Chair McCollum Statement at Hearing on FY 2020 Budget Requests for Bureaus of Indian Affairs and Indian Education

2019-04-30 10:45

Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-MN), Chair of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, delivered the following remarks at the Subcommittee's hearing on the fiscal year 2020 budget requests for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Indian Education:

Good morning, I’d like to welcome to the subcommittee the Honorable Tara Katuk Mac Lean Sweeney, the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior. This is her first time testifying before this subcommittee, and we are very pleased to have you here today. Joining Ms. Sweeney is Johanna Blackhair, Acting Deputy Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and Tony Dearman, Director of the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE).

Our hearing today will address the President’s FY 2020 budget request of $2.86 billion for BIA and BIE, a reduction of $292 million, or almost 10 percent, from the FY 2019 enacted level.

Climate change is real and is having a disproportionate impact on native peoples, lands, and infrastructure. Yet the President’s FY 2020 budget once again proposes to eliminate the Tribal Climate Resilience/Cooperative Landscape activities and proposes an overall $23 million reduction for the Natural Resources accounts. These accounts fund important activities to combat climate change effects on natural and cultural resources so vital to Native livelihood and subsistence. I urge you to continue educating others within the Administration on the need to fund these critical programs.

Even though Congress provided funding for the last two years for public safety and justice construction, the President once again proposes no funding to construct these facilities. In the House report for Fiscal Year 2018, the Committee stated our concern about the growing need for justice facilities funding. We encouraged BIA to develop a Master Plan detailing the location and condition of existing justice facilities, relative to the user population.

Unfortunately, the bureau did not take steps to do this. So, in Fiscal Year 2019, it was necessary for the Committee to direct BIA to maintain such a plan, and it is our expectation that it will be used to prioritize facilities replacement and new construction. This morning I look forward to hearing about the status of the Master Plan, when the Committee will receive a copy, and how the Fiscal Year 2019 public safety and justice construction funds will be distributed in accordance with it.

As part of the FY 2019 Appropriations bill, the Committee also encouraged the Department of Interior to align the Office of Special Trustee reorganization efforts with the Indian Trust Asset Reform Act (ITARA).

In FY 2019, Congress approved the Department’s request to transfer the Office of Special Trustee out of the Office of the Secretary, moving it under the Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs. The Office of Special Trustee was originally supposed to sunset in the ‘90’s. It did not and so Congress passed ITARA, which was enacted into law in 2016, directing the Department to report to Congress within 2 years on how to sunset the Office. Two years have come and gone. In order to meet the requirements of ITARA, I think the report must include a plan to sunset the entire Office of Special Trustee, and not just eliminate the position of the Special Trustee. This report is long overdue, and I’m sure tribal leaders and the rest of Congress join me in hoping we can read it soon.

Last month, this Committee held two days of hearings on the funding priorities for Indian Country, and we heard how the Administration is not protecting treaty and trust obligations. The proposed cuts to the budget lines confirm that this is true. I can assure you, we will be rejecting these proposed cuts.

Turning to the Bureau of Indian Education, the FY 2020 budget proposes to establish the BIE as a separate Bureau. I look forward to hearing in more detail how this proposal will meet GAO recommendations, the extent of tribal consultation on this specific proposal, and how this will improve the quality of education provided to Native students.

I do not recall the last time Congress has not provided funding for BIE replacement schools. So, it makes no sense to me that the Administration does not have a five year construction plan for school replacement based on either the last appropriated amount or the President’s budget, whichever is higher. If the school construction five year spend list is somehow top-secret information, let me know. We routinely handle sensitive information.

In 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) made recommendations to ensure health and safety at Indian school facilities. Last month, GAO reported that there are still two open priority recommendations for BIE: (1) document that collected school inspection information is complete and accurate; and (2) provide information on how the Department plans to support BIE school personnel in fixing safety hazards.

The Administration’s proposed 71 percent reduction – or $170 million decrease – in education construction, combined with a proposed $2 million decrease to facilities operation, will not help the Department meet GAO’s recommendations.

Last year, Congress enacted the Johnson-O’Malley Supplemental Indian Education Program Modernization Act. This law requires the Secretary to publish a preliminary report describing the number of eligible Indian students served, or potentially served, by eligible entities under the law within 180 days of enactment. We are fast approaching the 6-month deadline, so as the sponsor of the House legislation last Congress, I am curious about the status of the preliminary report and whether any challenges have been identified in determining the number of eligible Indian students.

Much more work is needed to fulfill our obligations to Native America, and the proposed budget cuts do not help.

Assistant Secretary Sweeney, I look forward to working with you to address the needs of Indian Country and the challenges facing the Department.

I would now like to yield to our Ranking Member, Mr. Joyce, for his opening remarks.

116th Congress