As the final days of the 111th Congress come to an end, the National Indian Gaming Association is proud of what was accomplished in Washington, D.C., because of the hard work of the tribal leadership in Indian country. Congress passed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, and tribes were also able to secure over $2 billion in tax exempt bond funding to help fund infrastructure improvements on the reservations, and Indian country secured the passage of legislation that protects tribal government health care benefits from taxation by the IRS.
Each one of these victories is an important milestone in improving the social and economic status of Indian tribes. Indian country, like a majority of the United States, continues to be affected by the economic recession. The National Indian Gaming Association is optimistic that these new laws will help spur tribal economic activity while assisting tribal governments with their economic revitalization efforts. For over two years now, tribal governments, much like state and local governments, have been working to meet the demands to fund essential governmental services. Diminished revenue streams and increased unemployment have combined to create a lack of funding and financing for critical infrastructure. Each tribe continues to press hard through this economic downturn, and with the help of federal policies set by the Congress and the president, I believe Indian country is primed to help America take positive steps toward renewed economic growth.
As I meet with tribal leaders, I know that Indian country stands committed to being a part of rejuvenating our national economy. We continue to build upon our recent successes. Indian country is committed to being a part of getting America back on its feet. Part of that was ensuring the delivery of health care to our tribal citizens. For 16 consecutive years, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act was introduced in Congress but never passed or even reached a vote. When President Obama’s national health care bill was introduced this year, it signified the perfect opportunity to move the Indian Health Care Act. Working with the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and their longstanding efforts to move the bill, NIGA and other regional organizations rallied behind its passage this year.
It would have been a shame if as the American health care delivery system was being revolutionized, Indian country might have been left out. Comprehensive behavioral health programs such as mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence and child abuse services are standard practice in most areas, but are woefully lacking on our reservations. We are proud that NCAI and the Indian Health Service worked to incorporate these innovations into the new law.
Equally important to Indian country is the protection of our tribal health care benefits. After years of inadequate federal funding for tribal health care, education and housing, many tribes in Indian country have instituted programs to provide direct governmental benefits to their tribal citizens. These are benefits that should have been provided by the United States under longstanding treaties and laws. However, tribal governments have been proactive in providing these services where the federal government has failed to deliver them.
Unfortunately, the IRS regional office in California recommended to IRS headquarters in Washington that health care benefits provided by a number of tribes to their members should be taxed as personal income. Tribes in Washington and Michigan have reported similar IRS inquiries. Indian country again rallied behind correcting this injustice and worked to educate Congress on what the IRS was trying to do. A number of members of the House of Representatives stood with Indian country to pass a new law to stop IRS taxation of tribally provided health benefits. Congressmen Nunes and Becerra (who wrote the language), Baca, Grijalva, Heinrich, Inslee, Kildee, Kennedy, Kirkpatrick, Larsen, Lujan, Mitchell, Oberstar, Pastor, Pomeroy and Rahall are to be commended for their leadership. Likewise, this health benefits law would not have been possible without the leadership of Sen. Conrad and Sen. Baucus in the Senate.
Finally, President Obama’s Stimulus Bill passed at the beginning of the year, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, contains provisions for tribal governments to temporarily issue $2 billion worth of “tribal economic development bonds” without the limitations of the IRS’ “essential government function.” Tribal governments would be able to solicit funding for a broad range of projects and activities that would benefit our reservation economies. Tribal leaders should be commended for coming together and pursuing economic policy initiatives such as tax-exempt bond funding. Tribal economies, just like state and local economies, are dependent on the amount of financing available to them. By securing $2 billion, tribal governments can take the initiative in resurfacing roads, rebuilding government offices and funding social services such as parks, playgrounds and recreational activities.
While the 111th Congress certainly was a success for Indian country, we must continue to advocate in Washington, D.C. Indian country is still in need of a legislative fix to the Supreme Court’s decision in Carcieri v. Salazar. The IRS still continues to look at taxing tribal government educational and cultural benefits provided directly to tribal citizens.
We have a lot of work ahead of us, whether it deals with maintaining the strength of our existing gaming operations or working with tribes that are still working to find economic sustainability. After the November elections, a new Congress will be sworn in next year and they will start the 112th Congressional cycle. NIGA will continue to coordinate with NCAI and regional organizations so we can work as a united front with tribal leaders to continue to advance the lives of Indian people economically, socially and politically.
I am confident that our efforts on Capitol Hill will translate to new policies and a fresh outlook on Indian affairs. Our biggest challenges are ahead, however, but working together with a strong sense of unity, Indian country can meet and exceed those challenges with a sense of responsibility, dignity and strength that is representative of Indian country.