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The Paulette Jordan math

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A couple of weeks ago I was driving across the border into Idaho from Montana. I stopped the car and took a picture of the “Welcome to Idaho” sign. I thought: It would be cool if that sign read, just under the Idaho greeting, Paulette Jordan, Governor.

Jordan, Coeur d’Alene, is running as a Democrat in what is perhaps the reddest, most Republican state in the country. So it’s an impossible task, right?

No. Let’s do the math.

The first part of that equation is done: Running. So many talented people survey a political campaign and then, for whatever reason, pass. But the inviolate rule of politics is that you must run in order to win. So that is a huge step.

Jordan is one of seven Native American candidates running for statewide office and one of two Native women running to a lead a state, (something that has never been done before.) She will be the first of those candidates to face voters and she will need to win a contested Democratic primary on May 15. A date that’s coming up fast.

One of the most important reasons for Native American candidates is the aspirational aspect. It’s a way for young people to see a future, (one that is far more important than just politics.) During a recent trip to Fort Hall, and the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, Jordan took time out to visit the students. She also met with community members where she said on KPVI 6 that the issues that “tribes push forward are good for everyone, all of humanity. So when we talk about education in tribal communities, it's the same for Hispanic communities, it's the same for every single district up and down this state.”

Jordan is running against A.J. Balukoff, who, unlike Jordan, can use his own wealth to fund his campaign. (Something he has already done to the tune of $175,000.) Four years ago Balukoff was the Democratic nominee for governor and lost by a wide margin.

Idaho has an odd primary. The Republicans limit their ballots to anyone except those who publicly claim party membership. But anyone who is “unaffiliated” or independent can pick up a Democratic Party ballot on election day. Because Idaho is such a conservative state, most voters sign up with the Republicans. Four years ago more than 155,000 voters did just that, while only 25,638 voted in the Democratic primary.

This is actually an advantage for a candidate like Jordan. She only needs to find a few thousand votes (my bet is there will be more interest than four years ago.) So, let’s say that means the primary winner will earn at least 25,000 votes. That’s a plausible number in a season where nontraditional candidates are getting a second and third look.

There is only one county in Idaho that regularly votes for Democrats: Blaine County. That’s Sun Valley, Ketchum, the Wood River Valley. Think lifestyles of the rich and famous. Hillary Clinton had a two-to-one margin over President Donald J. Trump in Blaine County. Jordan must do well here.

Votes from Idaho’s five reservations could help, too. The numbers are small, but if they are one-sided, say 100, 200, 300 votes to a handful, it could give her an edge. Especially in a primary.

Jordan should also poll well with younger Democratic voters and with Hispanics. These two constituent groups are growing in numbers and importance. Well, sort of. Idaho is a young state: There are more people under 18 than any other demographic group. And younger voters from 18 to 25 are a relatively small cohort at roughly 155,000 people. But in the last elections this group increased its turnout rates, so there is a potential upside. Hispanics now account for 12 percent of Idaho’s population and, according to Pew Research, are some 80,000 eligible voters (far more than what would be needed in a primary election.)

The math is there. It’s possible.

What about Jordan’s message? Is she connecting with primary voters? That’s a much tougher call. She has to reach voters in a state with two time zones and a distinct geographic divide. I often joke that Idaho is the only state with three capitals: Salt Lake City, Spokane and Boise. Each major city has its influence over regions of the state.

Recently Jordan’s team made a rookie mistake adding the word “ever” to an email about her being the only Democrat elected in North Idaho. This took away from an important message: Jordan won re-election to the Idaho House two years ago in a terrible cycle for Democrats. Her campaign convinced voters who would not normally vote for a Democrat. This should be said over and over as a reason why Idaho Democrats should vote for Jordan.

And after that? The toughest hill to climb come after the primary. Jordan would then need to make her case to Idaho’s deeply conservative Republican voters. But if there is ever a year to do just that, it’s this one.

But first the May 15 primary is coming fast. That’s a hurdle that Jordan needs to clear first.

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

Road ahead for TR and ICT

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Many years ago Richard LaCourse and I would sit around and toss ideas about what the perfect Indigenous newspaper would look like. LaCourse, at the time, was trying to create a new publication in Washington, DC. Imagination was his currency.

What was possible?

LaCourse had a lot of experience answering that question. He had helped build the American Indian Press Association. He had edited or written for several tribal newspapers, including his own, The Yakama Nation Review. He launched a one-person crusade to raise the standards of Native American journalism.

I even remember the first time I heard him do that. It was on Feb. 24, 1977, at a workshop in Spokane. A workshop speaker was telling tribal editors that they worked for tribal councils and should slant the news accordingly. LaCourse stood up. Angry. Shaking his finger. “Are you aware of the 1968 law that guarantees freedom of the press in Indian Country? Indian newspapers should be professional, straight reporting operations, and your assumptions about cheerleaders for a point of view has nothing do do with the field of journalism. Why are you making this presumption?”

I am thinking of Richard LaCourse as we begin Indian Country Today’s third chapter. The goal is to build on the legacy of LaCourse—as well as from the first two chapters of Indian Country Today. The publication was founded by Tim Giago in South Dakota in 1991 and was followed by the ownership of the Oneida Nation of New York.

It’s hard to think of a better word than legacy, actually. The word is from the 14th century Latin legatus, an ambassador, envoy, a deputy sent with a commission. A century later the word had shifted and become associated with property, a gift. Both definitions fit. The gift is all of the work done before. The commission is the tasks ahead.

Indian Country Today is now owned by the National Congress of American Indians—but we will act independently. We are creating a framework to ensure that. But our primary task is the same as LaCourse’s vision: Professional, straight reporting that tells stories about Indigenous people and our nations.

I’d like to thank the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) for engaging in this experiment. It would have been easy to say, “well, no.” Especially when the challenges of independence are factored into that equation. The NCAI has a long history of working with the Native press (even while our missions are different.) One of the great journalists of her generation, Marie Potts, a Maidu, and editor of California’s Smoke Signals best writing in Washington while on working on a fellowship with NCAI during the late 1960s.

The best way I know how to demonstrate our independence is to produce solid, thoughtful journalism. Every day. So there is a lot of hard work ahead. (And we will need some time to make this so.)

What does this mean for Trahant Reports? For the time being I will cross post on Trahant Reports and Indian Country Today sites. I have a lot of material I am working on for the elections ahead, Indian health, and other policy issues. So more, not less.

And Indian Country Today is back in business and we are ready to serve.

Our goal is to hire a team in Washington, create (and fund) reporting fellowships around the country, and build capacity for freelance contributors. We want to be partners, not competitors, with tribal newspapers, public media, and web publishers.

I have been teaching journalism for the past seven years and I am always telling students that this is a time of great opportunity. The digital world means that we can reach our audiences instantly. We can communicate ideas. We can explain a complicated process. We can expose wrongdoing. Or write a story of pop culture that makes us smile.

We can invent a new kind of news organization, one built on the currency of imagination.
 

A messaging document

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Budgets are statements: This is what "we" care about. It's money that reveals priorities. The "we" could be, and ought to be, the country. Or the "we" could be a presidential administration that's not really equipped to govern. So there will be lots of stories this year, like last year, about the Trump's administration's desire to cut federal Indian programs, wipe out public broadcasting, end student loan forgiveness, wreck Medicaid and Medicare, food stamps, housing programs, and generally just about every federal program that serves poor people.

As Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney told reporters: “This is a messaging document."

And what a message: Rich people face tough times so they deserved a huge tax cut. Poor people are poor because of their own failures. And more money is needed for a wall that's not needed, for the largest military in the world, and the Republicans no longer believe that deficits matter.

But Mulvaney has a different version. Here is what he says are the messages.

"Number one, you don’t have to spend all of this money, Congress. But if you do, here is how we would prefer to see you spend it," he said. "And the other message is that we do not have to have trillion-dollar deficits forever."

Ok. So the action is in Congress. Even Republicans on Capitol Hill know that this budget cannot be. It's chaos as numbers.

Perhaps the best line of nonsense was written a line written by the budget director to House Speaker Paul Ryan saying domestic spending at the levels Congress has already approved would add too much to the federal deficit. That's funny.

For this budget to become law (and override the current spending bill) the House and Senate would have to agree to a budget. That's unlikely. As I have written before there are lots of votes against any budget but not enough votes to pass any budget. A budget resolution would allow the Senate to move forward with a spending plan with only Republican votes (and even then only one to spare). But unless the rules change (which President Trump wants) the Senate needs 60 votes for regular appropriations bills. That means a lot of compromise before federal spending.

The most popular part of the president's budget is infrastructure spending. But most of his plan would be funding from state, local, and tribal governments. That's a problem. Congress will not be eager to follow this approach, especially in an election year. Members of Congress love announcing new roads and other projects. It means jobs back home.

It's telling that in the White House statement on infrastructure tribes are not mentioned (something that was routinely done in the Obama White House).

Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, wrote: "Our infrastructure is broken. The average driver spends 42 hours per year sitting in traffic, missing valuable time with family and wasting 3.1 billion gallons of fuel annually. Nearly 40 percent of our bridges predate the first moon landing. And last year, 240,000 water main breaks wasted more than 2 trillion gallons of purified drinking water—enough to supply Belgium."

So the Trump administration's answer is to fund this with local government dollars because, as Cohn puts it, "the federal government politically allocated funds for projects, leading to waste, mismanagement, and misplaced priorities. The answer to our nation’s infrastructure needs is not more projects selected by bureaucrats in Washington, D.C Instead, the President’s plan designates half of its $200 billion for matching funds to stimulate State, local, and private investment."

Another thing for a broken Congress to fix. If the votes are there. In theory that should be easy. This is an area where Republicans and Democrats agree (actually anyone who looks at the crumbling state of infrastructure can figure this one out). But in this Congress? We shall see.

At the State of the Indian Nations Monday, National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel said: "Native peoples are also builders and managers of roads and bridges, and other essential infrastructure. These projects are often in rural areas. They connect tribal and surrounding communities with each other, and the rest of the Nation. Tribal infrastructure is American infrastructure. In 2018, NO infrastructure bill should pass, UNLESS it includes Indian Country’s priorities."

Back to the budget as a messaging document. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities says this budget "violates the spirit of the bipartisan agreement that congressional leaders negotiated just a few days ago." That's going to make it much more difficult to come up with the next agreement in Congress (unless the law is ironclad, stripping the administration of some of its governing authority).

The budget assumes that Congress would repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a block grant formula. The votes are not there for that. It's fantasy.

The current bipartisan agreement "calls for adding $2.9 billion per year over the next two years to the discretionary Child Care and Development Block Grant, boosting this key federal program to help make child care affordable for low- and modest-income parents. But the budget reneges on that and proposes essentially flat funding for the program. The Administration’s blatant dismissal of a major bipartisan agreement on which the ink is barely dry may make bipartisan agreements harder to reach in the future," the budget center reports. "And then, in years after 2019, the budget calls for cuts of unprecedented depth in non-defense discretionary programs even though that’s the part of the budget that contains many federal investments in long-term economic growth. By 2028, funding for non-defense discretionary programs would fall 42 percent below the 2017 level, after adjusting for inflation. Indeed, by 2028, total NDD spending, measured as a share of gross domestic product, would be at its lowest level since Herbert Hoover was president."

To me that's the key point. Domestic spending, the programs that serve Indian Country, are already dropping and have been for a long time. All domestic discretionary programs add up to about 4.6 percent of the budget -- and federal spending on Indian Country is a tiny fraction of that.

And, as the budget center points out, that means Trump budgets would actually "go below the 2019 sequestration levels, which Congress just agreed is too low to meet national needs."

The messaging document (the budget, remember?) has another problem. It's based on assumptions that are even more of a fantasy than repealing the Affordable Care Act. The budget assumes a 3 percent growth rate this year and 4 percent next year. So lots more people earning more and paying more income taxes (since corporations will be paying less). Not. Going. To. Happen.

Even economists think this is nonsense. The crackdown on immigration, for example, is shrinking the economy, not growing it. And the Congressional Budget Office projects a long term growth rate of just under 2 percent. Last year the economy grew at 2.6 percent, below what Trump said would happen and even below the consensus of economists.

This 2019 budget will accomplish one thing: It will serve as a mile post for the fall election. Republicans can make the case for defense spending and, I suppose, that they used to be against deficits. And Democrats will make the case for protecting health care and other domestic priorities.

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports
 

Tribes social clubs or governments?

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I was at an event in Seattle recently and listened to Slade Gorton talk about the future of the Republican party in Washington at the Crosscut Festival in Seattle last week. Washington state is changing and the GOP runs the risk of being irrelevant (as is now the case in California elections). And, Washington, like California, has a top two primary. So it’s a challenge for Republicans to win a spot in the general election. In the last Senate election, for example, the “top two” finalists were both Democrats.

Gorton, who just had his 90th birthday, was once considered a moderate in Republican circles. That’s no longer the case. It’s true he is not a “loyal” Trump supporter. Then that’s not an easy species to find in Washington state. But he does support the GOP congressional agenda. So moderate he is not.

Of course Gorton did not talk about American Indian or Alaska Native issues. Even though that’s what we in Indian Country remember. Actually it’s too bad for Republicans. The party is shrinking, in part, because it does not recognize the changing nature of the country’s demographics. Then that’s been true for a long time. I remember talking to a former GOP party leader, Gummy Johnson, more than twenty years ago who wanted to position his party as a supporter of Treaty Rights and tribal governments. The Gorton wing of the party would never have let that happen.

Gorton (and his ally on the Supreme Court, the late William Rehnquist) had a nuanced view of tribal governments. These two men used their legislative and judicial powers to try and undercut federal Indian law and treat tribes as social clubs. Tribal membership was not citizenship but a special privilege. So tribal authority, the power of government, could only be applied to tribal members (and even that was subject to any limitations set by Congress). The legal theory for this nonsense was the implied divestiture doctrine, the secret but steady erosion of tribal governments.

Sen. Gorton has moved on to other issues. He’s an expert on national security, and, as I learned the other night, on rebuilding the Republican brand. (Or not. Because he argues there is an ebb and flow and Republican ideas will come back again in Washington with major change.)

I was thinking of Slade Gorton's ideology in the context of the Stop Disenrollment campaign that will be posted across social media on Feb. 8. It’s being led this year by Alaska Native actor Irene Bedard. “The movement is poised to raise indigenous social consciousness again this year — in what might be its final year given the growing sense that disenrollment is declining nationally,” said a news release. “Prominent Native Americans like author Sherman Alexie, former U.S. Vice Presidential candidate Winona LaDuke, rapper-actor-entrepreneur Litefoot, film director Chris Eyre, fashion designer Bethany Yellowtail, and Olympic Gold Medalist Billy Mills headlined the 2016- and 2017-campaigns.”

What does Slade Gorton have to do with disenrollment? It’s an extension of the idea that tribes are social clubs and that membership is exclusive. That’s a different narrative than a government with citizens. Great nations grow. Great nations want all the talent that can build a better society. (Hint: This idea has applications to the immigration debate, too.) Great nations don't kick out their relations.

To me, tribal citizenship is the key. Thumb through history and some of Indian Country’s greatest leaders: Washakie, D’arcy McNickle, and many, many more could have been on the wrong side of history had there been a narrow debate about disenrollment and membership.

Are tribes exclusive clubs? No. The answer is always the framework of government.

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports
 

To a canon of stories

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Indian Country needs a canon of stories. A collection of Memory that every child knows growing up. A reference guide to our shared history -- as well as a reminder about what the fight is all about. I can think of so many stories that belong in our historical catalog: The real-life adventures of Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph, Brant, Chief Seattle, Geronimo, Susan LaFlesche Picotte, Elizabeth Peratrovich, Forrest Gerard, and the decades-long fight for the return of Blue Lake.

There are so many other stories that must be told. Mary Katherine Nagle's new play, "Sovereignty," does that.

(photo/Opening night: Mary Kathryn Nagle author of the play, "Sovereignty." Arena Stage photo.)

Nagle is Cherokee. She's a nationally acclaimed playwright, an attorney and a partner with Pipestem Law. She's also director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program.

"Sovereignty" is a huge deal. It's now at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Think of it this way: It's a Native narrative on the nation's stage. All too often we get excited when see a movie or a TV show that has one Native American character worth remembering. That's cool. But we should really get excited about a work of art, in this case a play, when the author, the cast, and often the audience is Native. (That is something that Nagle has done often. Her play, "Sliver of a Full Moon," is a good example of that last idea, writing for a Native audience. The inside story.)

Back to the play. "Sovereignty" tells two Cherokee stories, one historical, one modern. The first story is about the Cherokee Nation in the tribe's homelands and the actions of Major Ridge, John Ridge, Elias Boudinot (a nephew of Ridge) and Chief John Ross (as well their fictional descendants). This was a time of war: The state of Georgia was determined to remove the Cherokees one way or another. The state's military, the Georgia Guard, was evil, violent and determined to remove the Cherokee people from their homeland. The Supreme Court had ruled in favor of the Cherokees but the government of Georgia ignored that. The state's primary mission was annihilation.

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Opening night: Mary Kathryn Nagle author of the play, "Sovereignty." (Arena Stage photo)
Nagle is literally an heir to this story. This is her family. Or, as Nagle recently said, "One hundred and eighty five years ago, the federal government sitting in Washington, D.C., sought to eradicate the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation ... At a time when many in the United States have been hurt and threatened by polarization and prejudice, I believe we can find healing in understanding how my grandfathers, and all of our Cherokee relations, survived one of the most polarizing episodes in American history."

It was polarizing episode because the story is about Indigenous survival. And different ideas about how to make that so.

Nagle does such a great job of working the law into her plays -- and "Sovereignty" is no exception. The concept of tribal sovereignty is a recurring theme. When I saw the play, I overheard a couple remark about how sovereignty as a living, modern concept. Perfect.

But there is another angle for Indian Country and why I think this story must be in our canon; the power of dissent. So much of our history of leadership is about vision and consensus. Most of the great tribal leaders in the 19th and 20th century were successful because they conveyed their ideas to their tribal community and were able to get people to work together. As Vine Deloria Jr. wrote: "In every generation there will arise a Brant, a Pontiac, a Tecumseh, a Chief Joseph, a Joseph Garry, to carry the people yet one more decade further."

But not always. Every once in a while it's the voice of dissent; the leader challenging consensus that carries the people forward. There are two great stories about why dissent is so important to Indian Country: That of the Ridges and Lucy Covington's fight against termination. (She followed around a pro-termination Colville tribal council at public events to counter their narrative and then stirred up support for new leaders.)

I have my own take on the Ridge story, mostly through the framework of Elias Boudinot (who is in the play) the editor of the Cherokee Phoenix. "As the liberty of the press is so essential to the improvement of the mind, we shall consider our paper, a free paper," Boudinot wrote in the first issue. "The columns of this newspaper shall always be open to free and temperate discussions on matters of politics, religion, and so forth."

It's impossible to have a temperate discussion in a time of war. The head of the Georgia Guard, Col. C.H. Nelson, told Boudinot that he could not be prosecuted under Georgia law, but if the reportage about the Guard did not cease, Nelson would tie him to a tree and give him a sound whipping.

Boudinot responded with a series of editorials on the Guard and freedom. Boudinot wrote: "In this free country, where the liberty of the press is solemnly guaranteed, is this the way to obtain satisfaction for an alleged injury committed in a newspaper? I claim nothing but what I have a right to claim as a man— I complain of nothing of which a privileged white editor would not complain."

The Cherokee leadership -- led by Chief John Ross and the National Council -- had its own issues with The Phoenix leading to Boudinot's resignation. Ross was determined to remain in Georgia no matter the cost. One of those provisions would have been absolute Georgia authority over the Cherokee Nation. "Removal, then, is the only remedy—the only practicable remedy," Boudinot wrote in a letter to Chief Ross. "What is the prospect in reference to your plan of relief, if you are understood at all to have any plan? It is dark and gloomy beyond description. Subject the Cherokees to the laws of the States in their present condition?"

This is the sovereignty part of the story. The Ridges and Boudinot argued for a future Cherokee Nation. That meant signing the Treaty of New Echota and setting the stage for what became the Trail of Tears and the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. Major Ridge knew the price of this dissent. He said at the time: "I have signed my death warrant."

Nagle's play captures those powerful themes but it also does something that only an artist can do. She brings the Ross and Ridge families back together. She shows through the power of story how we're all in this together. Still.

Sovereignty is at the Arena Stage through Feb. 18.

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports
 

A Congress that cannot govern

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This federal shutdown fight has been brewing for years. And it's complicated because there are several different Congressional factions; think of them as mini-political parties, that have different goals in the budget process.

Remember this: The Republicans are in charge. This process could have been resolved within the caucus -- if the GOP leadership had the votes. And that's the main problem. There is not enough votes for an affirmative solution. So much easier to say "no." (The House did pass their version with the support of the so-called Freedom Caucus. But several Senators in the Republican camp are still not on board because the solution doesn't send enough money to the military while others are not happy with another Continuing Resolution or any additional spending.

Democrats have not had much say in the government since the election of Donald J. Trump as president. Senate leaders have used budget rules designed to pass legislation with 51 votes. But this short-term spending bill does not qualify. So for once, Democrats have a say. There are three things on their "must" list. They want domestic spending protected (remember, one GOP faction wants deep cuts into government spending). They have been successful doing this with every Continuing Resolution so far because the alternative is the Budget Control Act and that would require deep cuts to the military (as well as domestic programs). Democrats also want funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program or CHIP. That is a huge program for Indian Country (along with Medicaid) pays the health care costs for more than half of all American Indian and Alaska Native children in the Indian health care system.

The CHIP program is in the House Continuing Resolution. But, as the National Indian Health Board posted yesterday, the House bill "does contain a 6-year reauthorization for the Children's Health Insurance Program but does not include the Special Diabetes Program for Indians. This is a huge miss. The Special Diabetes for Program for Indians expires March 31. The ideal solution would be for the Senate to include both CHIP and the diabetes program in any deal that's made with the White House.

The final sticking point for the Democrats is protecting the people who brought to this country as children. The Trump administration wants a solution to include money for a wall -- even full funding for that project -- as well as an increase in enforcement. Tough sell.

But as I mentioned all of this has been brewing. Instead of having a full debate about these divisions, Congress has been saying it will deal with it later. This is later. (And even then don't be surprised if a deal just moves this down the road.)

Ideally this will force the Congress into a real debate. Big picture stuff. Yeah, right. I know, but I had to write it anyway.

Of course Indian Country (and the economy) will be hit hard if this shutdown lasts very long. Lots of families, both government employees and contractors, could lose a paycheck.

The problem is we really don't know exactly how the Trump administration will manage this particular closure.

During the last government shutdown, 21-days that started on December 16, 1995, and continued to January 6, 1996, all 13,500 Department of Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs employees were furloughed; general assistance payments for basic needs to 53,000 BIA benefit recipients were delayed; and estimated 25,000 American Indians did not receive timely payment of oil and gas royalties," according to the Congressional Research Service. The last time around furloughed employees were eventually paid. Eventually.

All told Standard & Poor's estimated the U.S. economy lost $24 billion last time around.

The Indian Health Service and the Department of Interior posted planning memos in September about what is expected to happen. Basically: Many BIA employees will be furloughed, except for those that work in public safety or who are managers. However the Bureau of Indian Education will largely continue working, especially those who work with schools and children.

Former Indian Health Service Director former IHS director Dr. Michael Trujillo told Congress that the government closure “caused considerable hardship within Indian communities. One result of staff furloughs was difficulty in processing funds for direct services and to contracting and compacting tribes so the delivery of health services could continue. Those staff that continued providing health services were not paid on time. Threats to shut off utilities to our health facilities and even to stop food deliveries were endured. We reached a point where some private sector providers indicated that they might not accept patients who were referred from Indian Health facilities because of the Federal shutdown.”

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports
 

If you thought 2017 was challenging

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The first year of the Trump era has been challenging: The administration and the Congress sought to repeal the Affordable Care Act and radically redesign one of the nation's best public health insurance programs, Medicaid. That plan failed. And I'll come back to that point shortly.

But first: Congress did move forward with its other agenda item, to rewrite the tax code and reduce the amount of federal income taxes that most pay. And the two key words here are income tax. That's important because most people pay more in payroll taxes than income taxes. The Joint Committee on Taxation looked at the numbers a couple of years ago and found that 80 million tax filers that earn $40,000 or less pay no federal income tax and many even get cash refunds. But we pay $121 billion in Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes. Even those families who make between $40,000 and $75,000-pay three times as much in payroll tax as in federal income tax—nearly $190 billion of the former and just $64 billion of the latter. The total income for a household has to exceed $100,000 more before income tax is a bigger cost than payroll taxes. Bottom line: Wealthy people get a tax cut.

The big winner in the tax bill, however, is business. The new law sharply drops what corporations and small business pay in federal income taxes. The Tax Policy Center calculates that savings at nearly three times as much for business owners in 2019 as for people who whose primary source of income is wages or salaries. The Tax Policy Center found that all households would get an average 2019 tax cut of about 1.6 percent of after-tax income (roughly $1,200). Those who make most of their income from wages would get a tax cut of about 1.5 percent of after-tax income, or about $1,200. But owners of pass-through businesses such as partnerships and sole proprietorships would get an average tax cut of 4.3 percent of their after-tax income (about $4,300).

It's important to note that corporate taxes have gone up in recent years, but are not at historically high levels. During the 1950s corporate taxes were 6 percent of the Gross Domestic Product.

One way Congress looks at business taxes is to account for "pass through" taxes. So if you earn money as, say, a freelancer. Then you can deduct expenses on another form. This process could be useful to a few people in Indian Country. If you do work that could be considered a "business" (and make enough to pay income taxes) make sure that you are set up as a business because you will pay less tax under this new law.

So lots of people -- and especially companies -- will pay less in federal taxes. And the federal treasury will have a lot less funding as a result.

"The tax bill will provide a bonanza to the most well-off Americans and profitable corporations, even as it leads millions of Americans to lose health coverage and ultimately raises taxes on many low- and middle-income Americans," writes Robert Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. "And, faced with criticism that the tax bill will swell budget deficits, President Trump and House Republican leaders have made clear that one of their top priorities for 2018 will be to use the fast-track budget “reconciliation” process — the same process they used to pass the tax bill — to cut assistance programs that aid millions of struggling families, to try again to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and cut Medicaid, or both."

The process of reconciliation means that budget cuts next year could pass the Senate with only 50 votes -- all Republicans. That's awful. But the good news is that even might be a huge hurdle for Republican leaders. The problem is that the Republican majority is not sure what it wants. Some members want more money for the military and are willing to work with Democrats (who want money for domestic programs to make that so). Others want stark budget cuts; sequester times X. Others just want to find a deal of some kind, something that governs the country.

We already know these divisions are deep because the Republican-only majority has been unable to pass a budget for 2018 (which started October 1). The government is running on a temporary spending bill that expires Jan. 19. Right now the House is working off a funding level that would significantly increase defense spending and slight reduce domestic programs. The Senate is basically working off last year's budget.

That's all well and good for now but remember the pressure will increase to balance the budget as the cost of the tax legislation is calculated. As the National Congress of American Indians said: "The current tax reform legislation amounts to little more than a $1.5 trillion increase in the federal deficit over the next ten years. This deficit increase will inevitably create pressure to cut federal programs and services that are extremely important to tribal communities. Deficit-financed tax cuts that lead to austerity budget cuts would affect all Americans, but would disproportionately impact American Indians and Alaska Natives who rely on federal funding of the trust responsibility as well as social programs."

Congress is governing at two and three week intervals because there are not enough votes to pass a real budget. And that's not a good sign going forward because the budget only gets more complicated next year because of other issues that Congress has been avoiding.

Happy New Year.
 

Improve the world? Run for governor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Values in the tax fight

trahant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here we go again

trahant

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.

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

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 could vote on its version of tax reform this week. 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.