- By Rob Capriccioso
WASHINGTON — Despite logical space for public health and safety funding for Oklahoma tribes in at least one of the two infrastructure bills percolating on Capitol Hill, tribal advocates are not pinning their hopes on legislators including the money in those vehicles.
“The optimism is for finding funding in 2023,” Randy Sachs, public relations director for the Choctaw Nation, told Tribal Business News, echoing ideas presented to the White House U.S. Office of Management and Budget by Josh Riley, the tribe’s governmental relations specialist, on July 15.
Waiting appears to be the only option for the tribes to receive federal funding after the White House chose not to include a requested $300 million for Oklahoma tribes for public safety funding in President Joe Biden’s 2022 fiscal year budget request, which was released in May.
Tribal leaders decried the White House’s proposed $10 million increase for programmatic police services for tribes in Oklahoma for 2022, saying it falls far short of their justice-related needs. They warned OMB officials in July that Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and other state legislators are intent on disestablishing Oklahoma reservations.
Tribal leaders believe that Stitt would like to see justice and economic development efforts fail for tribes given the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt decision of July 2020, which found that most of eastern Oklahoma remains an Indian reservation. The ruling said that binding treaties had been wrongly ignored by state and federal leaders for decades.
Insufficient federal funding plays into Stitt’s plans, according to the tribes. The governor has said that he simply wants to maintain order in the state.
Republican Oklahoma U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, tried to get $154 million in Bureau of Indian Affairs’ funding for the tribes included in a U.S. House appropriations amendment to the budget in late July.
Cole’s attempt did not pass muster with Democrats, falling short along a party line vote, partly because he tried to offset the spending by cutting Democratic-favored environmental funding.
The Choctaw Nation and other tribes in Oklahoma said they were not surprised that Cole’s effort failed because of political issues at play in the U.S. Congress.
“While we are very encouraged by our legislators pushing hard for additional funding related to the added caseloads from the McGirt ruling, we don’t feel there were many surprised by the defeat of Congressman Tom Cole’s amendment,” Sachs said. “We are in continuous communication with all our respective legislators, and they have acknowledged the need for assistance in dealing with the added slate of jurisdictional responsibilities of the tribal nations.”
“There has been no information offered to us regarding further amendments,” Sachs added. “All tribal nations are optimistic, though, in hopes of seeing supportive funding.”
Some tribal advocates had hoped federal funding to address McGirt-related issues for the five so-called civilized tribes of Oklahoma — Muscogee Nation, Cherokee Nation, Choctaw Nation, Chickasaw Nation and Seminole Nation — could come much sooner than the 2023 budget.
“The infrastructure bills are moving with amendments, so they are an option,” one tribal advocate told Tribal Business News. “Due to the sensitive nature of those talks, though, it (may be) a heavy lift to get this in there.”
Congressman Cole himself has implied not to expect the funding to come via the infrastructure legislation.
“The immediate consequences of the Supreme Court’s McGirt ruling reveals that Oklahoma tribes need additional and ongoing support for their strained justice and law enforcement systems,” Cole told Tribal Business News in response to questions about the possibility. “Such long-term funding should be prioritized and provided within the annual appropriations process, as part of legislation that can receive bipartisan support, pass both chambers and become law.”