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Posts published in “Trahant”

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…)

State of the Union mentions

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

Indian Country is rarely mentioned during a presidential State of the Union. That’s too bad. There is so much a president could do to improve the administration of federal Indian policy.

The president could urge Congress to fund Treaty Right obligations as automatic. After all, it’s essentially the same kind of spending as interest on the federal debt. (A cost, by the way, that the Congressional Budget Office figures will triple in a decade, reaching some $800 billion.)

Or insist on multi-year budgets for the Indian health system, making it much easier to plan ahead, be more efficient, and improve health care.

In a perfect world the president would ask Congress to invest in the next generation of American Indians and Alaska Natives. Everyone talks about how important young people are — so why not do something and something substantial?

Funny thing about that last point: That’s exactly what President Barack Obama will propose in his annual message to Congress.

The United States “dedicated ourselves to cultivating the most educated workforce in the world and we invested in what’s one of the crown jewels of this country, and that's our higher education system. And dating back to Abraham Lincoln, we invested in land-grant colleges. We understood that this was a hallmark of America, this investment in education. But eventually, the world caught on and the world caught up,” he said in a Knoxville, Tennessee, speech, a preview of the State of the Union. “And that’s why we have to lead the world in education again.”

In an economy where knowledge and technology fuel the future the president said “the single most important way to get ahead is not just to get a high school education, you’ve got to get some higher education.”

Even though the president’s message was broad, he was also giving an apt description of the 37 tribal colleges and universities. Then again, the president is not new to this issue. He’s already championed increasing opportunity for Native students, most recently signing an executive order affirming that commitment.

So any boost in funding for community colleges will likely result in more money for tribal colleges too and that’s a smart investment for a lot of reasons.

First consider the big picture, the budget. It’s clear that the US government is on an austerity course. Money for education and other domestic programs has been shrinking not growing (measured by share of the economy). But the entitlement side of the budget —
Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare — is getting more expensive because of the sheer size of the Baby Boom generation.

The problem is that the country is not investing enough in the next generation; instead it’s saddling young people with student debt, now exceeding some $1.2 trillion (more than any other type of household debt). It’s we Baby Boomers who should be shouting about the stupidity of this policy. Fact is we need young people to be as successful as possible, as quickly as possible, to pay for our retirement. The generation called the Echo Boomers is huge, some 90 million people. (The most common age in America right now is 22 years old.) (more…)

Old gimmicks and governing

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

We just watched the end of The Old School Congress. It passed bills with thousands of pages, giving permission to members in the House and Senate to sneak legislation into larger bills. And better: To do so in a way without transparency or consequences.

Arizona’s Rio Tinto mine giveaway is a case in point. Actual legislation to support an Australian mining company never found support; it’s not smart politics. Which senator (other than John McCain who has long championed the deal) was willing to go before voters and say this is a good deal? But tucking into a Defense Authorization bill? Old school.

It’s a similar story for Sealaska and lands that were part of a promise under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. This time the old school process worked in favor of Alaska Natives. “Words cannot describe how pleased we are that this lands bill has passed through Congress,” said Sealaska President and CEO Anthony Mallott. And, unlike the Rio Tinto deal, this one was transparent. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski was clear about her role in the deal.

The budget bill that Congress passed — the so-called cromnibus — was very much old school. It was signed into law Tuesday. It’s a massive spending bill, $1.1 trillion worth, wrapping up all sorts of regular appropriations with one page or one paragraph special deals that were inserted into the nearly 1,700 page document at the last minute.

But old school has its benefits. Federal Indian programs — especially the Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs — were funded with modest increases. This budget means the rest of the year — from now until the end of September — should be drama free. Agencies will know how much money is available and what can be done.

But this is when the Old School ends. In a few days a new Republican Congress takes over. While many leaders are fond of the process — the give and take of legislation — the core of the party’s constituency is dismissive. The new school sees legislation as simple, clear and transparent. Not bad values, at that. But they also see legislation as either good or evil. And federal spending is not good.

What’s missing from the discourse, then, is the reality that we are already in an era of austerity. Most federal spending has been declining for five years straight and cutting domestic spending even more will not produce the kind of results that the New School wants. (more…)

New Alaska governor, new vision

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

Alaskans from across the state met on the campus of the University of Alaska Anchorage over the weekend to talk about the transition to a new governor’s administration. The process itself was unusual, a crowded, open forum about ideas.

But even more rare: The depth of participation by Alaska Native leaders, chairing several key committees, participating on panels, and having a say in what happens next.

The co-chair for the Gov.-elect Bill Walker and Lt. Gov-elect Byron Mallott is Ana Hoffman, executive and president of the Bethel Native Corp. and co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives. She read a statement Sunday said the public transition process was designed as a “collaboration” and “to create a vision for Alaska.”

That vision represents a significant shift. Starting with this sentence: “We should identify best practices and utilize tribal structures to capture the values in our state,” Hoffman reported.

Think about that for a minute. In a state where the idea of native governance has been reduced to only a for-profit corporate model, the new leaders’ of the state are talking about using tribal structures to improve values and lives. In other words: Tribal governments matter. Even in Alaska.

Hoffman’s articulation of the transition principles carried forth some other radical notions.

— That Medicaid expansion can lead to self-sufficiency (as well as improved health care). This is exactly right. Medicaid dollars for the Alaska Native medical system, like the Indian health system in other states, is funded by federal dollars. That means more health care dollars; a bigger pie.

— “We have covered the entire spectrum from education to oil and gas and we recognize there are greater economic development opportunities ahead for Alaska,” Hoffman said.

— And, I love this, the document says, “We all agree to put fish first.”

This is how it should be. In a world where fish come first, there is a natural order, a sanctity of life, and a guarantee of clean water and health families.

Gov.-elect Walker praised Craig Fleener who had been his running mate until the fusion ticket came together with Mallott. Fleener, Athabascan, is a former deputy commissioner of Fish and Game and has worked for tribal governments. “This is the guy,” Walker said describing their conversation when he asked him to withdraw from the ballot. “He said, ‘OK. But you had better win.’ Without that, Byron and I would not be standing here today.” (more…)

Welcome to 21st century Alaska

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

Watching Alaska politics, for me, has been like looking back in time. The animosity of state institutions toward Alaska Natives is all too familiar. It’s Arizona during the 1950s and 1960s. Or Washington state during the 1960s and 1970s. Or Montana just after the turn of the new century. Not that those states are perfect now. Far from it. But what’s reflected in Alaska is a list of official state acts that show contempt for Alaska Native concerns.

Alaska voters just flipped on the time machine and zoomed forward. Welcome to the 21st century, Alaska.

The story is both improbable and historic. The year started with a three-way race for governor.

The current governor, Sean Parnell, who has been zealous litigant against Native interests during his time in office. His message was consistent: No to sovereignty. No to rethinking subsistence hunting and fishing in a way that would work for people who’ve managed game and fisheries for tens of thousands of years. And even a no when it came to ending court cases that Alaska Natives had already won. No. No. No.

Then two candidates, one an independent and the other a Democrat, challenged that idea in forum after forum. At the National Congress of American Indians in June, for example, Bill Walker and Byron Mallott already sounded like they were on the same page when it came to Alaska Native issues. This was expected from Mallott, a member of the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, and a clan leader of the Kwaashk’i Kwáan of the Raven people. But Walker was right there too, issue after issue, showing how to open the door to a new century.

Alaska should be the model for Indian Country and state relations. Alaska Natives are nearly 20 percent of the population and growing faster than the general population. And, like so many other states, Native presence, culture, and economic acts are intertwined with Alaska’s success. This state will never be more than an oil and gas colony unless it gets right with Alaska Natives.

The election is over. Promises are made. And now it’s time to see that model engaged. A transition team — one that includes Native leadership — is already moving forward.

Last August Gov.-elect Walker told me that it would take him about “fifteen minutes” for Alaska to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. This alone is huge. The Alaska Native medical system is remarkable now, but imagine what can be done with additional money. Imagine what can be done with a better partner from the state. A partnership that should create new jobs and improve health care delivery. As Walker himself said, “It helps between 10,000 and 40,000 Alaskans. And it creates 4,000 new medical jobs in our state and brings down the cost of health care. Why would we not do that?”

Why not, indeed?

But “why not?” is worth asking about on so many issues of contention between the state and Alaska Natives. (more…)

Who voted, and Indian country

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

This was a tough election. Those who are against the Affordable Care Act, don’t believe in global warming, and think that President Obama is the cause of all our problems swept into office. We won’t know the final tally for a month or so, but the Republicans picked up at least seven Senate seats, added to their majority in the House and did well in state houses.

But this is how this election was supposed to be. This is how the sixth year of a presidency looks (even for the now sainted Ronald Reagan). The whole premise of 2014 was to get out enough voters together so that the country would not have to take another step backwards. So we didn't beat history.

Worse: We let a determined group of voters chart the next two years. These were voters that were older, more white, and more determined to reverse Obama.

The NBC Exit Poll showed how different this electorate was: Young people voted in smaller numbers than 2012. And, get this, even less than 2010. NBC said: “In today’s midterms, 37% of voters are over the age of 60 but only 12% of are under 30 years old. This 25 point difference is larger than the 16 to 20 point age gap seen in the last three midterms.”

But that same exit poll has this nugget about “a growing perception that the U.S. economic system is unfair. Sixty-three percent of voters said they believe that it generally favors the wealthy, compared to 32 percent who say it is fair to most Americans.”

That is important because it is a notion that can be used to build a policy argument, even in this political climate. (More about policy from me later this week.)

I’ll look more closely at the Native vote in the next few days, but I suspect that turnout was light there too. Cecilia FireThunder posted on my Facebook page saying, “I kinda looked at the numbers and we in Shannon and Bennett Counties did not do as well as we could have. Same thing happened with Tom Daschle, the organizers did not listen to us old timers on what they needed to do differently on the rez. Dems need to accept if they want our support in all things Democrat they have to listen to what works and its why we have to take part, not the candidates or single issues. Lets learn from these glitches and plan ahead every year all year round on Indian reservations in states with large NDN populations like SD where we have 9 reservations and Pine Ridge alone has at least 30,000 plus.”

So what did work? What should we celebrate this morning in Indian Country? Actually there are some bright spots.

There seemed to be enough Navajo voters turning out (even with the confusion on the tribal ballot) to return a Democrat, Ann Kirkpatrick, to Congress in Arizona. (more…)