Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published in “Trahant”

A messaging document

trahant

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?

trahant

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

trahantlogo1

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.

01Sovereignty_5234
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

trahant

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

trahant

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

trahant

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.
 

A medium that does not exist

trahant

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 turning 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 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.)

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 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.

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

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.

Candidate Rossi, again

trahant

Dino Rossi has an interesting political legacy. He was for several weeks the Gov.-elect for Washington state. Then after much counting (and recounting) Democrat Christine Gregoire took the lead by 129 votes and was she sworn in as governor on January 12, 2005.

Since then Rossi has run for governor again, the U.S. Senate, and was recently appointed to a state Senate seat to fill out the remaining term of a member who had died.

Rossi is Tlingit. One of his first jobs was working for Bernie Whitebear at Seattle's United Indians for All.

It's interesting how some candidates make their tribal affiliation prominent and weigh in on issues that impact Indian Country. That would not be Rossi. But he doesn't shy away (as many politicians do) from the conversation. It's just not his focus. He has a fascinating background. From his transition team biography: "Dino’s mother, Eve, came from Alaska. She was half Irish, half Tlingit Alaskan Native. She’d married in Alaska and had five children, but the marriage became difficult. To get away from the situation, Eve took her kids to Seattle. For a time the family lived in public housing in Holly Park while Eve waitressed during the day and went to beauty school at night." His mother met and married John Rossi and the family eventually moved to Mountlake Terrace. Back to the bio: "The Rossi kids were raised on a school-teacher’s salary. They didn’t have a lot of money, but their house was full of love."

If you read his story, you'd think it was a classic liberal narrative. Public housing. Government works. But no. Rossi favors the bootstrap side of the story, a working family that raised itself up. He has always run as a conservative candidate. That said. In his Senate role he was willing to reach across party lines and come up with a deal.

I remember a Seattle P-I Editorial Board with then Sen. Rossi where he talked about the shortage of funds for higher education. But then, he suggested, book as much spending as possible on the capital side of the ledger. That's where serious dollars could be found, he suggested. Creative.

Or as his bio puts it: "In the state Senate, Dino became a leader on budget issues. He eventually became Chairman of the Senate Ways & Means Committee – which writes the state budget – in 2003, when the State faced the largest dollar deficit in history. Dino was able to work across party lines and balance the budget without raising taxes and while still protecting the most vulnerable. Dino also focused on other issues: he spearheaded legislation to punish drunk drivers and child abusers; he worked to fund the Issaquah salmon hatchery; he secured funding for Hispanic/Latino health clinics, and he championed funding for the developmentally disabled community."

Washington's 8th District poses a lot of the same challenges that Rossi faced when he ran for governor; the demographics of the district (like the state) are more more diverse and liberal than a few years ago. But he enters this race with one advantage: He will be the only Republican while there will be a half-dozen Democrats. Washington has a top-two primary, but the winning Democrat will have to build name ID and consolidate support, something Rossi will already have with Republicans.

The seat is now held by Rep. Dave Reichert, a Republican.

There are now seven #NativeVote18 candidates for Congress. Three Republicans, Rossi as well as Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole and Rep. Markwayne Mullin. And four Democrats, Carol Surveyor in Utah, Debra Haaland in New Mexico, J.D. Colbert in Texas, and Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols (who's challenging Mullin). So far.