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Deep spending cuts

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House and Senate negotiators have reached a deal on a budget resolution. That agreement then would go to each House for a vote. (An outcome that is not certain.) But, if it passes, it would be the first budget enacted by Congress in six years.

Let’s be clear about this plan: It would require deep spending cuts in federal Indian programs.

While the budget itself is not law, it sets limits for each of the appropriations committees to follow. According to a report from The Associated Press the draft document adds some $40 billion to military spending and calls for deep cuts to all domestic programs, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service.

“The plan sets broad budget goals but by itself has little teeth; instead, painful follow-up legislation would be required to actually balance the budget,” the AP said. “It also permits the GOP majority to suspend the Senate’s filibuster rule and deliver a special measure known as a reconciliation bill to Obama without the threat of Democratic opposition. Republicans plan to use the special filibuster-proof bill to wage an assault on Obama’s Affordable Care Act rather than try to impose a variety of painful cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, student loans, and other so-called mandatory programs over Obama’s opposition.”

The House budget is blunt about the next steps required to balance the budget within a decade, including repeal of the Affordable Care Act. “None of the reforms proposed in this budget will be able to solve the underlying challenges in our health care system so long as Obamacare remains on the books. Our budget fully repeals Obamacare,” according to the budget plan.

This very notion sets up an debate. President Barrack Obama would need to sign any appropriation into law — so a veto threat has merit. But the Congress still must pass a bill to appropriate money that would defy their own budget rules on programs such as the Indian Health Service (because some of that agency’s authorizing legislation is the Affordable Care Act. Remember: The Indian Health Care Improvement Act is a chapter of the ACA.)

This debate is going to be difficult to resolve.

At the same moment that the Congress is pursuing its latest “repeal” of the Affordable Care Act more states, even states controlled by Republicans, are moving forward with an expansion of Medicaid. This may be the most important part of the Affordable Care Act, especially for Indian Country because it’s adding new dollars to the underfunded health care system. Montana is the latest state to expand Medicaid. (more…)

A million lines of code

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

No child grows up hearing — or asking — for numbers. Instead the four words, “tell me a story,” are the ones deeply embedded into our human software. And that will never change. But the power of numbers, the importance of data, is growing exponentially and becoming essential to how we understand larger narratives.

Then this is not new. The use of statistics, counts, numbers, all have always been a part of how we tell stories. Buffalo hide paintings are great examples from another century. Pictographs recorded people, buffalo, soldiers, villages, and meteor storms. The data was recorded. Then we did the same things with ledgers, books, computer tapes, and a couple of decades ago floppy discs, CDs, and thumb drives. Today we carry more data capacity in our phone than we ever had in our offices and homes. And what’s on that recording? IBM once estimated that the content of all of human history totaled some 5 exabytes (or five billion gigabytes of information). Now we produce that many videos, pictures, and words every couple of days.

We need more useful numbers — and this is one of Indian Country’s great challenges in an era of both austerity and transparency. In 1900 the Bureau of Indian Affairs budget was $8.2 million. It took nearly 80 years before that funding level topped a billion dollars. Then the first $2 billion was in 2001. Last year $ 2.6 billion. And the Obama administration’s current request is for $2.924 billion. (I am working on a history of Indian appropriations — more on that soon.)

So I have been thinking about these numbers in the context of the recent narrative about Native youth. The stories themselves are inspiring, starting with the president’s visit with young people in North Dakota, followed by the recent meeting at the White House. As First Lady Michelle Obama put it: “So we all need to work together to invest deeply — and for the long-term — in these young people, both those who are living in their tribal communities … and those living in urban areas across this country. These kids have so much promise — and we need to ensure that they have every tool, every opportunity they need to fulfill that promise.”

This is where the numbers and the story intersect.

A commitment to invest deeply and for the long-term requires serious cash and resources. The president’s budget matches that rhetoric with a budget request of $1 billion to promote Generation Indigenous, an initiative designed for Native American youth. “In today’s global economy a high quality education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity – it is a prerequisite to success,” the Interior Department said. “President Obama set out a vision for a 21st century education system grounded in both high academic standards and tribal values and traditions. Making advanced education opportunities available for tribal members is a high priority for tribes, who see education as the path to economic development and a better quality of life for their communities through an educated and skilled tribal member workforce.” (more…)

Leave this cheap oil in the ground

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

Could we be nearing the moment to really address climate change?

A quick answer is “no.” Of course not.

The Republicans in Congress are hell-bent on pretending that climate change does not exist let along agree to any shifts in policy. So they continue to fight for the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. As the House Energy and Commerce Committee tells the story, the pipeline expansion “would carry up to 830,000 barrels of oil per day 875 miles from Alberta, Canada to Steele City, Nebraska. From there, the oil would go to refineries in the Midwest and Gulf Coast. The new pipeline would also transport some of the rapidly-increasing oil production from the Bakken formation in North Dakota and Montana.”

But here is the thing: There is already a glut of oil and the idea of adding more makes no sense.

As National Public Radio reported last week “there has been some concern that the U.S. will run out of places to put it all. Some analysts speculate that could spark another dramatic crash in oil prices.” How big a decline is an unknown. NPR quotes a Citigroup analyst saying $20 a barrel is possible. Others predict a continued fall in oil, to, say, $35 a barrel. Oil is a commodity and traded on public markets. So the price depends on perception about its supply and scarcity.

One reason why there is so much oil out there is that people are using less. The Nation recently wrote that the Energy Information Administration “projected that global oil demand would reach 103.2 million barrels per day in 2015; now, it's lowered that figure for this year to only 93.1 million barrels. Those 10 million "lost" barrels per day in expected consumption may not seem like a lot, given the total figure, but keep in mind that Big Oil's multibillion-dollar investments in tough energy were predicated on all that added demand materializing, thereby generating the kind of high prices needed to offset the increasing costs of extraction. With so much anticipated demand vanishing, however, prices were bound to collapse.”

I happen to think the decline in consumption is a long-term trend. There are a couple of reasons for that. The first is that people drive less after 40 years old — and the Baby Boom is long past that. A New Direction Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future, a 2013 report by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund found that “Americans drive no more miles in total today than we did in 2004 and no more per person than we did in 1996.”

And, while Baby Boomers are less inclined to drive, the Millennial generation is thinking about transportation differently, “driving significantly less than previous generations of young Americans. Millennials are already the largest generation in the United States and their choices will play a crucial role in determining future transportation infrastructure needs.”

Even if gas prices stay low these trends are not likely to reverse. As the New Direction report points out: “If the Millennial-led decline in per capita driving continues for another dozen years, even at half the annual rate … total vehicle travel in the United States could remain well below its 2007 peak through at least 2040—despite a 21 percent increase in population.” (more…)

Natives explore the next 10,000

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

What will Alaska look like in 10,000 years? Who will be here? What will they do? And, most important, what will preserved from the past kilennium?

These are not easy questions. Even thinking about the next decade, let alone thousands of years, is interrupted by every crisis that requires attention. There is business to transact. Cell phones buzz. Unanswered emails compound. And, so, we think about the now, not the next.

What if we step back and only think about the future? We turn off our phones, don’t answer email, and ignore interruption.

The First Alaskans Institute recently gathered a group of people together for a week in Bethel to have that very conversation. Elizabeth Medicine Crow said that very idea is a part of the institute’s vision and came from the founding board members. “I think intuitively it makes a lot of sense for Native people. But I also think for most people it’s really hard to wrap their arms around, ‘what does that mean? For 10,000 years.’ It’s really not so much of a mystery for us because we can actually turn around and look directly at our past because we’ve been here for longer than that. We know that as stewards of our time, on behalf of our people, that we have at minimum a trajectory of that much time to look forward to.”

Medicine Crow, who’s president of the institute, said it was a chance to convene a diverse gathering of people who were eager to think deeply about “where we’re going.”

“So it’s not just corporations, it’s not just tribes, it’s not just non-profits, it’s also artists, it’s elders, it’s young people, mothers and fathers, aunties and uncles, storytellers, performers, it was a real mix” she said. “It’s non-hierarchical. So it’s not just people who have a title. Leadership to us is our Native people who are stepping up to help our communities and to help our people.”

Medicine Crow is Tlingit and Haida from Kake. She told a story about a lesson she learned from Polynesian navigators. “The traditional practice of sailing by the stars requires that they set their bow looking forward but they are navigating from the stars behind them because from that they can know the direction their bow is going. I think that is such a powerful analogy about the way our ancestors think about time. And the way we should think about it, too.”

The long story that reflects the Alaska Native experience — or Native America’s for that matter — is mostly about the interruptions from the past century or two. So the current challenges are not the norm, certainly not over a 10,000 year history, but nonetheless require our attention to get back on course.

And some of this course correction requires immediate action. In less than fifteen years, for example, Alaska will have a higher percentage of Alaska Natives, Asian Americans, Hispanics and African Americans than white people. “The state is already super-diverse. It may not look or feel that way depending on where you’re from in the state but as a whole the state is really diverse. As we continue to march through time, especially for Alaska Native populations, most of our population is under the age of 25 and that birth rate is only increasing. So if you apply that to all the other populations, the same thing is happening, plus we’re having so many more people move up. What Alaska will look like on its face is going to be a lot different by the year 2040 than it does today.” (more…)

On the House budget

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

The House Budget Committee unveiled its budget Tuesday — and the details are not good news for Indian Country.

First: The budget calls for more spending cuts than any previous Republican budget, some $5.5 trillion over the next decade. The pay off would be a balanced budget. But most of those cuts fall into “domestic” spending and that’s the source of most of the federal dollars for Indian Country.

Second: The budget repeals the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. “Obamacare is not working for America’s families, doctors or employers. It is imperative that the President’s health care law be repealed so that we can start over and make targeted, common sense reforms that will improve access to affordable health care choices,” the House Budget committee said.

“This budget repeals Obamacare in its entirety – including all of the tax increases, regulations, subsidies, and mandates” the House Budget committee said. That includes the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

The proposal would also transform Medicaid into a block grant program, giving the money directly to states. Medicaid now represents some 20 percent of the Indian health system funding.

In a language that’s not English, the report said, “the budget repeals Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion so the program is able to focus on its core mission of serving those in our communities most in need of assistance.” Translation: We’re cutting insurance for those who can least afford insurance. This is nuts. The Medicaid expansion has been the key to making health insurance more available. Since the enactment of the Affordable Care Act there has been a 35 percent decline in the uninsured, according to new data from the Department of Health and Human Services. Nearly 17 million people have insurance coverage under the law. The House budget offers no replacement provisions for those who would lose their health insurance coverage.

This report is full of Orwellian language. Another of my favorites is this line: “We do not invite the across-the-board sequestration cut that would occur if we were to simply budget or appropriate a defense spending level that is above the existing cap mandated under current law.” In other words, the sequester applies to every other part of government, but not Defense. As I mentioned in my last post, this is an attempt to balance the interests of those in Congress who want deep spending cuts with those who want more money for defense.

The budget does not actually appropriate dollars. That is still the job of appropriations committees. But this document would be an overall limit to spending and would force the folks writing budgets to keep their numbers below the caps. This budget is similar to Paul Ryan’s recent approaches to spending and House Democrats said that would mean a cut of at least $375 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and a $637 million reduction for the Indian Health Service. But that’s just in direct appropriations. If you reduce Medicaid that could trim as much as a billion dollars from Indian health programs.

The Senate will unveil its budget later this week as well. The goal is to have a budget enacted before April 15. The Senate’s budget will not require a supermajority, by rule it cannot be filibustered. So this budget will reflect the will of the Republican majority in both Houses. The budget still will face a likely veto, especially since it includes a repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the freeTrahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

The battle is about to get ugly

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

The battle over federal spending is about to get ugly. Real ugly.

It’s been a Republican promise to balance the federal budget within a decade. And in an election campaign that promise look soooo easy. Cut a penny here, another there, and somehow, magically, revenues match spending and there’s a balanced budget. Since Republicans now control both the House and the Senate this should be a done deal, right?

But that’s not how it happens in the real world. In the federal system there are all kinds of fiscal obligations that move through the system automatically. If a person is eligible for Medicare or Medicaid … then the money is spent. Congress doesn’t have to appropriate a cent. The automatic side of the budget is growing because Baby Boomers are older and drawing more benefits such as Social Security.

But that’s only the beginning of this complex spending debate.

The money spent on American Indians and Alaska Natives is a tiny fraction, far less than one percent of the overall budget. Yet every idea to cut federal spending ends up significantly impacting tribal communities, making it impossible for tribal leaders to plan ahead, and disrupting ongoing initiatives ranging from education to economic development. The president’s budget would benefit Indian Country.

And while there are supporters of Indian Country initiatives in Congress, the bigger issue is the overall budget and how much pressure there will be to trim spending for all every federal agencies.

The president’s budget does address the deficit. The Congressional Budget Office reports that the spending plan would have “no net effect” on the deficit in 2015 but would reduce deficits between 2016 and 2025.

But that’s not enough for those in Congress who demand a balanced budget. And even the sequester was not enough to do that.

Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, told a Senate panel that “the reality is that balancing the budget for any sustained period is probably not in our immediate future.” The budget would have to shrink by $5.5 trillion in ten years or eight times the size of the sequester plan and 65 times the Ryan-Murray budget deal (which didn’t last long).

You might think those numbers would be big enough, deep enough, to scare off even committed Republicans. And that’s true — when it comes to Defense spending.

Defense News quoted Sen. John McCain saying he will do “whatever it takes to avert sequester on defense. I will not agree to any budget that does not stop sequestration. We just had testimony this morning that will put the lives of American men and women in uniform in danger if we continue with sequestration.”

So that’s fight number one. Republicans who want to live up to a balanced budget pledge versus Republicans who want to end the sequester — at least as far as military spending. In a lot of ways this will be a contest of wills between the House and the Senate.

So which budget will prevail? The president’s budget — at least in terms of overall spending — has no chance. Congressional budgets will be unveiled shortly and then the fight begins and we can start to wonder what kind of last minute deal will be needed to keep the government operational.

As I said, the battle over federal spending is about to get ugly.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

The power of Native voters

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

I have been writing for years about the success — well, at least mostly — of Native American voters. During recent presidential election cycles the turnout from Indian Country is inspiring, helping to swing elections from Arizona to North Dakota.

And just last year Alaska Native voters helped dump a hostile state governor and replaced him with Gov. Bill Walker, an ally, as well as electing Byron Mallott, a Tlingit leader, as the Lt. Governor.

But do you want to know something really cool?

The demographic shift that reflects Native voting power is only beginning. What’s more the landscape is changing faster than expected and should bring about dramatic changes in states as “red” as Alaska and Oklahoma.

A new report looks at the numbers and the results are stunning. In 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected president the population of the United States was 80 percent white. Today that proportion stands at 63 percent and it’s likely to be less than 44 percent by 2060. The report, “The States of Change: Demographics and Democracy” is a collaboration of the liberal Center for American Progress, the conservative American Enterprise Institute and demographer William H. Frey of the Brookings Institution. One of the goals is to “document and analyze the challenges to democracy posed by the rapid demographic evolution from the 1970s to 2060.”

One lens that is particularly revealing: States where people of color are the majority. The report said: “Right now, there are only four majority-minority states: California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas. But with the ongoing demographic transformation of the country, our States of Change projections find that this will become more and more common.” So in five years Maryland and Nevada will be in that category. Then by 2060 the number of majority-minority states will reach 22, including seven of the currently largest states, making up about two-thirds of the country’s population.

American Indians and Alaska Natives are very much a part of this new majority because we are younger and growing faster than an older white population. (more…)

Unfinished business for Alaska tribes

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

Do Alaska Native tribes posses sovereignty?

A simple question. And, in Indian Country, the answer is usually a quick “yes.” Of course. But in Alaska just asking this question is an act of defiance. The state and many of its citizens have assumed, planned, and operated on the premise that tribal powers no longer exist, so the state is free to impose its will on Alaska Natives.

A simple question that’s framed by dueling narratives. One story says the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act — ANCSA — was a termination bill that should have extinguished tribal sovereignty. The other counters saying ANCSA was primarily a land settlement. A land bill that did create native corporations but did not answer questions about governance.

A simple question with multiple answers. Alaska, however, has stuck to a refusal to recognize tribal authority and has spent millions of dollars on litigation. In one such case, a federal court recognized tribal communities’ authority to put land into trust, removing lands from state control and a recognition of Indian Country (a status similar to reservations in other states). Alaska appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.

Then in November a new governor was elected. Bill Walker, an independent, and he promised a new way of doing business. A Walker transition team report said: “Where no tools exist, they must be created, such as establishing a mechanism (e.g., legislation, constitutional amendment, etc.) where Alaska tribes – as sovereign nations they are – negotiate and partner with the state of Alaska on an officially recognized, permanent government-to -government basis.”

But on Feb. 9, the state of Alaska fell into its old patterns. It asked the appeals for a six-month stay to rethink its policy followed by some sort of status report. The state said: “The central issue in this appeal is purely legal: whether the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act precludes the creation of new trust land in Alaska. However the decision whether to continue to pursue a judicial remedy, seek congressional action, or determine and implementing strategies for integrating trust land into Alaska’s ownership pattern — with the resulting impacts to state regulatory jurisdiction — are policy matters entrusted to a state administration that was inaugurated only a few weeks ago. As the state’s chief executive, the governor has the authority and obligation to frame state policy.”

I can think of a lot of governors who like the notion of absolute state authority, especially when it conflicts with tribal communities. But the hashtag would read: #NeverGonnaHappen. Native Americans have a right, even an obligation, to govern ourselves. (more…)

Planting ideas (colleges)

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

Congress has recognized the importance and the value of tribal colleges. A Senate resolution sets Feb. 8 as the “National Tribal Colleges and Universities Week.”

There are 32 fully accredited tribal colleges and universities on some 75 campuses across the country, reaching thousands of students, delivering higher education for a fraction of the cost of other public institutions.

“All across America we have teachers helping students in some of the poorest, most remote corners of our nation. We have students who are committed to persevering, have been raised with the cultural strength of their tribe, and are determined to shine brighter to make this world a better place,” said U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, and sponsor of the resolution. “In North Dakota, I’ve been awestruck by the commitment I’ve seen from our educators and staff at all five of our tribal colleges to engaging with our Native kids – to showing them that they can achieve higher and grow stronger both personally and professionally.”

But when it comes to public policy, tribal colleges do not get the resources required.

A few weeks ago, the Atlantic published a critical report about tribal colleges and called them a “poor return on more than $100 million a year in federal money.” And, a top line of a hundred million sounds like a lot of money. The primary complaint was that the schools’ graduation rates are lower than other institutions.

But here is the rub: The same report acknowledged how much less is being spent on Native students. “Congress sets tribal college funding and is authorized by federal law to give schools a maximum of $8,000 per student. But in reality the schools get $5,850 per student on average. And that funding can be used only for Native American students; nearly a fifth of those enrolled don’t identify as Native,” wrote Sarah Butrymowicz for The Atlantic. “Howard University, a historically black college, by comparison averages more than $20,000 per student from the federal government.”

And that’s just the beginning. A report by the Century Foundation estimates the total cost for a community college averages $10,242 per student.

But The Atlantic piece seemed to blame tribal colleges themselves for inadequate resources — and a performance metric based only on graduation rates.

Fortunately there is another way to look at this issue. The Montana Legislature is considering legislation that would boost funding non-Indian students who attend tribal colleges on a per student basis. A bill by Rep. Susan Webber, D-Browning, would match the amount of funding that state community colleges receive on a per capita basis. Under current state law tribal colleges — seven based in Montana — receive about half as much per student as community colleges. Non-Indian students make up nearly a third of the student body at Montana’s tribal colleges. As Blackfeet Community College President Billie Jo Kipp put it: “Compared to what Dawson Community College gets, we get $3,000. They get $6,740. We provide similar services, we provide similar—if not more—training programs, workforce development programs, to non-Natives as well.”

Tribal colleges remain, in my mind, an unfair bargain. A bargain because they deliver higher education at a much lower cost per student. And an unfair bargain because they should not have to do that. There should be the resources available to get the job done.

Tribal colleges serve another critical role. Let me explain. If you look at the economy of a local community, pick the town, you’ll find that there are often four pillars of activity that create jobs. These are: government, health care, higher education and private sector. We know that government (tribal and federal) plays a huge role in any reservation economy. It’s the same with Indian health (now Indian Country’s single largest employer). In communities with strong tribal colleges, that becomes a third leg for economic development because there’s an infrastructure surrounding a campus that creates good gigs ranging from professors to maintenance workers. The fourth leg, the private sector, is usually the weakest link for a lot of reasons. (more…)

The ObamaCare soap opera

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

The House of Representatives voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act on February 3. Then, this is not new. The House has voted nearly sixty times to either revoke the law or to make huge changes. But this time the House and the Senate are in Republican hands. So that means what was a symbolic act now has the potential of becoming law.

Well, maybe.

The Affordable Care Act is like a national soap opera that should rivet any audience. Will the law survive? What sort of challenges does it face legally and politically? And, most important, what does this daytime drama mean to Indian Country?

Here is the story so far.

Turn back to to 1974. President Gerald Ford signed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act into law, a measure that modernized the federal delivery of health care in Indian Country. But that law had an expiration date; it needed another act of Congress to renew it. And that did not happen. Congress let the bill lapse despite repeated attempts. That’s where the story takes a turn. The whole health care reform debate was heating up and folks in Congress decided to roll the Indian Health Care Improvement Act into the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. This language was shortened to the Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare” — and it’s now the law of the land. The Indian health provisions were made permanent so future Congresses would not have to renew them.

The Affordable Care Act had other benefits to Indian Country. The law improved funding channels for Indian health facilities, a source of money that’s growing during lean budget years. Next year’s Indian Health Service budget estimates more than $1.1 billion collected from Medicaid, Medicare, Veterans Health Administration and private insurance.

But Republicans have been adamantly against the Affordable Care Act. Four years ago a Republican House was elected and that body started voting over and over to repeal the law. But nothing ever happened because the Democratic controlled Senate ignored the actions in the House.

But like any good soap opera there are new characters joining the story. The Supreme Court could strike down part of the law, causing a lot of confusion. And the Senate is now run by Republicans who will definitely consider the House legislation to repeal the law. This will not be easy. The Senate usually needs 60 votes in order to pass legislation (stopping the threat of a filibuster). And there are not 60 votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

That's another twist. Democrats were short 60 votes back in 2010 — so they turned to an arcane process called budget reconciliation that allowed the legislation to pass with a simple majority, or 51 votes. Now many Republicans are asking their party leaders to do the same thing and use the budget reconciliation to repeal the Affordable Care Act. That idea would probably work if there was a Republican in the White House. But you can bet that President Barack Obama will veto any attempt to roll back his signature health care legislation. So that means Congress would need a two-thirds majority to override a presidential veto. There are not nearly enough votes in either the House or the Senate to do that.

But many Republicans see repeal (enacted or not) as an important statement that will define the 2016 election campaigns. (more…)

A possible climate turning point

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

Consider the massive storm that resulted in a state of emergency throughout much of New England with temperatures in the teens, gusty winds, and snow measured by the foot not the inch. We know from the science that climate change will make storms more severe and more common.

It’s also the moment when the Obama administration stepped up to preserve the environment — as well as protect Alaska Native communities — by limiting future oil and gas development in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and along the Coastal Plain.

A White House blog put it this way: “This far northern region is known as “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins” to Alaska Native communities. The Refuge sustains the most diverse array of wildlife in the entire Arctic — home not only to the Porcupine caribou, but to polar bears, gray wolves, and muskoxen. Bird species from the Coastal Plain migrate to all 50 states of the country — meaning that no matter where you live, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is part of your landscape.”

But pretty much all of official Alaska saw this issue differently. On Capitol Hill, Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski said the administration has “effectively declared war on Alaska. That’s my view of it.”

“It’s a one-two-three kick to the gut of Alaska’s economy,” she said, adding that the governor told the Secretary of Interior that Alaska has a budget hole of about $3.5 billion — a problem that will be made worse without more oil production.

And this is an odd time for Alaska. The state budgeted for oil to be selling at more than a hundred dollars a barrel — and now the price is less than half that. This is a state that an oil and gas trade group brags that 92 percent of the state’s revenues come from that single industry.

So Alaska has had a grand old time with its oil money. Instead of a personal income tax, Alaskans receive their version of a tribal per capita every year. In fact Alaska ranks second lowest in the country in overall taxes (Wyoming is first) but that figure is skewed because nearly all of the money comes from corporate taxes. There is no income tax or sales tax.

Perhaps this serious budget shortage might actually force Alaska citizens to contribute to their state and pay taxes the way, oh, 49 other states and the District of Columbia do. (more…)

Unlocking digital tools

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

It’s time for State of the Unions. President Barack Obama, of course, on Tuesday. Then, a variety of state reports across the country. And, on Thursday, Indian Country’s national version, the State of Indian Nations. National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby spent about an hour talking about some of the challenges facing the more than five hundred tribal governments.

“Today, I bring a simple message from the tribes of the 21st Century: We must tear down barriers to growth, simplify regulations that are limiting opportunities, and acknowledge that tribes have the capability as governments to oversee our own affairs,” Cladoosby said. “Congress and the administration need to find ways to help bring federal agencies out of the 19th Century and into the 21st Century. We need them to be partners for growth and not barriers to growth.”

President Cladoosby’s talk covered much ground — a lot of material critical to tribal governments, such as rethinking the federal-trust relationship, an invitation for leaders of Congress to visit Indian Country, and for Washington’s NFL franchise to finally, finally, change its name.

I’d like to expand on two themes from the State of the Indian Nations speech — youth and technology.

The most common age in America today is 22 years old. This year, 2015, the Millennial Generation will pass the Baby Boomers as the largest-age group in the country. Indian Country is even younger than the rest of the nation. The American Indian Alaska Native population from birth through age 24 makes up 42 percent of the total Native American population (compared to about a third for country as a whole.)

We are at a moment in history where we really ought to be investing more resources in young people. Yet, instead, as President Obama said in his State of the Union, we’re loading up this generation with student debt — a total that now exceeds a trillion dollars. This is the logic behind the president’s call to make community college free. A proposal that will benefit Indian Country, including tribal colleges and universities.

But this is also about technology. We need a structure to prepare people for jobs that don’t yet exist. (more…)