacRim Coal. The tribal community is located some 45 miles west of Anchorage. PacRim estimated the project would have mined some 242 million tons of coal. (Trahant file photo)
Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

A couple of years ago a tribal leader showed me an abandoned lumber mill near the village of Tyonek, Alaska. The company promised jobs. And, for a time, for a couple of decades, there were those jobs. But after the resource was consumed, the mill closed, the company disappeared, and the shell of the enterprise remains today.

This same story could be told in tribal communities across North America. Sometimes the resource was timber. Other times gas and oil. Or coal.

The lucky communities were left with a small toxic dump site. More often there was major cleanup work required after (plus a few more jobs). And in the worst case scenario, a Superfund site was left behind requiring government supervision and an even greater restoration effort.

But all along, and in each case, the accompanying idea was that jobs would be a part of the deal.

There would be construction jobs to build the mine, pipeline, or processing plant. Then there would be truck driving jobs moving materials. A few executive jobs (especially in public and community relations) and, of course, the eventual supervision of the cleanup (especially if the tribal government had its own environmental protection agency.)

That was the deal. But it’s one that is no longer true. Now the resource is extracted, pipelines are built, and toxic waste is left behind … while the promised jobs are limited to the initial construction jobs.

The renewed effort to build the Keystone XL pipeline is a classic example of this shift. When President Donald J. Trump signed the executive order to approve the project he promised “thousands of jobs.” That’s true enough for the construction phase, but only 35 employees would be needed to operate the pipeline, according to the State Department report.

Keystone, at least, is prospective jobs. New ones. But the bigger challenge for the Navajo Nation, the Crow Nation and some thirty tribes with coal reserves or power plants is that new deal for resource-based plants and extraction does not create as many jobs.

The numbers are stark.

The U.S. Energy and Employment Outlook 2017 shows that electricity from coal declined 53 percent between 2006 and 2016. Over that same period, electricity from natural gas increased by 33 percent and from solar by 5,000 percent.

Coal is still a major source of energy. But it’s in decline. Coal and natural now gas add up to two-thirds of all electricity generation in the U.S. And that’s expected to remain so until at least 2040 when the market share declines to a little more than half.

But because it’s a market that’s going down it means that tribes that develop coal will not share in the rewards of either major profits or in a spike in jobs.

The only hope for this shrinking industry is to export the coal to other countries (something that will be extremely difficult because so many other nations have already agreed to the Paris climate targets). As Clark Williams-Derry has reported for the Sightline Institute:

“Robust, sustainable Asian coal markets were never a realistic hope for US coal exporters: the transportation costs were too high, the competition too fierce, and the demand too unstable. So the coal industry’s PR flacks may continue to spin tales about endless riches in the Asian coal market, the financials are telling a much more sobering story: that the coal export pipe dream continues to fade away, leaving a bad hangover on the coal industry’s balance sheets and a lingering bad taste in the mouths of coal investors and executives alike.”

On top of all that, Derry-Williams points out that China’s coal consumption has fallen for three consecutive years.

And the international context is that coal is the most polluting of the three types of fossil fuels. More than 80 percent of the world’s known coal reserves need to stay in the ground to meet global warming targets.

There are jobs in the energy field, but, as the Department of Energy report puts it: “Employment in electric power generation now totals 860,869 … (and) the number of jobs is projected to grow by another 7 percent but the majority will be in construction to build and install new renewable energy capacity.”

graph of U.S. net electricity generation and coal production, as explained in the article text

The green economy is taking over. (Trump or no Trump.)

The extractive economy (much like the farm economy a generation ago) reached its peak, probably back in 2014. Oil and gas employed 514,000 people. Today it’s 388,000. Coal and extraction related jobs peaked at 90,000 and now that number is about 53,000.

Then Indian Country’s development of coal (or not) has been the story so far in the Trump era.

Last month Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed a memorandum lifting restrictions on federal coal leasing. He said the “war on coal is over.” Then he quoted Crow Tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote saying, “there are no jobs like coal jobs.”

A day later the Northern Cheyenne Tribe filed suit. The tribe said the Interior Department did not consult it prior to lifting the restrictions. “It is alarming and unacceptable for the United States, which has a solemn obligation as the Northern Cheyenne’s trustee, to sign up for many decades of harmful coal mining near and around our homeland without first consulting with our Nation or evaluating the impacts to our Reservation and our residents,” Northern Cheyenne Tribe president L. Jace Killsback said in a news release. There are 426 million tons of coal located near the Northern Cheyenne and on the Crow Nation.

Meanwhile in Alaska, another coal project was put to rest in a tribal community. The village of Tyonek has been opposed to the Chuitna Coal Project. (Previously: Mother of the Earth returns to Tyonek) After a decade of planning, PacRim Coal suspended the project last month because an investor backed out.  The project could be brought back to life. But that’s not likely. Because coal is a losing bet for any investor.

According to Alaska Public Media that meant a joyful celebration in Tyonek.  The president of the village Native Council, Arthur Stanifer said, “What it means for us is our fish will continue to be here for future generations, also our wildlife, like the bears and the moose and the other animals will be secure and they’ll be here. They’ll have a safe place to be.”

And what of the jobs? That’s the hard part. The prospects for extraction-related jobs are about to be hit by even more disruptive forces. For example in the oil fields of North Dakota one of the great paying jobs is truck driving. Moving material back and forth. But already in Europe companies are experimenting and will soon begin the shift to self-driving vehicles. It’s only a matter of time before that trend takes over because it fits the model of efficient capitalism. Self-driving trucks don’t need rest breaks, consume less fuel, and fewer accidents. That same disruption of automation is occurring across the employment spectrum. Jobs that can be done by machines, will be.

So if jobs are no longer part of the equation, does natural resource extraction benefit tribal communities?

The answer ought to include a plan where the United States government and tribes work together to replace these jobs: Retrain workers and invest in the energy sector that’s growing, renewable fuels. But that’s not likely to happen in Trump Era.

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 credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com

 

 

Remember the sequester? Trump budget would make those the good old days

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Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Remember the sequester? Ah, the good old days. The new Trump Administration budget is short on details, but clear on direction. And we do know two things. First: If enacted, this budget would shrink the federal government to a much smaller size. Except for the military and the Veterans Administration. And, second, this budget guarantees chaos ahead.

Thursday morning the White House officially released the “skinny budget.” That’s an overall statement about the president’s financial goals for the year. It lists priorities, but provides few details. And this document does even less of that than previous skinny budgets. But the agenda, the direction ahead, would create a very different federal government. There is money available to approve (and pretend to regulate) energy projects, but nothing, really nothing, for public broadcasting, the arts, and the humanities. All told some 19 federal agencies would be eliminated.

This is where I should add: Hold on! Every one of these agencies has a constituency in Congress. You’ll see 535 budget revisions coming soon with members working to restore funding, and in some cases, even increasing the total amount of appropriation. But the overall direction is less. This is the eighth year of a slowing (and perhaps shrinking) federal government.

This is also where chaos kicks in. The political tension that surfaced in Congress over the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act will only magnify in this budget debate. And to pass this budget, Republican leaders will need votes from Democrats. And if there is no agreement, then there could a shutdown of the government that could last much longer than previous episodes. The best case scenario is a continuing resolution that results in cuts, but not as dramatic as those proposed by the White House.

So let’s try to make some sense of the president’s proposal as how it relates to Indian Country.

First throughout the document there is only one reference that include the phrase, “and Tribes.” The Obama administration often added that language to routine grants and programs for states and local governments to make it clear that tribes were eligible partners. No more.

The budget does not directly put a number on the Indian Health Service. It only lists IHS as part of the overall budget for the Department of Health and Human Services. That agency “requests $69.0 billion for HHS, a $15.1 billion or 17.9 percent decrease” from the Continuing Resolution level. The first mention in that request includes IHS (that must be good, right?) “The President’s 2018 Budget: Supports direct health care services, such as those delivered by community health centers, Ryan White HIV/AIDS providers, and the Indian Health Service. These safety net providers deliver critical health care services to low-income and vulnerable populations.”

The way this budget will work is that each department will figure out how to make the 18 percent cut (as I said, if it comes to that).

Many have compared this Trump budget to the Reagan-era budgets. I remember how that worked for IHS. The president would drop a number — and Congress would ignore it. Every time. That could happen again.

One interesting increase in the HHS budget is a request for $70 million to prosecute health care fraud. It claims a $5 return for every dollar spent tracking down “fraudulent or improper payments.”

The Department of Interior budget does not provide much information about the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It only says the  budget: “Supports tribal sovereignty and self-determination across Indian Country by focusing on core funding and services to support ongoing tribal government operations. The Budget reduces funding for more recent demonstration projects and initiatives that only serve a few Tribes.” The budget says it will “sustain” funding for programs that bring in revenue from natural resources, including those programs that serve Indian mineral owners.

The budget would eliminate several independent agencies that serve Indian Country, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Denali Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute for Museum and Library Services. (Irony: A news release last week asked for tribal applications for next round of grants.)

Many of these agencies will show a number in the budget because that reflects the cost to close the agency. Or as OMB put it “the amount of money that’s necessary for us to unwind our involvement …”

In addition Agriculture would eliminate the Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program, Commerce would eliminate the Minority Business Development Agency and NOAA grants supporting coastal and marine management. At Energy the budget would eliminate the weatherization program. At HHS, the budget proposes to end Community Services Block Grants as well as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Homeland Security would sharply curtail or eliminate grants to states and local governments (tribes, I assume). Even Meals on Wheels programs for seniors would be eliminated. 

Another program that is slated for elimination is the Transportation Department’s Essential Air Service for rural airports — including those that serve remote reservation and 60 Alaska Native communities.

The only mention of “and Tribes” in the budget proposal is at the Environmental Protection Agency where the budget will avoid duplication by “concentrating EPA’s enforcement of environmental protection violations on programs that are not delegated to States, while providing oversight to maintain consistency and assistance across State, local, and tribal programs.”

The actual numbers of this budget mean little. They will go up and down. Some of the headlines, such as the elimination of public broadcasting, will survive because of support found in Congress. But it’s important to remember that this is the president’s agenda. This administration is hostile to every program that’s identified. So even if those programs are funded, the agencies will have a difficult task going forward.

Some of this agenda is nonsense. There are two ways to spend money on global warming: Learning about the science and trying to change behavior to lower carbon dioxide emissions. Or money for higher sea walls and community mitigation. This budget cuts the latter. That won’t work for long. When a community is severely impacted by fires or other climate catastrophe, the money will have to follow. Period.

But for now the debate is all about the president’s plan.

As OMB Director Mick Mulvaney said at the White House briefing room on Wednesday: “This is the “America First” budget.  In fact, we wrote it using the President’s own words.  We went through his speeches, we went through articles that have been written about his policies, we talked to him, and we wanted to know what his policies were, and we turned those policies into numbers. So you have an “America First” candidate, you have an “America First” budget.”

Only that’s a budget that means significantly less for the First Americans.

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 credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com

 

THE ELECTED: Opening up a channel for discourse about Indian Country’s issues

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Updated interactive version of this graphic, here.  (Trahant Reports)

Native American Republicans include two elected members of Congress; a dozen serving in seven state legislatures

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Indian Country cannot afford to close the door to Republicans in Congress and in state legislatures, especially those Native Americans who have been elected to office and serve as Republicans.

There are two tribal citizens serving in Congress: Representatives Tom Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, and Markwayne Mullin, a member of the Cherokee Nation.

There are at least at least a dozen Native American Republicans serving in state legislatures (compared to 51 Democrats) in seven states. That list includes Alaska Sen. Lyman Hoffmana Democrat, but he caucuses with the Republican majority and now serves as a chair of several committees and sub-committees. Hoffman is Yup’ik. In the Alaska House, Rep. Charisse Millett, Inupiaq, is now her party’s minority leader.

Not all the elected Native American Republicans make tribal issues any sort of priority. Minnesota Rep. Steve Green, for example, does not include tribal membership in his biography or in his campaign literature. Yet his district includes the White Earth Nation.

However most of the Native American Republicans who are elected to office also engage in Native policy issues before state legislatures, including support for enhancing tribal languages, teaching Native history, expanding or limiting tribal jurisdiction, voting rights, and, soon, state measures to shape the next version of health care reform.

One shared trait of the Native Americans who are elected as Republicans is support for fossil fuel energy development. “As a local elected official, I am outraged that Indian Country is prevented from harnessing our own energy resources by ever-increasing regulations,” New Mexico State Representative Sharon Clachischillage said in a Native Americans for Trump promotion. “The Trump Administration will ease restrictions on American energy reserves worth trillions of dollars. Together we will block the bureaucrats holding Native American businesses back and bring new jobs into our communities.”

But even the idea of energy development gets more complicated in Indian Country.  As Sen. Hoffman reports on his biography page: “Every Alaskan deserves affordable energy. As a resource rich state (oil, gas, wind, and tidal), our state should and could, harness all of this energy to benefit all of its citizens. I pledge to continue to work towards reducing the high cost of energy in rural Alaska.” Anyone who’s purchased gas in a village — topping $6 a gallon in Hoffman’s home in Bethel — gets that.

But many of these same communities, especially in rural Alaska, are at the global warming frontline and more money will soon be required to build sea walls, fight more fires, or even relocate entire villages. In his biography, Hoffman only cites the opportunity. “Our backyard is changing opening new ventures, with the thawing of the tundra and the melting of the Arctic ice,” he writes. “It is my intent and my responsibility as your state Senator, to ensure our region participates …”

Then not every Republican even goes that far. Montana Sen. Jason Small, Northern Cheyenne, ran for office against Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, a Crow, to spur reinvestment in coal. Small recently wrote in The Billings Gazette: “Thirty million dollars a year in lost royalties, hundreds of direct jobs lost, thousands of families out of work and out of options, entire towns destroyed, statewide economic ripples, and over $1 trillion dollars in stranded assets, not necessarily because of market forces, but directly attributable to a political agenda. That is what we face in the current and unprecedented assault on reason and Montana’s economy in what has been dubbed ‘the War on Coal.’”

Then market forces will be a test of this notion. Can pro-coal Republicans legislate the revival of the coal industry? Small argued in the piece that “carbon capture and combined cycle technology can solve the global climate challenge posed in part by the world’s more than 7,000 coal-fired power plants.” Coal prices did surge after Trump’s election, at one point topping $110 per metric ton, but have since declined to about $83.50 per ton. Since the election at least one major power plant, the Navajo Generating Station near Page, has been marked for closure in two years. The Arizona utilities that own the generating station say that the low cost of natural gas is their primary reason for closing the plant. That in two words, market forces.

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Waiting for Congress

Most state legislatures are waiting for Congress before taking action before another round of healthcare reform at the state level. And that’s a debate that is still hot. There are three distinct points of view about repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare). The plan by the House leadership (which has not been released yet) is supposed to be designed around tax credits instead of the insurance subsidies that are in the current law. Several of the most conservative members of the House and Senate see that as a new entitlement and have signaled their opposition. A third group of Republican moderates have been working with state governors to preserve Medicaid expansion because that insures some 22 million people (including more than $800 million for the Indian health system).

Rep. Cole is a likely supporter of the plan that emerges from House leadership. That includes a repeal of the Affordable Care Act as well as the Medicaid expansion. He recently told Native America Calling that Oklahoma did not choose to expand Medicaid and that made the system unequal.

However Cole said what ever plan emerges he said the Indian Health Care Improvement Act is a “bedrock” legal authority that must remain. “This legislation was included … purely as ‘vote bait’ to secure Democratic votes and has nothing to do with” the Affordable Care Act,” Cole said. “It is vital and ensures that Native Americans have quality health care available to them and their families. There is no controversy here – it sets the national policy for many programs and services provided by the Indian Health Service.”

A few weeks ago the repeal of the Affordable Care Act seemed like a sure thing. And now? The next week or two could answer that question. And the course that’s picked will have a huge impact on the Indian health system. 

And, over that same time frame, Native American Republicans will be asked to take a stand about deep budget cuts across federal agencies. Several news agencies have reported that the Office of Management and Budget is calling for a $1.3 billion cut at the Interior Department. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke employees that he did look at the budget and is not happy about it, according to Energy & Environment News. “We’re going to fight about it,” Zinke said, “and I think I’m going to win at the end of the day.” E & E News reported that Zinke would engage in a major reorganization of the department, one that focuses the agency on the next one hundred years (including the promotion of tribal sovereignty).

It’s easy to find the issues where Native American Democrats and Republicans disagree. Indeed it would be simple for me to shape every column as doom and gloom, the logic of “Oh, what is that Trump going to do next?” But that won’t help the policy debates that are so important to Indian Country. But that idea discounts how much agreement there is out there — even in this hyper-partisan climate. It was Rep. Cole who helped champion the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, including the provisions for tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians. Tribes still have a lot of work to do to implement that law. Deborah Parker, former vice chair of the Tulalip Tribes, and a key supporter of the act, said tribes should get their law and order codes ready now to comply with the law. Too few tribes have taken that step and VAWA will again require reauthorization in 2018 so Indian Country has to present its strongest case for this Congress.

One example of a Native American issue that cuts across party lines is unfolding in Wyoming. The Indian Education for All, House Bill 76, would require the state’s schools to educate all children about the history and economic contributions by the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes.

Sen. Affie Ellis was just elected in November and is a co-sponsor of the legislation. She’s a Navajo who grew up in Wyoming and she told the Casper Star-Tribune that Native American students sometimes are threatened by verbal abuse during sports trips across the state. “It’s a really important first step to understanding each other a little bit better,” she told The Star-Tribune. “It’s a brief idea, and I think it’s a fitting one.”

At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, Ellis spoke at a panel titled, “Rising Stars in the Conservative Movement.” Back in Wyoming her appearance generated both praise and criticism. The newspaper Planet Jackson Hole asked the question if Ellis was a “sane Republican alternative” to Trumpism? The paper quoted Ellis saying:  “I think our country needs so desperately some thought and some well researched responses …  There’s so many times when it’s easy to name call and have these cute hashtags that stick but we have to have strong facts and start communicating those facts in a very effective way. I think the hard part is the devil in the details of policy you’re working on doesn’t fit into small hashtags. Maybe we just need long hashtags.”

I don’t know about longer hashtags. The one I use,  #NativePolicy, is short. But we certainly need more thoughtful, complex policy debates.

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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