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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.
 

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.

One party? Get real

trahant

September is going to be a mess. Congress must sort out some really complicated fiscal issues. There is the budget, an increase in the debt limit, how much to spend on federal programs and services, and, if there’s time, tax reform.

This should be easy in a one-party government. Republicans only need to come up with a budget plan. Then the House acts, the Senate does its thing, and President Donald J. Trump signs the idea into law. Easy. Except there is no Republican majority in Congress (other than the R listed by members’ names.)

The House is made up of at least three factions, or parties, and no majority. (The three groups are: Republicans, Democrats, and the more conservative House Freedom Caucus.) So in order to gather enough votes to pass a budget, or any other of the challenges, at least two of the three factions have to agree on a plan.

The Senate has its own divisions within the Republican Party. (The very reason why a Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act has not yet become law.)

And the White House is not on the same page either. The president proposed a stingy budget that’s been pretty much rejected by members of the House and the Senate (except the more conservative elements such as the House Freedom Caucus.)

For example the Trump proposed budget calls for $4.7 billion for the Indian Health Service, a cut of some $300 million or 6 percent of the agency’s budget. But a House spending plan calls for an increase of $97 million over last year’s levels. Indeed, the Appropriations Committee that funds IHS and the Bureau of Indian Affairs plans to spend a total of $4.3 billion more than the president requested on programs under its jurisdiction. (In general: The president’s budget reflects significant budget cuts across Indian Country, according to analysis by the National Congress of American Indians.)

The Senate will come up with its own spending plan. Then, in theory, the two houses will resolve their differences and agree on how much the federal government should spend next year (and the president can go along or veto the legislation and start all over).

But no. That’s not how Congress is actually legislating these days. More often Congress agrees to a temporary spending measure based on last year’s budget, a Continuing Resolution. That’s an easier sell to members even if it does represent a last minute, throw up your hands, and do something approach. The other alternative is a government shutdown. That could happen. President Trump tweeted in May that "our country needs a good 'shutdown' in September to fix mess!"

Yes, the budget is a mess. Period. Even take the word, “budget.” That’s a proposal from the president. But in Congress a “budget” is a spending limit that Congress imposes on itself. It sets a ceiling that each of the 12 Appropriations subcommittees have to live with. And, more important right now, the budget sets the rules for debate so the Senate can pass some legislation (such as the health care bill) with only 50 votes. (Most bills need 60 votes to stop a filibuster from stopping the process.)

Back to the congressional budget. Last month the Budget Committee approved a plan that would cut domestic spending by $2.9 trillion over the next decade. The full House will vote on this plan when it returns. It’s a bleak document that would end up slashing many of the programs that serve American Indians and Alaska Natives. Remember the appropriations committees would still figure out how to spend the money; but the budget would act as an overall cap. Less pie to divide.

This budget plan starts off with historically low federal spending that is compounded by even more severe budget cuts between now and 2027. To show how out of touch this budget is, it includes program cuts for Medicaid that were a part of the failed health care legislation. (What's changed? Nothing.) This bill tips action toward the conservatives who want deep spending cuts to be sooner, as in right now.

That makes the problem political. There are probably not enough votes to make this budget so. A few Republicans don’t see this harsh approach as good government. And even if the votes are found in the House, the Senate is another story. Think health care.

And if this budget cannot pass, it’s not likely there is another one that would. Democrats in the House say they want to spend more money: “Congress cannot continue to underfund these crucial investments … (and) without relief from these spending caps, vital government programs are facing significant cuts for fiscal year 2018 that would have significant effects on American families all across the country.”

And the budget is only one fiscal crisis. Another issue that is immediate and serious involves the debt limit. That’s the amount of money the federal government can borrow and it's currently set at $19.85 trillion (federal debt exceeds that level now, but the Secretary of Treasury can basically shuffle money from different accounts). Conservatives want spending cuts as part of any deal to increase the debt limit. As Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, and a member of the Chickasaw Tribe, told MSNBC. A debt limit increase without spending cuts is “like having a credit card and saying, ‘I've reached my limit, I'm just going to change the limit higher without changing any of my spending habits.’”

But, like on the budget issue, the votes are not there. (Especially in the Senate where 60 votes will be needed.)

This is tricky because the Republican administration understands what failure could do to the country. Budget director, Mick Mulvaney, is now supporting a debt limit increase. But when he served in Congress, Mulvaney said he was willing to risk a default to force a discussion on spending.

Key point here: Votes from Democrats will be needed in both the House and the Senate to pass an increase in the debt limit. But will there be enough Republicans?

If Congress does not pass the debt limit, the impact would be “catastrophic.” And, almost immediately, this failure would hit federal budgets because interest rates would spike upward. Interest rates are already the fastest growing part of the federal budget and a sharp increase in rates would add significantly to the total federal debt. In other words: By voting against a debt limit increase, Congress would make the debt problem worse. Far worse.

But Republicans have campaigned against a debt limit increase for a long time. So it’s going to be one tough vote.

In case you’re keeping score: Republican leaders plus Democrats will be needed to increase the debt limit. Most Republicans including the House Freedom Caucus will need to vote for the budget and appropriations bills. Or, those budget and spending bills will have to include more Democratic priorities to win that party’s support.

So yes, September is going to be a mess. And after the budget, spending bills, and debt limit is complete, there’s still tax reform on the agenda. Yet another mess.

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.

The motion to proceed

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The Senate is now going through 20 hours of debate on a House Resolution 1628 to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. But the House bill was stripped of every word except the title. Now the idea is to come up with the right language to reach 50 votes (so when like the Motion to Proceed, Vice President Mike Pence can break the tie and vote yes).

The first proposal, Senate Amendment 267, had all sorts of problems on the floor. The Senate's Parliamentarian ruled that parts of the bill did not get a score from the Congressional Budget Office and other parts violated budget rules. So 60 votes, not 50 were needed for this version to pass. But the Republican leadership wasn't even close to 50 votes -- Nine Republicans voted against it.

Including Arizona Sen. John McCain who just a few hours before said he wasn't happy with any of the legislative proposals. Think about this. He interrupted his cancer treatment (taxpayer funded health care) then gave a stirring speech about the break down of civility in the Senate. He said he would vote against the bills as presented, and then, votes yes anyway. Quite a day. And so much for his words. I'll admit: I thought McCain meant what he said.

Then at least McCain earned respect and praise from President Donald J. Trump. He tweeted: @SenJohnMcCain Thank you for coming to D.C. for such a vital vote. Congrats to all Rep. We can now deliver grt healthcare to all Americans!"

Now that's something -- as is the process itself.

This week's Senate debate on TV will be exciting. Seriously. There will be many hours ahead of members speaking to an empty chamber about why the Affordable Care Act works -- or why it should be repealed. (And lots of images of staff shuffling papers on camera.) Great theater, right? Then every once in a while (about the time paint dries) there will be a call for a vote and the dramatic calling of each senator's name for a vote.

There are two main versions that will surface soon. The first is a repeal -- or at least as much of a repeal as possible with 50 votes -- that's been proposed by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky. That proposal has little chance.

Then later in the week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, will propose an amendment that they're calling a "Skinny Repeal." It would eliminate some taxes, a few more regulations, but leaves Medicaid alone. It's supposed to be something for both moderates who want to leave Medicaid alone and for conservatives who want a repeal. Ha! And remember: If this version passes the Senate the bill will move to a conference committee with the House. That's where the Medicaid cuts will come back. This is a phony negotiating plank.

As the debate unfolds, the Senate is in a way making the case for why we need Native Americans in the legislative process. There will be all kinds of talk about what the law does to Americans, to the poor, to taxpayers, to just about every constituent group in America. What's really needed though is for one senator to explain about the Indian Health system and what havoc all of these proposals would wreak. One senator could say the Indian Health Service has never been fully funded, despite treaty promises, so why strip millions of dollars away. Or ask about Indian children when more than half are covered by Medicaid. Or show why Indian Country needs the jobs that have been created (and will be lost) by these proposals. Better yet: One Native Senator could use data to prove that Medicaid works.

Indian Country deserves to be in this debate. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has been a key opponent of the Republican leadership's health care legislation. It's mostly about Medicaid. I am sure that it's also due to her support of the Alaska Native medical system. She gets it.

But Murkowski will pay a political price for her votes, at least in a primary election. But then she's gone through that before. And won. Not long after the Senate vote on the Motion to Proceed, the Alaska Republican Party said Murkowski abandoned them. Party chairman Tuckerman Babcock said the "repeal of Obamacare is non-negotiable." (Funny: I feel the same way about the Senate alternatives.)

And so the party talks about possible consequences for Murkowski. Babcock said her vote put at risk new oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (would that be true) and said her Energy Committee "chairmanship could be at risk."

And President Donald J. Trump tweeted Wednesday morning: "Senator @lisamurkowski of the Great State of Alaska really let the Republicans, and our country, down yesterday. Too bad!"

So will there be punishment? I would not be so sure. Remember the Republican majority is thin. As I reported last week: Three senators switch sides and it's a new Senate. Two are already really, unhappy. So the way to make it three is for Republicans to continue to attack their own members.

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.

The Senate health plan: Don’t get sick

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The Senate bill, like its House counterpart, has a simple message for Indian Country: Don't get sick. Not in June. Not anytime soon. This bill is not about health care because it takes billions from Medicaid and passes on that savings to wealthy Americans.

How bad could it be? The official financial review from the Congressional Budget Office is expected early next week. The scoring of the similar House bill projected that by next year 14 million more people would be uninsured. And by 2026, an estimated 51 million people under age 65 would be uninsured. Under the House bill only a few million would use tax credits to purchase policies that even then would not cover major medical risks.

So the important takeaway from both the Senate bill and the House version is that it strips money away from Medicaid ($834 billion) and gives back most of those to high-income taxpayers ($664 billion). The Senate bill takes a little time to destroy Medicaid. It begins phasing out the expansion in 2021 and that will be completed by 2024. Then, like the House, Medicaid would become a state block grant program. The Republicans argue that this would control costs, slowing the growth of government spending. (Now Medicaid spending is automatic: If you are eligible, the money is there.)

Medicaid now accounts for about 20 percent of the budget in most Indian health system clinics and hospitals. And, more important, it's a growing source of funding. It pays for medical procedures and for transportation to clinics. It's the big ticket.

But Medicaid is also an odd duck. It's officially a state-federal partnership so the federal government picks up most of the cost and sets some of the rules, while states get to determine other rules. Both the Senate and the House bills would let states do more (such as requiring patients to work) or what's especially what's covered by insurance.

This is particularly messy for Indian Country. Both the Senate and House bills recognize the Indian Health System as unique (and paid for by the federal government). So the legislation preserves the 100 percent federal funding through what's called the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage for Medicaid or FMAP. And in theory both the Senate and House would keep in place federal rules for tribal members on some state requirements such as work rules. But the money would still flow from Washington to the states for administration. Messy (as it often is now). And the states that now have Medicaid expansion, through the Affordable Care Act would have to phase that out.

The biggest problem for Indian Country is that the Senate and House bills would destroy the framework of Medicaid. The bills move health care back to the states in a big way. That can be good or bad. California is debating how to create a single payer system. The Nevada legislature recently passed a Medicaid-for-all statute (where any citizen could buy into the program) only to have the law vetoed by the governor. But other states see health care only as a cost. The thinking goes that Medicaid is just another word for welfare and states should sharply reduce what is spent by government and let hospitals cover the cost of "charity" care.

Some numbers here. The American Hospital Association opposes both bills for one reason. In 1990 uncompensated care cost $12.1 billion or about 6 percent of total hospital expenses. By 2012 that figure reached $45.9 billion. And, after the Affordable Care Act, the total uncompensated care costs dropped to $35.7 billion or 4.2 percent of total hospital expenses, the lowest level in 26 years.

But this shows the futility of cutting Medicaid and insurance programs for the poor. It doesn't save money, it just shifts it around. People who get sick will go to emergency rooms when it's later in their illness and more expensive. So hospitals will cost more for everybody. (But at least the wealthy get their tax break, right?)

The opioid crisis is an example of that. The costs will not go away. Some money will be found by states, cities and tribes. The Senate bill adds a funding stream of $45 billion over 10 years for substance abuse treatment and prevention that's now funded by the Affordable Care Act. But Medicaid expansion has been a key funding source. The Associated Press reports that Medicaid expansion accounted for 61 percent of total Medicaid spending on substance abuse treatment in Kentucky, 56 percent in Michigan, and 43 percent in Ohio.

The Senate has only a few days to consider their version of health care "reform." Already a few conservatives are saying the bill doesn't go far enough and want more changes. This is the script the House used: The conservatives throw a fit, get their way, and then the so-called moderates give in and vote yes anyway.

My bet is that Senate leaders have already written off Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Maine Sen. Susan Collins because of their past support for Planned Parenthood (there are already restrictions against the federal funding of abortion, but the Senate bill says Planned Parenthood cannot bill Medicaid for a year for all women's health services). So I think Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is banking on a fifty-fifty split with Vice President Mike Pence casting the deciding vote.

That means the moderate senators, those that support Medicaid in their states, can say what ever they want now. But it's their vote that will count. Destroy Medicaid or cut taxes? That's the choice for these three: Rob Portman of Ohio, Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia, and Cory Gardner from Colorado. Perhaps it's wishful thinking but I will add Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan to this list because Alaska will be hit particularly hard by the overall legislation, the opioid epidemic, the state's successful expansion of Medicaid, and its impact on the Alaska Native Medical system. Sullivan said on Facebook that he will read every word of the bill and he wants "a sustainable and equitable path forward for Medicaid" and he won't vote for a bill that makes things worse for Alaskans. So will it be his party or Alaskans? Health care or tax cuts?

And, since I am asking already asking questions, will the Senate bill pass next week? Remember it will only take one senator to force the Senate to start over.

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

Not voting in a time of Trump

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One election will not erase what is Donald Trump. Most of his voters see him as the antidote to business as usual. He's shaking thing up (even if there is disagreement on specific issues). Destroying health care? Yes. So what. At least something new will surface.

Montana voters, it would seem, have a lot more at stake than most. This is a state where Medicaid expansion is working well. That very idea will be repealed in the Republican plan. So this election is a big deal.

Except voting is soooo hard. Especially when it's a special election and no one is running for president.

Some numbers: Denise Juneau lost that same congressional district in November earning 201,758 votes to Ryan Zinke's 280,472.

On Thursday Greg Gianforte won with 50.2 percent of the vote and only 189,240. In November 74.44 percent of the electorate showed up. Thursday night it was 54.4 percent.

Glacier County is a case in point. This is where the Blackfeet Nation votes. Juneau won the county by more than two-to-one over Zinke. In November more than 5,000 people voted. Last night: About 2,400.

So Democrats may be soothed by the fact that Gianforte lost nearly 7 points from Zinke's win in November. The idea being that Democrats are picking up strength in a pro-Trump state. But when so few people vote that really has to be seen as an outlier statistic. Matthew Yglesias wrote as much for Vox. That geography determines so much of the Congress and that turns into a Republican advantage. But, "for prognostication purposes you don’t just want to know who wins or loses a special election — you want to know the margin," he writes. "To win by only seven in Montana, a state that Trump won by 20 points, is a clear sign that seats Trump won by four or five points or more aren’t truly safe."

True enough. But it really will depend on who shows up at the polls in 2018.

Yes this was a special election. Yes the rules were confusing (changed along the way) about where to vote and how. That just is a call to better. To figure out how to get more people engaged.

To me the real loss in Montana is that in an era when so much is at stake, 321,000 voters passed. They voted that voting is not all that important.

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

Health will define 2018

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The House of Representatives passed the American Health Care Act by four votes, 217 to 213. The legislation now moves to the U.S. Senate. If this bill becomes law it will do five things: Cut taxes for people who make a lot of money, end health insurance subsidies and much of the coverage from Medicaid, cause more people to go uninsured and eventually bankrupt, and frame the most important political debate in a long time.

Every Republican who voted for this mean-spirited bill must now defend against every American who has any problem with insurance or health care. (I know that’s not fair. But it’s essentially what happened to the Democrats.) You get a doctor’s bill you don’t like: Blame Trump and Ryan. Lose insurance coverage at work: Ditto. This is why the optics are so lousy for Republicans, the health care system is now their mess.

Oh. I know. This bill is not law yet. And it’s not likely to be. But it doesn't matter. Months after the House voted its first repeal of the Affordable Care Act people reported that they thought the law was gone. It was not then. Nor now.

Remember the House bill still must get through the Senate and that body is as divided as the House. But one difference is that there is a constituency in the Senate for Medicaid. (As I have been writing: This is the most significant impact on Indian Country. This bill doesn't just repeal the Affordable Care Act, it ends Medicaid as we know it. Medicaid insures more than half of all children in the Indian Health system and it accounts for 13 percent of the Indian Health Service budget.)

At least four Republican Senators, Rob Portman (Ohio), Shelley Moore Capito (West Virginia), Cory Gardner (Colorado), and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) have been clear about their support for Medicaid and Medicaid expansion. (Medicaid is a state, federal partnership to provide health care for families with low incomes. The Affordable Care Act expanded that to single people and lowered the income limits to 138 percent of federal poverty guidelines. The numbers are huge. Before the ACA about 56 million people were insured by Medicaid. Today the number is nearly 75 million.)

A bloc of four senators - if they don't budge - has the power to say "no" to any legislation. This is the Medicaid Protection Block. And Republicans only have two votes to spare in the Senate because all of the Democrats will likely oppose this measure (as they did in the House). So the thing is that if the Senate language satisfies theMedicaid Protection Block that will enrage the Freedom Caucus in the House. That bloc stuck together and killed the House's first version of the legislation, so the second version was even more to their liking (removing federal requirements to provide basic health services including pre-existing conditions).

Complicated, right? Add to that mix the conservative members of the Senate who don't think this bill goes far enough in the outright repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Sen. Paul Rand (Kentucky) said on Fox News: "It will take a little bit of work to get me to 'yes' vote on health care bill." In other words make the bill more ideological, not something that will get support from the Medicaid Protection Bloc.

And if that's not complicated enough, there are also Republicans in the Senate that object to the bill's attack on Planned Parenthood because of the impact of such a policy on women's health. That bloc includes Murkowski and Maine's Susan Collins.

Complex or not, no matter what comes out of the Senate (unless it's the House bill exactly) the House will have to vote again. Then the illogical Freedom Caucus gets another shot at defying their own party leadership.

But the real politics of Wednesday's action is not in Congress. It's playing out on social media and communities across the country. It's the idea that this vote was a definition for the next election. One side believes that health care is not a right. The other sees the Affordable Care Act as imperfect, but a step in the right direction.

Indian Country should be included in this debate. And we're not. Our right to health care is simple, it's based on treaties, history, and thus a pre-payment for whatever insurance mechanism the country comes up with. The Affordable Care Act at least opens up an avenue to fully fund the Indian Health system something that's never been accomplished before.

This is also the ideal moment for Indian Country to have more of a say. This is when a political coalition can be built around idea that health care is a right. Health care is already defining the 2018 elections.

And the politics of that start in Red states (those that voted for President Donald J. Trump). This bill, in a quest for free market purity (if that's even possible in health care), would benefit young people, healthy people, and people who live in cities. And paying for that experiment are older people, sicker people, and rural people.

Alaska is at the top of this list. The Affordable Care Act pays insurance companies to help keep costs down. The Republican plan ends that business. The result: "Consumers in 11 states would see tax credits fall by more than $3,000 on average, or more than 50 percent, and consumers in seven states would lose an average of more than $4,000. In Alaska, by far the highest-premium state, the average reduction in tax credits would be $10,200, or 78 percent," according to a study by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

And that doesn't even include Medicaid. Another study on that issue found the program saved Alaska significant dollars, projecting a billion dollar return after a decade. The state's Commissioner of the Department of Health and Social Services, Valerie Davidson, told KTUU News that "with our $3.5 billion budget deficit, we don’t have an additional one billion dollars more to pay for services that we currently have, we just can’t afford it."

She also said the House bill would strip behavioral health funding when it's so important in the middle of an opioid epidemic.

So for an Alaska representative, one that works for constituents, this should have been a no-brainer. This bill is terrible for Alaska. Last week Rep. Don Young said as much. He claimed victory when the previous bill was pulled from consideration without a vote. He told The Alaska Dispatch News: "My job is to represent those people in that state, and I think we did this this week. I work with (House Speaker Paul Ryan), don't get me wrong — the speaker talked to me quite a bit. But it didn't come to a point where I could support this bill. He needed my vote."

The bill that passed Wednesday is not significantly different. Alaska is still hosed. And Don Young voted "yes." Now he says, don't worry, this bill will not become law. The Senate will change it.

That's basically the position of Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican in leadership, and a member of the Chickasaw Nation. He told National Public Radio: "This thing is going to go to the United States Senate. It's going to change, in my view, in the United States Senate in some way. Then we have to have a Congress -- a conference to work out the differences. If we can do that, then it has to still pass the House and the Senate again before it ever gets to the president. So, you know, at some point, you just have to move. And we think this is it and that this will create some momentum. Again, I'm interested to see what our friends in the Senate will do in response."

Cole is a champion for Indian health programs, especially when it comes to the budget. He's often the critical voice and the only Native American at the table when budgets are written. However he dismisses Medicaid Expansion quickly because Oklahoma is one of the states that's passed. Ok. We disagree. Understandable.

But this House measure is not just about Medicaid Expansion; it's a radical restructuring of Medicaid and capping costs. Even in Oklahoma Medicaid serves more than 800,000 people. And, remember that Medicaid is 13 percent of the IHS budget, more than $800 million now and growing. Already more than half of our children are insured this way. Plus this is the best kind of money because it's used by local clinics and hospitals.

This is what Tom Cole, Don Young, and 215 other Republicans voted to take away from Indian Country. This is what's on the ballot next year.

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