Congress 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.
- 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.