Category Archives: politics

Washington Update: Oct. 2017

This has been a hard week on Congress and the rest of the Country struggling to grasp the magnitude of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, Sunday night, and the motivation of the killer.  Debate, shifted from the GOP tax reform package release last week, to gun control legislation.   Representative Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla) is looking at introducing  a legislative package to ban Bump Stocks, a tool to convert semi-automatic weapons to fully automatic.  Speaker Ryan, has spoken this week on the issue, and implies the party is looking also at a regulatory rather than legislative fix to the use of Bump Stocks.  The fact either path, is being debated by the GOP is a departure from past positions on gun control, but reflects that the shooting in Las Vegas has a big impact on country and what can be done to prevent future misuse of illegal weapons.
Meanwhile, the GOP is pushing tax reform, and the advantages to both large businesses and individuals.  After, the failure to pass health care reform, to free up revenue for Tax Reform, now the debate is on whether Tax Reform will increase the deficit by reducing tax rates. If Republicans do aim for a deficit-neutral plan, it would make it much more difficult to advance a package that relies on the theory that short-term deficits can lead to long-term economic growth.
Instead, the GOP would be forced to find ways to pay for the tax cuts, inevitably creating a “winners and losers” situation in which some income brackets would see a reduction in their taxes, while others may see an increase. Removing the state and local tax deduction, for example, has become a huge point of debate within the party because some states, like Pennsylvania and New York, might be more adversely impacted than others where the state and local taxes are not as high.
For this update, we will report on the tax reform plan, where the budget stands, and how Indian country may be impacted.
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Happy New Year 2016

We want to wish everyone a very happy and prosperous new year, and hope to see you again in 2016 at conferences or here in Washington.  The Congress has been very busy at the end of this year and proud of the fact it accomplished the passage of major highway and education bills that had lingered on the congressional agenda for months, and also approved a tax break and spending package, avoiding a government shutdown.   Appears that Congress is working again.  As Speaker Ryan recently was quoted. “We passed more major legislation in a few weeks than we have in a few years.” See my other recent blog post for details of the recent legislation that broke the congressional deadlock. new years 2016

WASHINGTON LEGISLATIVE UPDATE: OMNIBUS SPENDING BILL, TAX EXTENDERS, INTERIOR IMPROVEMENT ACT

Vietnam memorial at ChristmasCongress Passes $1.8 Trillion Spending Measure
 
After much debate and wrangling and some say a beaten down Congress on Friday December 18th, 2015 passed a $1.8 trillion package of spending and tax cuts with little rancor.  Majority Leader, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) had promised there would be no shutdown or default this year. And was quoted as saying “By any objective standard, I think, the Senate is back to work”.  Speaker Ryan was credited with winning a majority of Republicans votes for the huge spending and tax package, although House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) insisted that Republicans came on Board only because of a recently added provision to end a 40-year ban on crude oil exports. And, at a recent news conference President Obama said, “we’ve gotten kind of used to last-minute crises and shutdown threats and so forth…this is a messy process that doesn’t satisfy everybody completely, but it’s more typical of American democracy. And I think that Speaker Ryan deserves a role in that”.
Representative Tom Cole (R-Ok) managed much of the floor debate for Republicans and said that all lawmakers could find items to support or oppose in such a huge spending and tax-break package.  As an end result, the period of belt-tightening ended in Washington the spending measure for 2016 provides a $66 billion increase in Federal outlays above previously agreed-upon limits, divided equally between military and nonmilitary programs.  The White House and congressional Democrats said they had thwarted the Republicans’ main policy goals, including efforts to cut off government financing for Planned Parenthood and put restrictions on Syrian and Iraqi refugees, while securing a number of their own priorities, including tax benefits for working Americans and to promote renewable energy.  And Speaker Ryan, who was the former Chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee pushed through the major tax-break package that many Democrats opposed.
The House approved the Tax Breaks on Thursday Dec. 17th and the spending measure on Friday with a vote of 316 to 113, with 150 Republicans and 166 Democrats supporting the bill.   The Senate then voted to end the debate on the overall legislation, dispensed with several procedural steps, and approved the package, 65 to 33.
Spending Bill provisions impacting Tribal Programs:
  • For the Indian Health Service (IHS), the omnibus provides a total appropriation of $4.8 billion, a 3.6% increase over FY 2015 levels. This includes flat funding at $914 million for Purchased/Referred Care (formerly Contract Health Services) and $523 for Facilities, a $63 million increase. It also provides an additional $10 million to alcohol and substance abuse for a focus on Tribal youth, and an increase of $12.9 million for staffing.
  • The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is funded at a total of $2.8 billion, a 7.5% increase over FY 2015 enacted. This includes $2.26 billion for the Operation of Indian Programs, a $161 million reduction compared to FY 2015, as well as $852 million for the Bureau of Indian Education. Notably, the bill also contains $138 million for school construction, an increase of $63.7 million, which should complete the 2004 replacement school construction list.
  • For Contract Support Costs (CSC) at both BIA and IHS, the omnibus creates an indefinite appropriation using the language, “such sums as may be necessary,” rather than specific amounts. Tribes and Tribal organizations advocated for the CSC line item to be made mandatory on a permanent, indefinite basis in order to stabilize funding, protect funding appropriated to other line items, and help to avoid funding shortfalls. Though the omnibus does not make CSC mandatory, providing for an indefinite appropriation will allow the agencies to pay CSC in full, as required by the Supreme Court decision in Salazar v. Ramah Navajo Chapter, as well as protect other line items in the budget and avoid shortfalls.
  • In addition to the omnibus, Congress also passed a $680 million package to extend a number of critical tax provisions that have been expired since the end of 2014. Each of these tax credits is designed to encourage increased investment in projects within Indian Country, as well as increased jobs for Native people and indicate that greater tax reform is around the corner.  These include:
    • Indian Employment Tax Credit. Extended until December 31, 2016, this provides a tax credit for private employers of tribal members and their spouses in Indian country. On-reservation unemployment rates and poverty rates are disproportionately high, and this tax credit encourages on-reservation employers to invest in the Native workforce. Without the certainty of permanency, and with effectively only one year of guaranteed credits at this point, employers have less incentive to invest in Native workers.
    • Accelerated Depreciation for Business Property on Indian Reservations. Extended until December 31, 2016 this provision allows businesses located on Indian land to claim a tax credit for certain property and infrastructure investments at sooner than they would be able to if located off-reservation. Because this credit is effectively only guaranteed through the end of 2016, there is less incentive for businesses to relocate onto Indian lands and spur on-reservation economic growth.
    • Indian Coal Production Tax Credit. Extended until December 31, 2016, this provides a tax credit to producers of coal on Indian land. This credit is vital to draw coal businesses to Indian country, where many tribes lack the capacity to produce and export their coal in-house. Again, because coal businesses are effectively only guaranteed this credit through the end of 2016, there is less incentive to build up the infrastructure and workforce necessary.
    • New Markets Tax Credit. Extended until December 31, 2019, this program provides tax credits to businesses investing in low-income workforce’s and communities, including-but not limited to-Native communities.
    1. Low Income Housing Credit.  Permanently extended, this provision allows the 9-percent minimum credit rate for the low-income housing tax credit for non-Federally subsidized new buildings. Though not limited to tribes, low income housing projects on Indian lands will now be more predictable and attractive to private investors.
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Passes S. 1879, 

the Interior Improvement Act 

On Wednesday, December 2, 2015 the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (SCIA) passed the Interior Improvement Act, S. 1879 that was introduced by Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wy) in July of this year. The bill improves the Department of Interior’s trust land acquisition process by codifying and streamlining portions of the process, reaffirming the Secretary’s authority to take land into trust for all federally recognized tribes and reaffirms the statutes of lands already taken into trust. The Chairman added manager’s amendments that were technical in nature and did not stray far for the original legislation.  Assistant Secretary Washburn has supported the legislation saying at most it codifies existing practices at the department, and does not disrupt the current land into trust review and will expedite the process for many trust lands applications.  This bill now sets the mark for legislation in the next Congress, and indicates that Congressional movement to fix the US Supreme Court Decision (Carcieri v. Salazar in 2009) is closer at hand.
 

NEW HIGHWAY BILL BREAKS THE DEADLOCK

Tribal roads 4After contentious negotiations the Congress passed a 5 year fully funded Transportation Bill, boosting spending on roads and transit systems by billions each year.   The “FAST ACT” is an over $305 billion bill.  It increases spending on highways by 2.1 $billion the first year above current levels.  By the final year 2020 the bump is $6.1 billion above the $50 billion in recent years.
The FAST ACT provides a significant percentage increase in monies on highway funding.  And it has protected funding for Transit Systems, that some wanted out from the bill, and also gives increases for pedestrian and bicycle programs and $200 million for rail safety.
The Senate and the House initially had different funding provisions.  The Conference Committee settled primarily on House plan to use money that The Federal Reserve Bank uses as a cushion against losses and a Senate proposal to reduce the amount of interest the Federal Reserve pays to Banks.
This bill ended the era of short term extensions that has been the order of the day for the last 10 years.  The bill triples the amount the National Highway Safety Administration can impose in civil fines, and continues the popular Transportation Infrastructure Finance Act program.  And, it re-authorized the Export Import Bank that allowed loans to foreign companies purchasing US goods.
While this Bill is a landmark moment for Congress that is considered a do nothing body, it still failed once again to find a renewable source of cash for the nation’s transportation needs.  Because the need to get from place to place in our country stands alone to the degree it touches everyone young and old – it is a goal that transcends political parties.  Thus the compromise on the Bill by the Conference Committee was touted as a bi-partisan success.   But the failure to fund a long-term way to pay for transportation reveals the party politics differences.
Dividing Lines:  The issues that divided the parties;
  1. Should money be found through user taxes like the gas tax or by taxing the number of miles driven?
  2. Can long term funding be found by bringing home billions of dollars in taxable income that corporations have stashed off shore?
  3. Should there be a turn away from a transportation only funding source such as a gas tax and instead toward using income and other taxes?
  4. Should money to pay for transit systems come from revenue collected mostly from drivers who pay taxes?  Should tax collected from the same fee user fees be spent on bike and pedestrian needs?
These are all proven to be thorny political issues.   A key reason that the House opted not to raise the gas tax even though a gas tax had broad support from the Chamber of Commerce, Automobile Association, Labor Unions and Trucking was that many House members pledged to NEVER raise taxes on anything.   And another key belief held by the far right wing or Tea Party Coalition was that the Federal Government should be less involved in Transportation.   Instead they want the issue left to the states and give localities the right to prioritize Transit programs or pedestrian projects.  Some States believe that would eliminate some costs imposed by Federal regulations and then the States would be free to spend their own money on their own priorities.
Dual Taxation in Indian Country:
This debate over the power of States or the Federal Government to control funding for Transportation echo’s the debate today in Indian Country over Dual Taxation.  Right now many of us in Washington are looking at how to use the revision of the Indian Trader Regulations to stop dual Taxation of Tribal Governments.  State governments provide few services on Indian Reservations, but still impose taxes on severance of nature resources, retail sales, and increasingly on property such as wind generation facilities. Tribal governments are then forces to collect state taxes and if they impose a tribal government tax, then the resulting dual taxation drives business away.  The dilemma means Tribes collect no taxes and suffer inadequate roads, schools, police, courts and health care.  We raise the Dual Taxation issue that is currently being debated in Indian Country as a possible source of revenue for Tribal roads and other infrastructure needs, to highlight, that now is the time to pay attention to the how the overall funding for transportation is resolved in Congress.  This may be the right political time, for Tribes to seek a solution to prevent dual taxation by States, and provide Tribes more tax jurisdiction to supplement their own transportation funding needs.   The new Transportation bill includes provisions to promote development of alternatives to the 18.4 cent gas tax, which as you know is not enough to pay for National or Tribal Transportation costs.
The Bottom-line:
It was reported that Senator Boxer (D-CA) and Senator Inhofe (R-OK) worked closely to get the job done on the Transportation bill.   Boxer said it was such a “bruising process” it was motivating to finding a permanent solution.   Because Transportation is such a high priority for both Parties she believes they will “figure it out”.
The bottom-line the FAST ACT moved fast out of the Senate.  In one day the bill got out of the House and Senate with a vote of 83 to 16 in the Senate and 359 to 65 in the House.  In the House Chairman Shuster and Ranking member DeFazio worked through hundreds of amendments, requiring staff to work on the bill through Thanksgiving weekend.  The FAST ACT was a breakthrough in partisan politics and deadlock.  But much still needs to be done for adequate long term funding for Transportation.
FAST ACT PROVISIONS THAT INCREASED FUNDING OR IMPACTED TRIBAL TRANSPORTATION
  •   Tribal Transportation Program funding is increased each year.
  •   $465 million in FY 2016 and $10 million per year increases to $505 million in FY   2020 (Sec. 1101(a)(3).
  •  The USDOT tribal self-governance program is a new provision (Sec. 1121),    there will be a negotiated rule-making for this new program.
  •  The Tribal Transit program is increased from $30 million to $35 million per year (with $30 million for the formula component of the Tribal Transit Program and $5 million for the discretionary competitive transit grant program under section 5311(c)(1) of title 49 (Sec. 3007(a)(1)(A) and (B) and 3016).
  •  A new $100 million per year grant program is established for “nationally significant” Federal Lands and tribal transportation projects (Sec. 1123).
  • The Project Management and Oversight (PM&O) “takedown” for the BIA and FHWA is reduced from 6% to 5% (Sec. 1118).
  • The Tribal Transportation Bridge Program takedown is increased from 2% to 3% (Sec. 1118).
  • Provides tribal data collection reporting regarding the expenditure of Tribal Transportation Program funds under Section 202 of title 23 to the Secretary of the Interior (Sec. 1117(a)).
  • Directs the Secretary of the Department of Transportation to report to Congress, after consulting with the Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of DHHS, the Attorney General and Indian tribes, describing the quality of transportation safety data collected by States, counties, and tribes for transportation safety systems to improve the collection and sharing of data regarding crashes on Indian reservations (Sec. 1117(b)).
  • Requires the Secretary of Transportation, after consultation with the Secretary of the Interior, the AG, States and Indian tribes, to provide a report to Congress within two years of enactment of the FAST Act that identifies and evaluates options to improve safety on public roads on Indian reservations (Sec. 1117(c)).

Highway Trust Fund – How it works

The Highway Trust Fund, which collects and allocates money to build and maintain surface transportation structures, receives almost 90 percent of its funding from a fuel tax on gasoline and diesel, while remaining revenue comes from miscellaneous taxes on tires, heavy vehicles, etc. Since 1993 the fuel tax has not adjusted. Advancements in technology has led to a decrease in the amount of fuel consumed and thus a decrease in revenue. Additionally, the almost 25 percent of the revenue from the fuel tax is diverted away from highway spending.

The Highway Trust Fund itself is divided into two accounts—the Highway Account and the Mass Transit Account—and each account expends roughly 85 percent and 15 percent of the total funds respectively. Highway Trust Fund spending has routinely outpaced fuel tax revenue. For the 2015 fiscal year, the Highway Account is estimated to spend upwards of $44 billion on roadway infrastructure and similar projects while only taking in $34 billion. Including the deficit accumulated by the Mass Transit Account, the Highway Trust Fund is expected to amass a deficit of $13 billion by the end of the 2015 FY.

Because the Highway Trust Fund cannot have a negative balance and must have a $5 billion minimum balance to meet obligations, Congress must shift money from the Treasury’s general fund. Over the last six years, Congress has diverted general fund dollars to the Highway Trust Fund more than thirty times. These “patches” are short-term fixes typically lasting from six months to a year and do not represent viable options in the long run.

Proposals for sustainable solutions include:

  • Increasing fuel tax
  • Decreases non-highway spending
  • Taxing the overseas earnings of multinational corporations (repatriation)
  • Downsizing Federal role in transportation
  • Additional State actions such as tolls, bonds, sales taxes

Click here for more information on how the Highway Trust Fund works.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Expected to Mark-up Highway Bill by Late June

The Senate passed late in May a two month extension of the highway funding bill by voice vote, avoiding an abrupt halt in infrastructure spending and pushing off a debate over how to finance road construction in the long term.   This vote came on top of a hectic week as politicians struggled to compromise on President Obama’s trade agenda and surveillance programs.   The vote extending the decision on the highway bill and trust fund avoided a deal on how to finance a longer term highway policy.  The Transportation Department said that with the extension, the trust fund had enough money to last until the middle of the summer.

So while the highway bill was the least contentious of the issues debated that week, leadership on both sides agree that finding the $15 billion at least needed a year for a 6 year highway bill will not be easy.  But Republicans are expected to push for a short term funding extension till the end of the year, which would make for a count of some two dozen extensions over the past 12 years.  However, Democrats are strongly opposed to another other short term fix.

Not surprisingly The Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee is expected to mark up a six year highway policy bill in late June, putting pressure on the finance committee to come up with the funding.   Both parties have suggested tax reform as a solution.  President Obama released a plan this year that would tax offshore income at 14 percent rate, and use the revenue to replenish the highway fund.   But it is uncertain, if there is enough revenue from offshore profits to both fund highways, and still cut corporate tax rates as both Obama and Senate Republicans want to do.  Many obstacles are facing tax reform, such as a small business lobby’s push to block any tax reform deal that doesn’t cut tax rates for individuals.  Other lobbies have pushed for a corporate tax holiday to help fund roads, but it is anyone guess how much traction any of these proposals will gain.

Bottom-line, there will be a push for a short term extension till the end of the year of the Highway trust fund, but the Democrats are adamant that Republicans need to make highways a larger priority and will fight hard against anymore short term funding extensions.   Meanwhile we can expect to see a mark-up on the re authorization or highway policy bill by the end June.  At the least, this mark will reveal the level of spending that lawmakers will push for highways, and whether programs such as Tribal Transportation can expect increases in funding or changes in policy.

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