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

Here we go again: The congressional attack on health care, higher education #IndigenousNewsWire

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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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

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

** Updated to reflect Senate passing a budget.

Exploring the business of Native news; inventing a medium that does not exist

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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. 

This week Republicans have a nearly impossible task: Fund government, start their wall & get votes from Democrats

 

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The new health care team: President Donald J. Trump (clockwise from left) Seema Verma, Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Secretary Tom Price, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Vice President Mike Pence in an Oval Office meeting last month. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

 

Brace for another government shutdown

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Can President Donald J. Trump and the Republicans actually govern? As we near the 100th day mark the answer has been a loud “no.” So far. This week the Congress and the president will once again try for wins to fund the government, repeal the Affordable Care Act, extra money for Defense, and to construct a wall on the southern border. A nearly impossible order.

The House of Representatives does not have a governing coalition. There remains, essentially, three parties: Republicans, Democrats, and the Freedom Caucus. Two of these three groups must work together in order to pass any legislation. And to complicate the politics even more, many of the Republican members are already worried about their own re-election, so they might not support their own party’s leaders. Especially if that deal is sanctioned by the Freedom Caucus.

Yet Speaker Paul Ryan told his caucus Saturday that funding the government is the priority. The president was equally optimistic. “I think we’re in good shape,” President Trump said.

There are two budgets at issue. First there is the one proposed by the White House, “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again.” That budget would not begin until October and would result in a dramatic restructuring of the federal government. Many members of Congress have said there is no chance this budget will be enacted as proposed.

But this week there is another budget problem. Congress must pass budget extension for this year by April 29 or there will be another government shutdown.

Shutting the government has become too common: On Indigenous People’s Day in 1990 (Ok, back then it was called, Columbus Day) President Bush sent workers home after Congress failed to enact a spending bill. Then during the Clinton years there was a five-day closure in 1995 and another three-week shutdown in 1996. There was a 16-day shutdown in 2013, followed by the double-whammy of sequestration. Tribal governments were impacted almost immediately and had to suspend nutrition programs, foster care, law enforcement, schools and health care. Some tribes had to temporarily layoff workers.

A policy report by the National Congress of American Indians put this in perspective: “For many tribes, a majority of tribal governmental services is financed by federal sources. Tribes lack the tax base and lack parity in tax authority to raise revenue to deliver services. If federal funding is reduced sharply for state and local governments, they may choose between increasing their own taxes and spending for basic services or allowing their services and programs to take the financial hit. On the other hand, many tribes have limited ability to raise substantial new revenue, especially not rapidly enough to cover the reduction in services from the across the board reductions of the FY 2013 sequestration.”

That could be the good old days. The prospect of a serious meltdown is a far greater possibility in 2017 than it was four years ago.

First of all the White House is incompetent. Instead of laying out a plan that will lead to a working majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate it has offered nonsense. “I think we’ve made it very clear that we want border wall funding, we want greater latitude to deny federal grants to sanctuary cities,” Press Secretary Sean Spicer said last week. “We want hiring of immigration agents, and we want $30 billion to infuse the military budget. Those are our priorities.”

That adds up to a blank check for the wall and immigration control, at least $30 billion for Defense, and a cut of at least $18 billion to domestic spending.

Those priorities are not possible without at least a few Democratic votes in the Senate (unless the rules are changed) because it takes 60 votes to approve any new Continuing Resolution. There are only 52 Republicans. So which Democrats are going to favor punishing sanctuary cities? How about none. And that’s only point one. Leaders in the House will need nearly every Republican to vote yes as well, something that’s always unlikely.

(Building a coalition with Democrats is even more important when you consider that Congress must soon raise the national debt limit, something that many Republicans always oppose without conditions that are unacceptable to Democrats.)

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But this week what makes a government shutdown even more likely is that the White House, Republicans, and Democrats, are all staking out claims on a variety of issues.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said he would not vote for another budget extension unless it increases military funding. In the past, Democrats have gone along with that notion as long as there is a mechanism to protect domestic programs budget cuts, including those that serve American Indians and Alaska Natives.

But the Trump administration (here is that competence thing) is already acting if its stingy budget is the law, telling agencies to shrink and reduce the number of federal employees.

An April 12 memo from OMB Director Mick Mulvaney says: “The president’s FY 2018 Budget request to Congress will propose decreasing or eliminating funding for many programs across the federal government, and in some cases redefining agency missions. The president’s FY 2018 Budget should drive agencies’ planning for workforce reductions and inform their Agency Reform Plans, consistent with final 2017 appropriations and current applicable legal requirements. OMB and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) will work with agencies to facilitate reductions in the size of their workforce and monitor progress.”

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Congress is unlikely to go along with President Trump’s budget plan. Unlikely is too strong a word. How about? There is absolutely no way to get 216 votes for such a radical restructuring of the entire federal government. But programs that serve American Indians and Alaska Natives could be hit hard if there is another government shutdown.  (Trahant photo)

Yet there is no way Congress will agree with the restructuring of the federal government as proposed. The votes are not there. But the OMB is basically moving forward anyway, directing agencies to “begin implementing some reforms immediately while others will require congressional action.”

The White House message is stick it in your eye, Congress. (Oh, by the way, we still need your votes.)

So how does the White House move the ball forward? By threatening Democrats over the Affordable Care Act by proposing an exchange one dollar of funding for health care for every dollar spent on the wall. That took Democrats a few seconds to well, uh, no.

And coming next week the president said on Twitter that he will announce “big tax reform and tax reduction.”

That will subtract a few more votes for everything else that needs to happen this week.

Of course there is a way of out of this mess. The White House could work with Democrats and spend money on their priorities. It’s the basic formula that has led to enactments of budgets for the past 8 years. The bargain would mean continued spending for domestic programs as well as add money to the military. The wall? No. Cutting support for Planned Parenthood? Get serious. And health care funding? That’s why it’s called the art of the deal.

There are three doors on the governing stage. Door number one: An impasse and a government shutdown. Door number two: A deal with Democrats. And door number three: A short-term budget extension so the debate can go on. And on. And on.

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

 

 

Quick note before today’s vote

Good morning.
No post this morning, but a couple of thoughts before the House vote on the plan to repeal & replace the Affordable Care Act.
President Trump has made this an either, or vote for House members. With the president or not? Are they more worried about a primary from Trump supporters or their own constituents? As I wrote yesterday, Alaska’s Rep. Don Young will be worth watching on that score. This bill is terrible for Alaska. And a “yes” vote will be risky come election time. Or will Trump supporters use this an opportunity to take on Young in the primary?
Second point (and future stories) If this is end of repeal and replace, then the action will shift (as it already has) to the rule making process. Secretary Tom Price has a lot of power to make deals with the states on how ACA is implemented (and for that matter, Medicaid).
Third. It’s really interesting to see the new round of leaks coming from the White House. They were against this whole thing from the beginning, see. Blame is directed to Paul Ryan. (Trump’s news favorite Brietbart even calls this bill RyanCare.) So the question is what does this do to Ryan’s speakership going forward (if he continues in office)? As I wrote the budget divisions ahead are even greater than those that surfaced in the health care policy debate.
That’s it for now. Working on something not-Trump-related for the weekend. — Mark

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

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com

Reflecting on the dangers and promises of the Trump era #NativePolicyDebate

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A president unlike any since, well, Andrew Jackson

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

A terrible year? Elias Boudinot considered 1832 as such.

The year started with the Cherokee Nation winning its case in the U.S. Supreme Court, only to be followed by a message of “so what?” from President Andrew Jackson. Boudinot’s home was slated for auction by the state of Georgia; the idea being that settlers would then force Cherokees to flee their own homes. And, Boudinot resigned his job as editor of The Cherokee Phoenix because he believed the Chief John Ross was dictating the newspaper’s positions. He wrote: “I do conscientiously believe it to be the duty of every citizen to reflect upon the dangers with which we are surrounded; to view the darkness which seems to lie before our people, our prospects, and the evils with which we are threatened; to talk over all these matters, and, if possible, come to some definite and satisfactory conclusion.”

Boudinot had three goals for The Cherokee Phoenix. To inform tribal citizens as “a free paper,” one that would “always be open to free and temperate discussions on matters of politics, religion, &c.” Second, to publish a defense of “our rights.” And, third, the “representation of our grievances to the people of the United States.” He was particularly troubled by the last idea, reaching out to Americans. “We can say nothing which will have more effect upon the community, than we have already said,” Boudinot wrote. “The public is as fully apprised as we can ever expect it to be, of our grievances. It knows our troubles, and yet never was it more silent than at present. It is engrossed in other local and sectional interests.”

And so we shift to 2017. Our challenges, of course, are different. But the idea of a serious reflection, a public discourse, about the policy choices ahead are as important now as it was then. I have been thinking about 1832 for two other reasons: First, Donald Trump will be a president unlike any we’ve seen since, well, Andrew Jackson. And, that era, like this is one is where reason and facts are discounted. There is a meanness in our public square. On top of that, our next president makes things up and yet some still people believe him. So, I guess, the public is once again as fully apprised as we can ever expect it to be.

Of course Trump supporters from Indian Country tell a different story.

They see him as a new champion of tribal sovereignty, especially when the focus is on energy development. (Previous: The deep divide on energy and climate issues.) The problem with this is that folks who think fossil fuels are our future are on the wrong side of history. In order to buy the logic of more oil, gas, and coal, you have to pretend that climate change is neither real nor human caused. The trade off requires believing that profits and perhaps a few jobs are better measures than science. And, to do this at a time when the rest of the planet is moving on. Linking Indian Country’s future to fossil fuels locks us into declining technology and shrinking markets.

One way a Trump administration could really help Indian Country is infrastructure. But we know so little about the president-elect’s plan and how that could impact American Indian and Alaska Native communities. (Other than pipelines, that is.) The president-elect has called building roads, water systems, electricity grids, and telecommunications as “a golden opportunity for accelerated economic growth.” But that plan has two serious obstacles for tribal nations. Trump promises to use private partnerships to pay for these projects. And, he wants the initiative to give “maximum flexibility to the states.”

Watch for this phrase in the coming weeks … “and tribes.” The Congress and the Obama administration often inserted that language into law and public policy to open options for tribes that were similar in scope to state governments. Will that continue? Or is giving states “maximum flexibility” a single paradigm?

That brings me to the two greatest challenges ahead in a Trump administration, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the severe budgets that are ahead.

Repealing the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, will likely be the first vote in Congress. But repeal is the easy part. “Then what?” is a much more difficult question. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, recently told the Journal-Sentinel that a replacement bill will “take time.” He said“clearly there will be a transition and a bridge so that no one is left out in the cold, so that no one is worse off. The purpose here is to bring relief to people who are suffering from Obamacare so that they can get something better.”

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, has said any replacement of the Obamacare should include a new version of Indian Health Care Improvement Act. That’s the ideal. But what about funding? The Indian Health Service has been historically underfunded. And the Affordable Care Act has added money, especially through Medicaid expansion. That may be the most successful element of the law and it nets the Indian Health System substantial resources, money that is supposed to remain at local clinics and hospitals.

It’s important to remember that the Affordable Care Act has substantially reduced the number of uninsured Americans, including American Indians and Alaska Natives (from 16 percent in 2013 to a historic low of 10 percent in 2015). This is the number to think about: More than half (51 percent) of Native children are insured via Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. This is important because those who have insurance are more likely to get a broader range of health care services than those who only rely on IHS for care.

So depending on how the repeal and replace legislation unfolds between 11 million and 60 million people could lose health insurance coverage. And the Indian Health system could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding streams.

Then the issue of money for American Indian and Alaska Native programs might be the toughest one of all. I have been writing for years about austerity as a trend. We have been lucky during the Obama years because Indian Country was mostly held harmless (especially in the health arena).

But President-elect Trump’s choice for the Office of Management and Budget is Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-South Carolina. He’s one of the most strident voices in Congress against federal spending (even voting against his own party when budgets were not harsh enough).

While in Congress Mulvaney championed reducing the size of the federal workforce by at least ten percent. One of his proposals would have limited agencies to one hire for every three departures. He advocates increased work by contractors while reducing total costs.

Mulvaney defended the 2013 sequester — a disaster in Indian Country — as something that “bodes well for the future.”

“We are, all of us, Democrats, Republicans and independents alike, having a national dialogue about what is really important for our government, and what our government could do without,” Mulvaney wrote. “And it has been much too long since we have done that.”

That conversation will define 2017.

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

North Dakota’s new governor misses Standing Rock moment

A YouTube video from North Dakota’s new Gov. Doug Burgum. More of the same about Standing Rock.

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

There is that moment when we take the plastic protection off a new phone screen. Everything was perfect until we peel it away. Then fingerprints, scratches, and the business of life take hold. That new thing is never the same.

That’s exactly where Doug Burgum was as the new governor of North Dakota. He could have taken that screen and made certain that there was a new image of North Dakota for the world to see.

Damn. Think about what was possible: A governor who is framing his entire administration on innovation just dismissed the most disruptive force in his state’s recent history. That is what Standing Rock is about. Instead of saying, “What can we learn from this? What can we do together?” The new governor relied on the screen saver that was there before; the idea that powerful forces will roll over the tribe and build the Dakota Access Pipeline without interference. Thank you.

Burgum also scratched away at an old story: The Obama administration created this problem.

But his larger message is that the state of North Dakota and its corporate partners are more powerful than any tribal government. Instead of a pause, a moment to engage in a government-to-government dialogue, the new governor emphatically says the pipeline will get built soon. No. Matter. What.

“Make no mistake, this infrastructure is good for our economy,” the governor said in his YouTube video. “And it’s the safest way to transport North Dakota products. Failure to finish it would send a chilling signal to those in any industry who wish invest in our state and play by the rules.”

But the rules are complicated. And the court cases are not resolved. In fact the governor could have taken advantage of the litigation schedule to begin an open dialogue. Even more important: The prospect of more litigation is growing and that is something that will not be resolved by the Trump administration. It will take time.

The new governor could have reset the law enforcement battle lines too. Nope. “As a result of the Obama administration’s refusal to uphold the rule of law on federally owned land, both our citizens and local and state law enforcement have been put in harm’s way,” he said. “These actions are putting daily demands on the scarce resources of our state and local government.”

Those daily demands are because the state of North Dakota made it so. Pick a word: defuse, de-escalate, negotiate. There were so many better alternatives, ones that were dismissed in favor of sending in the cavalry. I have interviewed many government officials over the years that successfully reduced tension instead of using the police powers of a state. In every test the state failed in this regard and the new governor is following the same path.

I had hopes that Gov. Burgum would see the potential of the Standing Rock story as one that could make North Dakota a beacon. Think about this: This moment in history has brought indigenous people together in a way that’s unprecedented. And the world is paying attention to that. What an amazing opportunity, something that could stir the imagination of investors, entrepreneurs, and governments. Potential partners in a state that found a solution by working with tribes to solve an intractable problem.

The former governor blamed social media for this global perception. But that misses the point that the Standing Rock Tribe owns the story. And that won’t change because the new governor posts a video his account. The problem is not social media. It’s the message that the State of North Dakota will use the rule of law, the police power of a state, to roll over a tribal nation. It’s a message of brut force instead of inspiration. 

A missed opportunity? Sadly, yes. The governor says he will meet with tribes. But in North Dakota the context is business as usual. The plastic is off. And the new screen is already scratched.

 

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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