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Tribes expect 'devastating' sequester cuts

MOORHEAD, Minn. — Automatic federal budget cuts ordered this spring were problematic in parts of Minnesota. On the White Earth reservation, they were devastating.

More than half of the White Earth tribal government budget, about $30 million, is federal funding. Reservation leaders are planning for a 5 percent budget cut this year and expecting a 9 percent cut next year if the cuts continue, Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor said.

"It is devastating to us and it's not going to be for one or two years," she added. "It's going to go on probably 10 years until that federal budget is balanced."

Even as the National Congress of Indians readies a September lobbying push in Washington, D.C., White Earth officials are planning for a worst case spending scenario. The automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration, are already hitting schools, and more programs face cuts this fall. Many tribal governments get most of their funding from federal programs, so they will see across the board cuts in tribal services.

Much of the federal money goes to health care, education and housing. With the Indian Health Service clinics already chronically underfunded, health care is the biggest concern, Vizenor said.

While Medicare, Medicaid, veteran's health care and other programs are protected from sequestration cuts, Indian Health Services will be cut, DFL U.S. House Rep. Betty McCollum said.

"When it's the morally right thing to do and when the federal government has a legal responsibility through treaties to provide this," McCollum said, "to tell Indian Country, 'Well you know you're affected by sequestration, the rest of the United States population is not.' That's morally wrong."

A bipartisan group of House members wants to protect Indian Health Services from sequestration, said McCollum, who serves on a key House panel that funds some tribal programs. But House leaders, she added, say other programs will need to be cut if money is restored to Indian Health Services.

Indian Health Services refused to talk about how budget cuts would be implemented. Tribal officials say it will likely mean less preventive care and delays in getting treatment.

Reservation schools are already laying off staff in anticipation of significant cuts to federal impact aid. That's money schools get because they can't levy property taxes on federal lands.

The Red Lake school district receives about $8 million in federal funds. Because of sequestration, the district cut $1.3 million from its budget. The result: five teachers and three paraprofessionals were laid off this summer.

The Naytahwaush charter school on the White Earth Reservation cut 10 percent from its $2.2 million annual budget. The school incorporates Ojibwe language and culture into its K-6 curriculum and has raised student test scores. But director Terri Anderson says sequestration forced the school to lay off two of the three paraprofessionals who give students one-on-one tutoring.

"It's that batch of kids that aren't getting it the first time through," Anderson said. "For them to get that one on one intervention we have seen great results with that."

The school isn't sure what its federal aid will be -- payments don't arrive until February, she said. Congress could pass a budget that would restore the sequestration cuts. But the school had to account for anticipated cuts now because federal impact aid is such a big part of the school budget.

"It's huge for us," Anderson said. "Impact aid is almost one-third of our budget and if impact aid were to go away or be significantly reduced in an ongoing way we would have to look at some major and significant cuts."

Anderson says the charter school is adding 30 minutes to the school day so students have extra time to get help from teachers. But she worries cutting paraprofessionals will roll back some of the academic gains made by the school.

Indian tribes will bear the brunt of budget sequestration, McCollum said, and forcing tribes to use their own limited revenue for basic services will undermine progress made by tribes on domestic violence, student dropout rates, substance abuse and other social issues.

"Those are all the things Indian Country was really starting to focus on in a very solid way," McCollum said. "All that gets put on hold when you're just trying to stay alive."


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