Navajo braces for sequester

By Alysa Landry
Special to the Times

WASHINGTON, March 14, 2013

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F ederal spending cuts are already being felt across the country as agencies, small and large, scramble to survive on fewer dollars following the sequester, which went into effect March 1.

On the Navajo Nation, the cuts mean a loss of between $24 million and $30 million. That's roughly 10 percent of federal funding, which makes up 62 percent of the tribe's budget. The remaining 38 percent of the budget comes from internal sources, including taxes and revenues.

Across the country, number-crunching, cancellations and closures are starting to take effect. Congress, meanwhile, is seeking solutions that would curb the cuts for the remainder of the fiscal year.

A Senate plan revealed Monday reduces the impact of the sequester through September and allows spending to rise for sensitive programs. The goal of reducing federal spending would remain intact, but cuts would be less arbitrary.

The plan would buy Congress time to find a better solution to indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts. The Senate is expected to vote this week on the plan, which already has Republican support in the House.

The two chambers hope to reach an agreement by March 27, when the current government spending authorization expires. The sequester will continue unless an agreement is reached.

Should they continue unchecked, the frenzied cuts may prove to be devastating for vulnerable populations, including American Indians. Although many tribes already are at risk, these programs are not exempt from the sequester, which call for cuts to be made evenly to every "program, project and activity."

The National Congress of American Indians has argued that these cuts aren't fair because tribes already are underfunded and because cutting funds would violate treaties between tribes and the government.

"The federal trust obligation to Indian tribes must be honored and vital tribal programs must be sustained," the NCAI wrote in a November letter to the House and Senate. The purpose of the letter was to prevent devastating cuts to tribal programs.

"The obligations to tribal citizens funded in the federal budget are the result of treaties negotiated and agreements made between Indian tribes and the U.S. in exchange for land and resources," the letter states.

Regardless of treaties, tribal programs are being chopped at the same rate as all other programs as a result of the sequester, which was never designed to be administered.

The sequester was approved by the House and the Senate in August 2011 as a mechanism to compel Congress to reduce the national deficit. The threat of the cuts was "intended to drive both sides to compromise," states a March 1 letter from Jeffrey Zients, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

When Congress failed to act before the deadline, the automatic cuts went into effect. Over the course of the next seven months, the government will cut 13 percent of funding to defense programs and 9 percent from non-defense programs.

"The cuts required by sequestration will be deeply destructive to national security, domestic investments and core government functions," Zients wrote.

Total funding cuts to American Indians and Alaska Natives is about $130 million. Reductions are expected in human services, law enforcement, schools, economic development and natural resources - all areas that historically are underfunded.

The Navajo Nation is particularly vulnerable to federal cuts because of its high rates of unemployment and dependence on government dollars for crucial programs.

"People are worried, particularly those who rely on those external dollars," said LoRenzo Bates (Nenahnezad/Newcomb/San Juan/T'iistoh Sikaad/Tse Daa K'aan/Upper Fruitland), chairman of the Navajo Nation Council's Budget and Finance Committee. "All our programs will be impacted."

The effects of the sequester will be felt on a personal basis, Bates said.

"Most of our people depend on assistance," he said. "Are we concerned? Yes."

An impact statement for the Nation predicts that nearly $2 million will be cut from the public safety budget, which means 28 law enforcement jobs will be lost, cutting the 245-officer force to 217.

Police already are stretched thin with a force that is significantly smaller than the national rural average. Navajo police serve at the rate of 0.4 officers per 1,000 people; the national average is three officers per 1,000 people.

Jobs are in jeopardy in the health sector, with millions of dollars cut from food distribution, community health, HIV prevention, clinical services and assistance to pregnant women and young children. An estimated 203 Indian Health Service jobs will be lost on the Navajo Nation and 167,000 fewer patients will be seen.

The Nation has the need for 17 hospitals, said Clara Pratte, executive director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office. Only five hospitals are operating on the reservation.

"The situation is critical," Pratte said. "The cuts are unfair because we're already underfunded."

Social services on the Nation will take a hit, with about $5 million total lost from the Program for Self Reliance, welfare assistance, child welfare, domestic violence shelters and low-income energy assistance. Another vulnerable population, the veterans, will see cuts of about $150,000 in services.

Potential homeowners in Indian Country also are affected. The Department of Housing and Urban Development already has halted mortgages under the Indian Home Loan Guarantee Program.

Sites on or near the reservation overseen by the National Park Service also are facing cuts. The operating budget for Hubbell Trading Post will be cut by $44,000, and the budgets for Canyon de Chelly and Chaco Culture National Historical Park will be chopped by $100,000 each.

Perhaps the most devastating effects of the sequester will come in tribes' long-term financial stability. Economists fear that cuts will undermine tribes' ability to curb poverty.

According to U.S. Census data, between 1990 and 2007, tribes reduced the percentage of citizens in poverty on tribal lands by more than one-third, thanks largely to federally funded programs.

Some estimates cite unemployment at 60 percent on the Navajo Nation, so officials plan to do all they can to prevent additional job loss.

"People are worried," Bates said. "With jobs being lost, there will be fewer people contributing to the economy."

Should Congress fail to reverse sequester cuts to American Indian programs, the Navajo Nation already is poised to address the reduction on the local level.

"We may have to dip into savings to address our immediate needs," Bates said. "After that, we will have to decide what the priorities are. The Nation will have to deal with its own internal issues with economic structure."

The difficulty in preparing for cuts is that many of the specifics remain unknown. Local agencies likely won't have any discretion when it comes to where funds are cut or which jobs are lost, Pratte said.

Should Congress modify the cuts before March 27, local officials may have more leeway.

"We know that the sequester is the law of the land," Pratte said. "How that is implemented, we don't know. Right now, the whole thing is a big unknown, but we're preparing for the worst."

Automatic, across-the-board budget cuts mean all agencies that rely on federal dollars will have to manage with less as the federal government shaves $85 billion in spending during the next seven months and $1.2 trillion during the next decade.

The reductions mean national parks are cutting hours and furloughing employees. Airports are operating with smaller staffs, leading to longer lines for passengers. People waiting for passports or travel visas will wait even longer for their documents to be processed. The White House has even canceled public tours.

Sequester not yet kicking in for tribe

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times
WINDOW ROCK, March 14, 2013

Navajo tribal officials this week were still waiting to see what kind of effect the federal sequester will have on their programs.

The sequester, which went into effect on March 1, calls for automatic, across-the-board budget cuts of two percent for the current fiscal year and continued cuts for the next decade.

In discussions with a variety of tribal officials, it appears that while there is a lot of talk, there are no definite plans to lay off any personnel at this point, although this could change in the coming weeks as the effects of the sequester are felt.

Andrew Tah, director of the Division of Diné Education, said only a few of his programs - Head Start, Johnson O'Malley and the scholarship programs - will be affected.

He said those program directors have not presented any reports to his office on how they will be dealing with the sequester. Head Start officials are expected to be sending in a report on the matter within the next week.

When asked if his office would be able to transfer funds from non-federal programs to help out those who will be cut, Tah said he didn't think that was possible since tribal programs have been receiving 10 percent cuts in each of the past three years and none of them have any funds they can spare.

Over at the Division of Economic Development, the situation is a little better since the division receives little federal funding.

However, said Albert Damon, director of the division, the division has been talking to Honeywell, which has major defense contracts, and the company has indicated its plans to put those plans on the back burner as it deals with cutbacks to the defense budget.

The Judicial Branch, like the tribe's public safety division, gets federal funds from various 638 contracts.

Ed Martin, a Judicial spokesman, said the branch also gets various federal grants for various projects as well as federal funds to operate a small portion of the court system.

So far, he said, the branch has received no word on how these cuts will affect the grants and federal funding so no decisions have been made as to what steps to take to reduce expenditures.

"That could change at some point," he said.

Even over at the tribe's police department, which is looking at a reduction of almost $2 million for this year alone, everything is still in the discussion stages and there has been no official announcement of any layoffs.

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